Monday, 31 October 2011

Linlithgow Loch and The Four Marys: 29th October 2011

After a long weekend in London last week I really only wanted a fairly quiet time this weekend. However with a small beer festival at The Four Marys in Linlithgow and the #glasgowbeer twissup I suspected this wasn't going to be the case.

Normally I walk along the Union Canal from either Falkirk or Polmont to Linlithgow, but I just didn't have the time today. So this time it was just a matter of going straight into Linlithgow and having a short walk around the Loch before seeing what beers were on at The Four Marys' Beer Festival.

View Linlithgow in a larger map

Outward transport was as follows:-
  Train : Glasgow Queen St to Linlithgow (15 and 45 on the hour)

As you arrive by train, the most prominent feature in Linlithgow is the impressive aluminium spire on St Michael's Church, which really catches the light.

I popped my head into The Four Marys just to check that the beer festival was on (yes - hooray!), but it was the height of lunchtime, really packed-out, so I decided to get some food somewhere else. Linlithgow's a pretty small place so it was only a short walk up the length of the High Street to the West Port Hotel, a very, very, very long Maclays pub.

The bar was quiet, but had a decent selection of wraps, sandwiches and main meals. And newspapers - I like newspapers in pubs! Lunch was a tuna-mayo wrap and salad with a pint of Landlord - don't think there's too much better for a quick and easy lunch (well - maybe a Laurieston pie!).

Afterwards I did try for a beer in the Black Bitch Tavern next door, but only Belhaven IPA was on. I decided I could live my life without trying another pint of that so just took a photo of the doorway.

If you look you can see the Linlithgow coat of arms on either side of the door - a black greyhound against an oak tree.The story goes that a criminal sentenced to death was chained to an oak tree on a small island in the middle of the loch. Instead of starving to death the chained man stayed alive and healthy for some time (as much as you can be when chained up). It was found out that the criminal's pet, a black greyhound bitch, had been swimming to the island at night with food for her master. When the town leaders discovered this they rewarded the dog’s loyalty by also chaining it to the tree! As time went by and the story was retold, the townspeople took the symbol of the dog's loyalty as their own and to this day any true Linlithgow local is supposedly proud to be called a 'Black Bitch' - a nice story!

Now it was time for my walk around the Loch. It's about a 2.5km circular route so only takes 30-40 minutes, depending on how often you stop (although there are not many real islands now - just the odd tree). The ruins of Linlithgow Palace are prominent just to the north of the town centre, located in a park on the lochside. The palace was frequently used by the Kings (and Queens) of Scotland until it was burned in 1746 by the government troops who were chasing the fleeing Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Now it was time to head to The Four Marys on the High Street.

The pub sign depicts the titular Four Marys - the four Ladys-in-Waiting of Mary Queen of Scots who was born at Linlithgow Palace.

I think I first came to The Four Marys close on 20 years ago after an Indian meal just up the road, and I was blown away by the fact that there were 6 real ales - what a choice way back then. It was indepedantly owned, but now it's part of the Belhaven/GK estate, but I have to admit they have looked after the place well. They still have bi-annual beer festivals and the choice of beer is pretty good, with only a few sneaky Belhaven/GK inclusions.

Today there were 20 ales on - 8 on the front bar

and 12 in the back (normally a dining room).

The back room probably only holds ~50 people and it was packed at 3pm. It has really thick stone walls and works well as a complete communications dead zone - no WiFi or 3G was possible. Good in some ways, but a pain in others.

The bar staff and locals I spoke to were all friendly (and really polite), with treats such as pies and tablet brought in for anyone who wanted it.

Beer wise there was a selection from Scottish and England, but I definitely preferred the Scottish beers this time - full selection here. Stewart's Pumpkin Ale was spicy, with a nice kick and not sweet at all, Harviestoun's Hoptoberfest was very bitter and the bitterness just lingered a bit too much for my liking, and then there was Williams Brothers October Zest.

First of all I could smell this from arms-length - different - it was a smell of concentrated lemon & lime cordial and sunshiny washing-up liquid. Then tasting it there was a mass of really bitter hops, accompanied by very sharp, but still smooth lime and grapefruit citrus - it really was a full-on explosion on my tastebuds. I wasn't sure at all that I liked this at first - there was way too much going-on, but my sub-conscious was already making me take another mouthfull. And this continued to the end of the glass - every time not quite sure if I could manage it, but always having to make sure that the extreme flavours I had tasted were still going to be there. I think by the end of the half pint I had decided that I really liked it, but I don't think I could have had more than one (or perhaps 2) pints. But it certainly was different and some way to showcase the Nelson Sauvin hops in comparison to some of the examples that I'd had previously.

Return transport:-
  Train : Linlithgow to Glasgow Queen St (03 and 33 on the hour)

Thursday, 27 October 2011

A tour of Fuller's Griffin Brewery: 24th October 2011

I thought about what to do on an autumnal Monday morning in London and decided that a tour of a warm brewery seemed like a good idea, probably followed by lunch. So which one was it to be ? I considered a couple of the smaller microbreweries, but then decided that at that early time in the week, a more organised tour made more sense, and after that it was a fairly simple decision to book up on Fuller's Griffin Brewery tour, down on the Thames at Chiswick. Although I'm not a huge fan of their flagship beer, London Pride - it can be a bit of a 'brown, boring, bitter' for me, I do quite like some of their seasonal beers (Red Fox and London Porter), and their more niche, high-abv, oak-aged typed beers also seem interesting.

View Fuller's Griffin Brewery in a larger map

  District Line to Turnham Green (just in Zone 2)
  15 minute walk via Chiswick High St and Chiswick Lane

Although I've visited a lot of breweries, this really was to a different scale altogether (although, scarily enough, probably still small compared to some of the really mass market brands).

I managed to persuade one of my lager drinking friends to accompany me and we turned up at Fuller's pub The Mawson Arms at the corner of the brewery about 15 minutes before the tour was due to start. It's very definitely a brewery workers local with hi-vis jacketed workers coming in for food all the time and the opening hours reflecting this (10:30am to 8pm, Mon - Fri only).

Before the tour started we managed to try the new Fuller's 2.8% abv (and hence low duty) beer, The Mighty Atom. It was a drinkable bitter, but still reminded me too much of the occasional Kaliber experience.

There were going to be 11 people on the tour but 5 didn't turn up - which just meant less waiting around for people and more time in The Hock Cellar afterwards.

Our guide (I can't remember her name - I'm useless with names) gave us a quick history - a brewery on the site for over 350 years, the takeover by Fuller, Smith and Turner in 1845, the Beehive and Gales acquisitions, and the present day situation (see here for more details) and then took us to the entrance of the staff bar, the Hock Cellar, to put on our hi-vis jackets.

The tour proper started at one of the old copper mash tuns - in days of yore spent grain was dug out by young lads climbing down a ladder to the bottom of the container

compared to one of the new mash tuns

where spent grain is automatically sluiced out to be collected

The water used is London tap water, although it is 'Burtonised' with gypsum for the pale and hoppy beers. The malt used is only East Anglian Malt and is still milled using a couple of fairly old milling machines

Of the 20 beers brewed last year, all but 1 used English (mostly Kent) hops. The one that wasn't was Discovery - which is brewed with Liberty and Saaz hops to impart some citrus tones (and I'm sure our guide also mentioned Cascade but I can't find mention of it anywhere, so it may be a new addition) as well as some wheat for smoothness. The hops are all kept in the (surprise) insulated Hop Store.

I think there were 2 large coppers

with the heating controlled from a single Control Room, although the hops are still added by hand.

Different strains of yeast are used for the separate Fuller's and Gales lines of beers and the hopped wort is left to ferment in the fermenting vessels for 7 days

and then left in maturation vessels for a further 7 days

The casks are then are then filled (with about 8 people on the racking line)

or the beer is kegged - yes - that is a robot on the kegging line, with only a single person supervising

or the beer is bottled/canned. Currently ~75% of production is cask, with ~25% keg, bottles and cans. 75% of the cask output is London Pride!

Also next to the kegging line were the casks of Fuller's Brewers Reserve #4 in Armagnac Casks (sorry - too far away for a pic) due out some time next year.

Each batch is tested, which happens 5 days a week by 'experts', and there is also a weekly Tasting Panel to which any employee can be elected (nice job if you can get it etc...).

The tour now over we retired to the Hock Cellar bar. Our guide was quite happy to give us very generous samples of every beer available and then larger measures of a couple of favourites - not bad! I have to admit the London Pride was a lot better than I have had before - there was some sweet caramel malt, but there was also a fair amount of dry bitterness as well, certainly a lot hoppier than I remembered, so maybe there is something in the fact that London Pride is a lot better drunk in London. Most of the tour party (including my 'lager' friend) went for ESB as their favourite beer, but there's something about the up-front malt and alcohol in it that I just don't like (and that goes for most 'olde' English ales). I wimped out and went for the Discovery - it's no Fyne Ales Jarl, but it's a decent citrusy, summer ale - I quite like it. The London Porter on keg was also pretty good, lots of chocolate and some vanilla, and not too cold from the kegging.

The Hock Cellar is also full of Fuller's memorabilia

I managed to find this - K2 Lager - which rang a dim and distant bell.

In the early 1980's Fuller's had started down the Lager route due to sales pressure and named the Lager after the mountain K2, after (supposedly) a Fuller's Director was impressed by the people attempting the 1986 K2 expedition, and decided to sponsor it. After the K2 Disaster the image of the beer (and sales) took a pounding and in addition, in 1989 CAMRA lobbied the Government to pass the Beer Orders, which meant a guest ale (and in particular London Pride in London) was in very high demand. Lager production was then stopped and hasn't happened since.

It was then back to The Mawson Arms for a bite of lunch (very nice) and a pint of Organic Honeydew (also pretty good).

All told it was a most enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours and I may have even made a conversion (albeit partial) of my friend.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

London Brewers Alliance Showcase 2011: 22nd October 2011

I was only in London for a long weekend, but wanted to find something a little different to do on the Saturday evening - either a beer launch, a beer festival or a meet the brewer event. After a lot of web trawling I decided on either the London Brewers Alliance 2011 Showcase with up to 20 London breweries showing off their beers, or a tap takeover of Mikkeller beers at the CASK Pub and Kitchen and the possibility of getting to meet (well, probably only see from a distance) the legend that is Mikkel Bjorg Bjorgso. This was a pretty tricky decision on which I changed my mind a couple of times on the lead-up to my visit! However I wasn't sure what Mikkeller beers would be on tap (but I was guessing some fairly strong abv ones, confirmed after a visit to CASK on the Monday) and I had to meet some friends off the train later in the evening, and since I was in London it did made sense to try some new London beers, soooooo I eventually went for the London Brewers Alliance event (helped by some favourable comments from the guys at the Kernel Brewery). *Phew - end of sentence.* The cost of entry was £20, pretty steep up-front, but at least I received 8 half-pint token for that, including one for the special collaborative beer - the London Brewers Alliance (LBA) IPA brewed by Windsor and Eaton - so I think it worked out as pretty good value.

The event was held in the Vinopolis building in Borough, just along from London Bridge. It's a huge place with multiple restaurants, shops, meeting rooms and bars, including Brew Wharf with its own microbrewery.

After getting the stamp of entry on my wrist at the front door, it was a bit of a mazy walk up to the Mezzanine hall where the event was taking place. A £3 deposit for the glass later, I was in and eager to try some of the best beers brewed in London.

Although advertised as an evening event, even at 6:30pm the place was pretty packed.

The great thing about this Showcase was the opportunity to actually meet and chat to the brewers and brewery staff - something you don't normally get the chance to do (at least to this extent) at a 'normal' Beer Festival. I managed a few words with a number of the brewers and the following are my recollections before I had to leave (and things got a little too hazy) - hopefully I didn't seem too much of a twat to these people. I'm also fairly pants at tasting notes for beers, so I'll just try to give my initial impressions.

LBA IPA - as mentioned this was the collaborative London Brewers Alliance beer, brewed at Windsor and Eaton on the 13th September and launched this night (last year the collaborative beer was a Porter). It was slightly darker than a 'normal' IPA, but very smooth, bitter but not cheek-puckeringly bitter, tasting of slightly darker fruit rather than full-on grapefruit. I really liked it.

Windsor and Eaton - Windsor Knot. I hadn't tried a Windsor and Eaton beer previously so this was an impressive start. The beer was obviously brewed for the Royal Wedding but has proved so popular that it's been kept on. It's a marriage (oohh-dear) of Sovereign and Nelson Sauvin hops and so had the typical floral smell and citrus/orange flavours, but toned down slightly - again very nice. When I mentioned to one of the brewers (Will) that the Nelson Sauvin-based Whakatu that I had had last week as part of the Wetherspoons Real Ale Festival was quite wishy-washy (technical term), he was surprised, but when the Everards name was mentioned, just nodded his head!

By The Horns - Wheat (Facebook link). Slightly dark, slightly hazy wheat beer (~40% wheat), quite spicy, very easy to drink. They've only been going for a couple of months with 3 beers (Wheat, Red and Pale) and the brewery equipment was made in the old Atlas Brewery in Kinlochleven! Even more interesting is that brewing is now happening in there as well - River Leven Ales - amazing what you find out when you talk to people.

Camden Town - Wheat. One of the By The Horns guys admitted that he really liked the Camden Town wheat beer so, although kegged, I had to give it a go. It really was hazy (almost murky, with 60% wheat), with a huge banana and bubblegum aroma and taste - really great. It was probably as good a British wheat beer as I've tasted (OK - not counting the WEST unfiltered Hefeweizen, but that's almost German!). The guys at Camden Town had brought so much beer they were actually giving it away - can't complain at that!

Botanist Brewery - Kew Green. Another definitely hazy wheat beer (think I must have been on a quest by now), not as full-on as the Camden Town, but loads of spice and more dark berry flavours - also really great. The microbrewery has only been producing beers for a month or so with almost all the current output going to the attached pub situated near Kew Gardens (which always sells out of the beer). Mark, the manager/brewer, indicated that with some of the beers, including the forthcoming OPA (Organic Pumpkin Ale), they'll only use natural ingredients, even to the extent of not using finings and so leaving the beer very cloudy - nice! Definitely a place I'll try to call into the next time I'm in London.

By now the place was getting seriously busy. I managed a few further halves of Redemption Fellowship Porter and East London Pale Ale, but the photos I have are just filled with thirsty drinkers or blurred brewers! I didn't even manage to get to other new and interesting breweries such as Hackney Brewery, the redchurch brewery and Moncada Brewery, but then I guess you always have to leave something to come back for!

As I wandered out past the Brew Wharf microbrewey, I left most impressed at the number of very new London breweries and especially the enthusiastic people. In addition I didn't have even a single disappointing beer, so it really was a great event to attend.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

London, South Bank - London Bridge to Greenwich: 22nd October 2011

I don't get down to London too often, but this weekend I was in The Big Smoke for the NFL American Football game at 'Weeemmbeeerrrleeeey' Stadium. Fortunately there have been quite a few blog posts recently about the resurgence of decent pubs/bars in London and new microbreweries - see The Beercast and the beer monkey, and it does seem to be a genuinely exciting time to be be a Londoner with a taste for new and interesting beer (hmm - shades of a Dick Van Dyke line in a musical somewhere there).
I thought I'd try a number of new and more traditional pubs on my short trip to London, combined with a walk on the south bank of the Thames along the Thames Path, starting near London Bridge in Borough and ending up in Greenwich on a lovely sunny afternoon in the capital.

View London - South Bank in a larger map

First of all there was the matter of getting from the Gatwick Express terminal at Victoria Station to London Bridge. Normally an easy journey, this was made far more difficult by the closure of the entire Victoria and Circle lines this weekend. My London Transport iPhone App was indicating a nightmare on the now overcrowded District line, so I decided to walk to Westminster and then take to tube to London Bridge.
Coming out of London Bridge station I resisted the serious temptation to wander into Borough Market and spend the afternoon in various pubs there, and instead turned into Tooley Street, past the hoards queuing for the London Dungeon, and along to The Draft House at Tower Bridge. This has only been open for a year or so, with a couple of sister pubs around London, so with their website proclaiming an impressive selection of cask and kegged beer I was definitely looking forward to trying it out.

Inside it was pretty quiet, with the tables just starting to fill up for lunchtime. There's a lot of smaller tables set around the outside of longer benches, so it can hold a fair amount of people. There's also a Tasting Room and Party Rooms which I didn't get a look around, so it's a big place. From my table at the window at the front there was great view of The Shard (almost completed).

Beer-wise there were 5 on hand-pull (including Harviestoun Hoptoberfest - nice to see) and about 16 on draught (some Mikkeller, Pale Creatures, Meantime and Schremser among the selection). I was persuaded by the friendly barmaid to go for the Arbor Alpha Ale, which although quite nice and slightly Marzen-like, had a bit too much alcohol for me for that time of the day.
Food was definitely required to keep me going for the walk and I ordered the fish-finger sandwich. This was slightly more impressive than the Bird's-Eye varieties that I remember having when I was a kid, and I liked the slight sprinkling of capers for that additional bite - good food and a great place to go to try some kegged beers.

From The Draft House it was only a matter of 2 minutes to the Dean Swift - recently reviewed in a bit more detail here. I can really only agree with Kenny's description - it's a really nice, friendly place with a great selection of cask (~6 on hand-pull) and kegged (~10 on tap) beer to spend some time in, probably over some food. They also provide 750ml 'sharing' bottles of more expensive beers (e.g. Duvel, Brooklyn Local 1) to allow a slightly different / more relaxed(?) style of drinking compared to sinking lots of pints.

There was only time for a swift half of a very nice Dark Star Saison here, because I wanted to get along to the Kernel Brewery - recently reviewed by Rob here - before they decided to shut up shop for the day.
The Kernel are part of the Maltby Street traders (fruit, veg, coffee, cheese, masses of amazing deli-stuff) and they sell their beer as part of an 'open' day every Saturday from 9am to 3pm, a nice idea, and when I got there around 2ish the whole of the area around the back of the railways arches and in particular the Kernel 'stall' was mobbed.

After a bit of a wait I managed to a glass of the (really bitter and really fruity at the same time) Pale Ale Galaxy from their in-house tap and bought a bottle of Citra Amarillo (just to help me sleep - of course). I also managed to get shown around the inside of the railway arch and was (like Rob) amazed at how small the brewing area was (thankfully I didn't have to dig out the Mash Tun).

It seems they are relocating to larger premises real-soon-now with additional bottling capacity, so hopefully that will mean more of their lovely beer reaching further afield - in particular - Scotland (see comments).

After a couple of beers I now needed if not a decent walk, then at least a stroll along the Thames. I had noted a cluster of pubs a mile or so away near Southwark Park - these were The Angel, The Ship and The Mayflower, with the latter looking the most welcoming, but when I walked in I was completely ignored by the staff - so I just walked back out again - maybe it was the effect of the Kernel Pale Ale Galaxy !

Continuing east along the the Thames Path, I was walking in and out of apartment block complexes and short esplanade areas, but the views of Canary Wharf were pretty impressive on this clear day.

Next it was another mile or along the bank of the river in Rotherhithe to the next couple of pubs on my list, the Blacksmiths Arms and the Clipper. Neither really had a decent selection of real ale in (apart from London Pride) so I decided to keep walking.
Eventually I came to the huge Greenland Dock, home to a large marina as well as a mass of condo-type apartments.

On the north side of the dock is the Ship and Whale, a Shepherd Neme pub - this afternoon pretty much full of diners. I don't mind the non-core Shep beers and when I was eventually served chose the Kent's Best - an OKish bitter, but nothing too exciting.

I resumed my walk by crossing the docks and heading into Deptford. After passing a large dockide complex and heading inland somewhat, the next stop was the Dog and Bell, situated on the edge of a building site.

This is a cracking little boozer - fairly quiet on a Saturday afternoon with regulars watching the racing, but there were notices for a Pickle/Chutney Competition and a very well looked after billiard table in the back room, so I'm assuming it can get very busy. The pump-clips were indicating a lot of guest ales and today's selection was also pretty good, with the Hog's Back Hop being a really smooth, nicely balanced bitter.

There also seemed to be an oasis of a beer garden / smoking area situated in a courtyard at the back of the building.

Now it was time for the final push into Greenwich. This involved crossing the Deptford Creek before heading into the heart of Greenwich. I wanted to end up in a place which sold beers from the local Meantime brewery, and so chose the Greenwich Union, one of Meantime's pubs.
(photo from the Greenwich Union web-site)

It's a long, narrow place, again probably more orientated to diners, but they obviously had a large selection of Meantime beers - Pale Ale, London Lager, Stout, Porter, and various wheat beers - most of which were on draught (and kegged), but also some guest cask ales. I chose the Meantime Pale Ale and with the late afternoon sun still warm, the outside seating area with a nice cool, hoppy beer was a most pleasant place to end the walk.