Thursday, 19 July 2012

Biggar to Broughton Ales: 16th July 2012

After the experiment and fun of LiveBlogging at the Edinburgh Indepedents Beer Festival it was going to be back to a normal walk & beer on the Glasgow Fair Monday. I'd been impressed by both the PR savvy and by some of the newer beers from Broughton Ales, one of Scotland's older (and possibly more 'unfashionable') microbreweries, so I decided on a trip to the Borders visiting Biggar and then Broughton.

View Broughton in a larger map

It's certainly not easy to get to the beautiful Borders by public transport, which is a real shame. I had decided on a long trip by low-level train to Lanark and then a bus to Biggar but thought I'd just check on the timetables because of possible changes due to the Glasgow Fair holidays. Just as well - I found out that the bus service from Lanark to Biggar was being suspended due to contract issues (at least outwith the rush hour times) so the only way to directly get to Biggar was from Edinburgh. This was just going to be tooooo long a journey, so I (reluctantly) decided to drive to Biggar, park the car there and then walk to Broughton.

Outward transport was as follows:-
  Car: Glasgow to Biggar (M74, A702)
  Walk: Biggar to Broughton

I'd only been to Biggar once before - it's a fairly large town and you could easily spend most of a day there. There are a number of decent cafes, including one in the Gillespie Centre built into the front of the impressive Biggar Kirk.

There's also a number of interesting local food and craft shops including The Olive Tree Deli which stocks some great UK & continental cheeses as well as most of the Stewart Brewing beers.

And then last, but not least, there are a surprising number of Museums in Biggar - see the Biggar Museum Trust for details. I was only able to visit one - the Gladstone Court Museum and what an incredible place this is.

Inside are a number of 'streets' which give you access to recreations of old shops of the past - there is a schoolroom, a cobblers, a photographic studio, a bank, a joiners, a chemists and many more. Inside the shops are the tools of that particular trade, the clothes worn, old pictures etc... - I must admit the chemists (below) smelled absolutely incredible! This is far, far more interesting than the Old Street at the recently opened Glasgow Transport Museum and well worth a visit.

There are, of course, a number of pubs in Biggar but it was a bit early in the morning to go banging at their doors so I started off on my walk to Broughton, hoping that the rain wouldn't come (it did, but to no great extent - phew!). Just on the outskirts of Biggar is the Puppet Theatre, which gives Victorian-style Puppet Shows which are meant to be seriously impressive (they're also on at the Edinburgh Festival).

The road was pretty quiet all of the way and it wasn't too long before I was officially crossing into the Scottish Borders.

Coming into Broughton I could see what I thought was Broughton Ales from high up on the road, but surely, that couldn't 'just' be a towering mass of beer casks sitting outside the brewery, could it ?

At the junction of the Biggar road and the main road through the village to Edinburgh is the Laurel Bank Tea Room, but it's also a bistro & bar, so I decided to stop there for lunch before heading to the brewery (just beware of the *really* low door into the bar - ouch!).

The place is the hub of the local community and was busy when I arrived, even very early on a Monday afternoon and certainly caters for all tastes. There are lots of tables in the front room for coffee-and-scones, a smaller bar area, a large lounge for dining and also a nice outside beer garden.

The bar definitely is small, only 2 tables (1 round a corner) and 4 seats at the bar, but I liked the exposed brickwork & fireplace, beer/whisky prints on the walls and natural light coming from the skylight. A sign was up on the single hand-pull indicating 'Real Ale not available tonight', but I knew that would be the case after looking at their web-site - they normally only make the beer available on the Wednesday assuming that they will then have enough for the busy weekend - this makes sense in such a small community. As an alternative there were a couple of bottles available from Broughton (Border Gold & Exciseman's 80/-) in the fridge, so I was quite happy to try the Border Gold. With regards to food anything & everything from baked tatties & paninis to full meals were available, so I went for the soup of the day and some sandwiches. The soup (carrot and courgette) was fresh, spicy & thick and made with vegetables from the local greengrocer - quite, quite superb.

After paying at counter in the centre of the building (you can also see into the open-plan kitchen from here and give instructions on how you want your food cooked!) I headed into Broughton main street and followed my nose down to the brewery entrance - the boiler vapour was blowing from the brewery almost directly into the village and the malted barley aroma was great.

I chatted away to the engaging Kate & Rhonda in the front office for a while whilst waiting for the Sales Manager, Brett, to arrive. I didn't know too much about the history of the place so I was really surprised to find out that it had originally been a slaughterhouse before being converted into a brewery in 1980, and that one of the original owners was a descendant from the William Younger family of brewers. Brett then arrived, an incredibly enthusiastic guy originally from Portland, Oregon, who's only been with the company for a year or two (they've had a couple of long-serving staff retire recently), and he was kind enough to spend more than an hour or so giving me the guided tour and chatting away about beer.
We started off at the malt mill, a monster of a machine, which I have to admit I thought was a serious piece of antique farm machinery, but no, it was still being used in the brewing process today (and when I thought about it, similar to the milling machines I'd seen at Fuller's Griffin Brewery).

We then headed off into a couple of really large rooms, and this is where the scale of the place started to hit me - it really is big, ~40-45BBL type of big, comparable I guess to Harviestoun, Williams Brothers & Inveralmond in Scotland. These are the Mash Tuns and Coppers.

And this is one of the more interesting Hot Liquor Tanks that I've seen.

In another room are the 5 (I think) large Fermenting Vessels - some of the yeast was being skimmed off one of these and the smell was amazing. They brew 5 times or so a week and normally leave the beer in the FVs for anything between 10 and 16 days depending on the type of the beer. Ian the brewer has been with Broughton for close on 30 years and has 'seen-it-all' and so can cope with the ambient temperature extremes that can happen down here. They've also been experimenting with dry-hopping to give some of the beers that additional up-front aroma, but due to the scales involved in doing things to their production runs they are still to put that into effect for one of their core beers.

The internal cask storage area is also huge (and this was supposedly 'fairly empty' after shipping had taken place) both with their own casks and those from Ecasks.

I'm not sure what percentage of their beer is bottled but I'm guessing it's pretty high - this is a heck of a lot of bottles with the bottling process being sub-contracted at the Robinsons factory in Stockport. They have a nice bottle gift pack tie-up with John Lewis which is great for Christmas sales.

We then headed back to the front office where there is a interesting collection of new and somewhat older Broughton bottles, awards and other memorabilia on display. There was also some Whim Ales material, which the current owner had started before taking the then Broughton Brewery out of receivership in 1995.

I noted some (probably) long forgotten beers such as Aberdeen Winter Ale, Carmichael Ale etc... and I also have vague memories of these - pull-top bottles!

Brett has plans to perform some investment in new equipment, try out some different recipes with New World hops (the Willacade is a prime example) and update the marketing/image (the new Dark Dunter and Willacade pump-clips are great), but he's obviously wary of alienating their core market in and around southern Scotland and into England - a lot of production goes down south where they expect a 'traditional' Scottish beer. However the market is becoming increasingly crowded and it's good to see that one of the more established microbreweries is willing and able to 'up their game' and take some steps to modernise accordingly. Broughton also have the rights to the Edinburgh Brewing Company (EBC) name after Belhaven walked away from it, and produce Coulsons Edinburgh Pale Ale as (it must be said) a tastier alternative to the current Deuchars IPA (not surprising since since the man who developed the recipe invented the original Deuchars IPA), so expansion with this brand is possible. One other new initiative is the 'Born in the Borders' venture to provide a 3-way Borders package in conjunction with Scottish Borders Brewery and Thistly Cross Cider. I also hadn't realised that Broughton own 2 pubs, including the excellent Tam O'Shanter in Dumfries so I must get down that way again sometime soon.

I had a fantastic time (as always - beer people are great), and left with a gift pack of Broughton beers (and dropped off an interesting beer of my own) after winning one of their Tuesday Trivia twitter quizzes. Thankfully the bus back to Biggar was running (hooray!), and after a 15 minutes journey dropped me off in the centre of town.

After a final wander around the town taking a few photographs, I decided that I had to try one of the pubs and (obviously) went for the only one I was pretty sure would have some real ale, The Crown Inn.
(note the pathway to the Glasdstone Court Museum immediately at the right)

Inside the low ceilinged bar they were selling WEST St Mungo & Munich Red on keg and also, on hand-pull, Inveralmond Lia Fail & Broughton Summer Ale - a light golden, citrusy beer, perhaps not as dry as the Willacade but very drinkable.

The bar had a nice feel to it - some exposed stonework, stein glasses hanging from the overhead gantry, a great stained glass snob screen with the St Andrews cross & Lion rampant and some nice faded photos - plus there was Bombay Mix at the bar which I simply can't resist when I encounter it in a pub. There also seemed to be a more modern lounge at the back, a dining area up and around a corner and a cracking central beer garden - empty today of course - if only it (and other beer gardens) could get a bit more use during this particular Scottish summer.

Return transport:-
  Bus: Broughton to Biggar (91, Borders Council Transport - see timetable)
  Car: Biggar to Glasgow

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