Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Medieval Times in Dunfermline revisited: 12th October 2013

This weekend was to be the Official Opening of the Abbot Brew House, setup by Fife brewing historian extrodinaire (and ex-Eden St Andrews brewer) John Reade to inform & teach the historic art and processes of brewing in the (also historic) surroundings of the Abbot House Heritage Centre in Dunfermline. I'd visited the Abbot House and chatted to John about this less than a year ago and in the intervening time he (and the good people from the Abbot House) had basically designed and built the brewery from scratch (not necessarily with their own hands) and then John has been brewing and bottling his historically inspired beers since the start of August. In these days of red tape that's really impressive going.

View Abbot in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen Street to Edinburgh Haymarket (every 15 minutes)
             Haymarket to North Queensferry (12, 23, 42, 52 on the hour)
             North Queensferry to Dunfermline Town (08, 38 on the hour)

The official opening of the Abbot Brew House wasn't going to be until 3pm so this meant I could stop off somewhere on the way to Dunfermline for lunch. I decided on North Queensferry for a number of reasons and left the train at the small station located literally a stone's throw after the northern end of the Forth Rail Bridge. There's a large mural on the platform here - it's an interesting mixture of man-made and natural images.

I descended the steep hill (well named as The Brae) until the narrow Main Street of North Queensferry. There are a number of places to eat in the village, the Ferrybridge Hotel, Rankins Cafe & Deli and The Wee Restaurant but I was more interested in The Albert Hotel, set at the Forth's edge and blessed with some great views of the iconic Forth Rail Bridge (sorry about the bright sun!).

Inside there's a bar at the front, a larger restaurant at the rear (possibly for the tourists from nearby Deep Sea World), as well as a number of rooms on the upper 2 floors, but I happy to blag the table at the side window of the bar which gave me the best view of the Bridge (it also had a wooden steering wheel - the Captain's Table ?). Even just after noon the bar was fairly busy with a mixture of regulars & tourists at either the half-dozen or so tables in the bar or the bar-stools, with the bar itself having lots of dark panelled wood, a large copper-plated telescope, numerous pictures & photographs of both Forth Bridges, an 'interesting' collection of brass taps and an old fashioned tiled fireplace. I liked the place and could see why it would have become the local for North Queensferry resident and author Iain Banks who tragically passed-away earlier in the year. I wasn't going to follow Mr Banks' lead and start on the whisky that early in the day but instead decided on a bottle of Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted (Deuchars IPA was the only other bottled choice, with kegged Best, Tennents, Stella & Magners also available).

Oh yes, and that view out of my window was pretty impressive.

Sandwiches & toasties were available on the menu, as well as normal classic pub fare and daily specials, but I was more than happy with my soup of the day (chunky tomato) and BLT sandwiches when they came (the roll with the soup was actually more like a scone, I would have been content to eat it with some strawberry jam).

When I'd finished my lunch I had just enough time before the next train to wander down to the small pier at the end of the road to take in the view of the two Forth Bridges, with the construction of the third in full flow (that's it - no more pictures of bridges, honest).

I climbed back up The Brae to the train station and got on the next train for the short journey to Dunfermline Town station. It was then perhaps 10 minutes or so before I reached the distinctive Abbot House Heritage Centre (or Pink Hoose) on Maygate where I noticed the fliers on the wall and the balloons on the gates, so I'd definitely come to the right place at the right time.

It was still a bit early for the official Opening, but John had mentioned that he would be in the Brew House pretty well all day, so I made my way through the main entrance (managing not to bang my head on the low beams) and was directed to the Brew House by the friendly volunteer staff. This is situated in an outbuilding at the far end of the Heritage Centre (the far right side from the Maygate entrance).

John was part way through his lunch when I arrived but had completed most of his setup for the Opening (there were a couple of hand-pulls, lots of bottles and some mini-casks available) and was kind enough to let have a look around the small Brew House. It's been almost completely financed by a grant from the Caledonia Best Seed Fund with everything coming in almost exactly on budget. The outhouse was gutted, a false ceiling put in and a conscious decision made to go with dark wood panelling to give a 'traditional' feel rather than a light shiny modern finish.

It's not a big Brew House at all, the brew plant is only 100L (since there were definite space (and cost) constraints), but as John remarked, they're not trying to be a commercial brewery. Having said that they can produce a 9 gallon cask (with some to spare) and have already supplied the recent Dunfermline Beer festival and the local JD Wetherspoons (kudos to them for allowing that). Everything is gravity fed with the mash tun being supplied from the hot liquor tank behind the partition upstairs (sparging is done manually in batches).

This then feeds the copper and I joked to John that I was almost expecting to see a coal or wood fired boiler (some slight Health & Safety implications there, I suspect) with both vessels able to be moved to ground floor for ease of cleaning and sterilisation.

Down on the ground floor there are 7 fermentation vessels so that John can brew almost every day. This allows him to brew gluten free beer from sorghum which takes a long time to ferment (quite a number of weeks), and also provide educational brewing days where people can come in and brew beer under John's watchful eyes. Bottling & labelling (with the labels designed in-house) is also done by hand.

John's also been acquiring lots of brewing equipment for display both in the Brew House and the front window on the street (see previous pic) and plans to have some informatively titled captions for both these and the brewing process put up in the very near future. I did like the 2 shovels on the front wall, one a malt shovel and the other a hop shovel (or scuppet) which would have been used in an oast house.

John was then good enough to let me try a number of the Abbot Brew House beers - Guild Ale was malty, a bit earthy & fairly bitter (heading towards an Olde Ale), the gluten-free Scottish Heather Honey had a lovely aroma, was very sweet indeed (deliberately almost no bitterness) with additional honey added to the fermenting vessels, but I think my favourite was the Dunfermline Nut Brown (supposedly an historically popular style around Dunfermline), brewed with brown malt, this had a lovely deep nutty after-taste, just as a 'broon ale' should taste - all really nice beers and damned impressive. I then decided I'd better stop monopolising John's time and left him to finish his preparations for the Opening. As always the Abbot House is a really interesting place to have a wander about (and they've scrapped the entrance fee since July), both in the numerous upstairs rooms and the gift shop, and in the gardens I also found the hop plant that John had cultivated and (I think) was using in one of his beers.

By then there was a steady stream of people coming in for the Opening and I headed back indoors where there were pins of 3 additional Abbot Brew House beers being dispensed in a section of the café by some of the members of staff (actually quite high-up staff, I believe).

They were providing a score-out card for further samples but I jumped straight in with the 'scottish schooner' (2/3 pint) for £2 a glass, not bad at all, and managed to try both the Adventuress (citrusy pale-and-hoppy) and the Pot Stirrer (a nice take on a red-fruit Scottish 70/-, with a bit of a coffee kick at the end). In the Gift Shop I also bought a couple of the beers which were only available in bottles (Benedictus Primeus & Ale Wand), and there should be a few more available before Christmas.

It all seemed to be going down very well (with a queue for the beer, busy in the Brew House, snacks available later on in the afternoon and a pub quiz planned), but I decided to say farewell to John and head back to the train station (I later found out that all the beer had run out by 5:30pm, well before plan). However my curiosity took me around the corner to the Wetherspoons on the High Street, The Guildhall and Linen Exchange, formerly the County Buildings including the Sheriff Courts & the Police Station (the 2 upper floors are still vacant).

It's another one of their recently opened pubs (from last year) as per the Prestwick Pioneer & the Henry Bell in Helensburgh and like these 2 there's been a lot of thought (and money) involved in the refurbishment of an historic building. The high tables with their associated upholstered chairs in front of the bar are great and provide a nice contrast to the dark panelling on the columns & the dark wooden floor, and the decorative pattern on the base of the bar-top is also interesting - it all looks very Blondie Parallel Lines late-70's (and it was really busy, not like the pic below).

(Pic from Andy Thornton, Furniture Specialists)

As John had mentioned they were about to put on one of the Abbot House beers (Adventuress) but I was happy enough to try one of the Wetherspoon Festival Ales that was on early, Elysian Brewing Avatar Jasmine IPA, a US beer brewed at Thwaites in Blackburn. This was very nice indeed, almost like alcoholic jasmine tea with added citrus bitterness and an extra kick. I also noticed that Greene King had a strong beer available, The Abbot’s Confession at 8.5%, hopefully both Abbots can co-exist peacefully!

And as a follow-up to my previous visit to Dunfermline I went past the building in Canmore Street where The BRuery (aka de Brus Bar & Brewery) (operated by the people who own Ruben's Wine Store) was being re-furbished and the microbrewery installed - I believe some of the brewing vessels had been delivered by Douglas Ross of Tinpot that week. This used to be a nursery called the Three Bears and from what I could gather the brewery will be installed in the basement with the ground floor being developed into a bar, which is planned to open before the end of the year (*UPDATE* - it actually opened on the 20th November). Two breweries in what is effectively the same street - I can definitely see another visit to Dunfermline happening in the near future.

Return travel:-
  Train: Dunfermline Town to Haymarket (04, 34 on the hour)
             Haymarket to Glasgow Queen Street (every 15 minutes + others)


  1. Fascinating - great to see all those plans finally come to fruition. Two breweries in one street? Great stuff :)

  2. Cheers, Rich! Who would have thought it - Dunfermline as a beer tourist destination!