Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Beyond Beer in The Borders: 2nd August 2014

The Traquair House Brewery based in the heart of the lovely Scottish Borders just outside Innerleithen is the oldest microbrewery in Scotland, but for some reason or other I'd never visited. I've certainly had quite a few of their mostly strong, dark beers; both on cask (they've recently started to appear at a few beer festivals), but far more often from their small batch bottle runs, and in fact I think the Traquair 1000th Brew sitting in the dark recesses of my beer cupboard from about 2001 (labelled Best Before 2010, oooops...) is probably the first beer I decided to 'age' for a rainy day. This weekend Traquair House were holding their first ever 'Beyond Beer' event with beer from local breweries, music all day, interesting food and a number of beer related talks, so although it was going to be a bit of a hike from Glasgow (especially with the Commonwealth Games on and the Edinburgh Festival starting), I decided to it was worthwhile making the effort to get there for at least a few hours.

View Traquair in a larger map

Outward transport was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen St. to Edinburgh Waverley (every 15 minutes)
  Bus: Edinburgh Waterloo Place (Stop ZH) to Peebles (X62; 00, 20, 40 on the hour)

After such a great summer so far today was definitely going to be wet, the question was going to be, how wet? On the way down to Peebles the bus went through sunshine, driving rain and some mist shrouded moorland, but it had stopped raining long enough for me to risk getting off at Peebles instead of continuing on to Innerleithen and waiting for a shuttle bus to Traquair House. I therefore headed along Peebles High Street to BSpoke Cycles, located in a converted garage, to hire a bike (booking wasn't a problem, there was no one else mad enough to do that today).

The staff here were really helpful, knocked some cash off a day's hire but couldn't find me a mudguard for the bike so I was really glad that I'd brought 2 changes of clothes with me. Suitably attired & be-helmeted I then went in search of the new cycle-path that links Peebles with Innerleithen. This starts just after the far entrance for Peebles Hydro and follows an old railway line under the main road, continues along the bank of the River Tweed and then through part of a golf course to the new housing estates of Cardrona. The Cardrona Village Store looks like a decent place for a refreshment stop and was previously the ticket office on the old station platform.

I got off the cycle-path here and took the minor B7062 road on the other side of the river towards Traquair. This was still pretty flat (and quiet thankfully, no-one overtook me with the spray that would have generated) and after passing a couple of small farms I came to the main entrance for Traquair House. The gates here were locked, (although these weren't the famous Bear Gates which are said to be locked until a Stuart is back on The Throne), and I was directed to a car-park in the grassy field nearby. Hooray - I'd arrived probably a good 3 & a 1/4 hours after leaving the West End of Glasgow, a long way by public (and self-powered) transport.

Now it was a matter of getting my glass & program, locking the bike in front of the tea room, drying off & changing clothes and then heading into the lovely walled garden/orchard where a number of marquees had been setup for beer, music, talks and food - I can't think of many better things to do on a dreich summer's day.

The largest of the marquees held the 'stalls' for the breweries, the music stage and was where money was exchanged for beer tokens - early on there were lots of people milling about just chatting to the brewers including Roger Protz (& Pete Brown there in the background). These guys were doing talks & food matchings, Jane Peyton & Sophie de Ronde were encouraging Women in Beer and there was a Beer Banquet in the evening that I'm sure would have been really good fun to attend.

Booking in advance gave me the chance to try Traquair House's new beer, Referendum Ale, for free (at 4% it's also the lightest beer Traquair have brewed). This slightly sweet red-berry Scottish Ale was dispensed from 2 hand-pulls, one 'A Strong Ale for A Strong Union' and the other 'For the Independent Drinker'. I ho-hummed between them but then decided on the... (sorry - you'll have to wait until after September 18th for that). There was also the chance to try the strong Traquair Ale on cask, but at 8% and having to ride a bike (safely) afterwards, even a 1/2 of this would not have been a good decision - damn!

Also at the event were probably all of the small breweries & the one cidery in the local Borders/East Lothian area (deep breath - Broughton, Scottish Borders, Tempest, Top Out, Freewheelin', Knops, Stewart, Thistly Cross and, from slightly further afield, Arran) and almost all the brewers/owners were present as well, gamefully manning their pop-up bars. This is great and allows a bit more interaction than a 'standard' beer festival or a busy meet-the-brewer event normally allows. I had spoken to Gavin Meiklejohn from Tempest at the BrewDog Presents... event back in March and had thought the new expanded brewery premises would be up-and-running by now, but Gavin is still being beset by sub-contractor issues - you can tell he one seriously frustrated man. However he had brought a new Saison with him, Border Raspberry & Cardamom which was really fresh, earthy, full of tart berries with a slightly sour finish - very nice indeed, Tempest are certainly doing some excellent low abv Saisons at the moment.

The young guys from Top Out Brewery (Michael and Moo) seem to be doing well - it's still mostly bottles that they produce but more cask beer is available, even appearing in the West of Scotland. Their strong The Cone IPA was on in the Bon Accord recently, flew out of the door in record time and today they had brought a new bottled Wit beer, Elderflower Beer. There was certainly a distinct floral elderflower aroma in this, for some reason I picked up more blackcurrant in the taste, but it was great to see an interesting Scottish fruit beer. Michael indicated that this isn't likely to go into cask, it definitely needs some carbonation - now if only they could keg their beers...

I'm sure Bob Knops from Knops Beer arrived late and sneaked into the marquee ninja-like to setup all his casks without anyone noticing, but he had also brought something interesting, the new wheat beer he and Keith had brewed (and tweeted about) a couple of weeks ago (now named Crazy Wrangel, after I believe, the first Weiss beer brewed in Nurnburg in the 1600's). I sometimes despair of finding a decent British wheat beer, but this was superb - cloudy, loads of texture, masses of sweet oranges, and a definite coriander finish - I'd quite happy drink a few pints of it in a sunny beer garden at the Edinburgh Festival. When I visited the Archerfield Estate in March, Bob had some barrel-aged beers 'almost' ready to decant but it now seems these won't be available until close to the end of 2014 - with almost 12 months in the barrels these are certainly going to be interesting.

The newest Borders brewery is the Freewheelin' Brewery Co, setup in Pebbles last year by Richard White (and named after Richard's love of cycling). The setup is a bit unusual as Richard has obtained some of the necessary start-up funds by sharing out the equity in the brewery between 35-40 members of family, friends and local interested parties, but that does give an instant word-of-mouth chain. Since starting he's brewed a number of cask and bottled beers, with cask being available at the nearby Leadburn Inn and at the Gordon Arms in West Linton as well as appearing at number of beer festivals. I had a 1/2 of the Allsorts Blonde and it was a nice aromatic citrusy summer beer, but there's a Double Blonde which is meant to be even more citrusy bitter.

There was also an additional brewery 'stall' out in the Walled Garden, a late entry from Black Metal Brewing. Run by Jaan Ratsep he's currently cuckoo brewing at Top Out Brewery and had only officially launched his beers at the Cask & Cork in Edinburgh the previous evening. These are a bit different to your standard launch beers - Yggdrasil is a 6.6% Pale Ale, but tasted more like a Double IPA to me and Will O' The Wisp a 6% Juniper smoked ale. Both are really quite intense in flavour & aroma and it's a bold move by Jaan to start out with them, but he's brewing beers he loves and it'll be interesting to see what he comes out with next. Both should still be available in bottle from AleselA (I'd completely forgotten I'd had them added to my last order and I'm looking forward to trying more than a small taster).

Chatting away to the brewers kept me occupied until the 1pm Traquair House Brewery Tour which was going to be hosted by the 21st Lady of Traquair, Catherine Maxwell Stuart (I suspect she had a (smallish) number of things to do today). She led us Pied Piper-like out of the Walled Garden and up to the main buildings of Traquair House itself, the longest continuously occupied house in Scotland.

The Brewery is on the left hand side of the building in the basement area and when we got there Catherine gave us a short overview of its colourful history. It dates back to the 1700's (Jacobite Rebellion times) and used to brew beer solely for the consumption of the estate & the staff, so part of their hard-earned wages was effectively put back into the Laird's hands, a nice deal. From some time in the 1800's it was then left disused and filled with junk until being 'discovered' in early 1960's by Peter Maxwell Stuart, Catherine's father. He enlisted the help of the owner of Belhaven Brewery, Sandy Hunter (Sandy Hunter's Ale etc...) to help in the restoration of the equipment and the establishment of 'traditional' recipes and in 1965 started brewing on the original equipment. At first this was purely as an experiment, but then after becoming the first domestic brewery in Scotland (and the UK) for many years to be granted a commercial brewing licence, he started selling hand-labelled beer in the Traquair House tea-room & shop and then further afield and then eventually abroad.

The Brewery is now managed by Catherine, there are 2 full time brewers and was expanded in 1993/4 into the adjoining stables with (I assume) some more modern equipment. However this is original Mash Tun, really quite small, complete with wooden mash tun fork...

... and this is the combined copper and Hot Liquour Tank, covered with thick brick cladding. If this had been discovered in the First or Second World Wars it would almost definitely have been melted down for scrap.

The hot wort used to be cooled naturally, but that took an incredible amount of time so this heat exchanger was used to dramatically reduce the required time. Legend has it that it was left on overnight by a Heriot Watt Brewing & Distilling student and hence the bulges in the base of the unit.

The oak fermenters in the next room definitely are still being used, with some being over 200 years old, and give the beers its characteristic sweetish, spicy aromas & flavours. Replacement wood for these now comes from Canada.

It would have been great to see the new brewery room & kit but all this was certainly more than interesting enough for one day - many thanks to Catherine for patiently showing us round. We then all traipsed back to the Walled Garden (I completely forgot about the incredible maze on the other side of the Traquair House building, really annoying) and I, for one, was certainly looking for something to eat. There were some entrepreneurial kids wandering around selling cookies & cup-cakes but also lots of food stalls - I went for The Juicy Meat Co...

...and their slow roasted pork in a roll with a mixture of jalapeno salsa & apple sauces, all washed down with a pint of Tempest's Armadillo pale ale, liltingly-light but with a 'totally-tropical-taste' - really very good indeed.

And that was really about all of the time I could spare for the Beyond Beer event - not even a brief look-in at any of the interesting talks. I therefore got back on the bike (amazingly enough 2 other cyclists had also braved the weather) and took the narrower easterly exit from Traquair House. It wasn't long before I was crossing the River Tweed just before Innerleithen and it seemed I wasn't the only person out for some exercise today.

At the top of Traquair Road just before Innerleithen High Street I came to the elegant former coaching inn of the Traquair Arms Hotel.

Entering through the heavy front door (it needs a good push) into the bustling main lounge I was happy to take a 1/2 of Traquair Stuart Ale - the Traquair Arms Hotel is one of the few places to have Traquair beers available on cask, with Deuchars IPA and Taylor's Landlord the other beers available on hand-pull.

As it was so busy in the main lounge I went to sit in the spacious dining room at the left hand side of the building; on even a vaguely sunny day it would have been my preferred choice to relax in the fantastic sheltered beer garden to the back.

Another place I would love to have tried in Innerleithen is Caldwell's Ice Cream parlour, just along the High Street from the Traquair Arms Hotel. Their award winning ice cream is meant to be superb but this just wasn't the day for it.

Instead I got back on the bike and headed down Traquair Street to the start/end of the new cycle-way. I took this all the way back through Cardrona, including a new bridge over the Tweed, to the centre of Peebles.

After yet another change of clothes at BSpoke I had just about enough time to have a (very) quick look around Peebles town centre. My walk down the long High Street ended at the old Parish Church and just down from this is The Bridge Inn, sharing its mock-tudor frontage with an Italian Restaurant.

Although it seems at some point it was definitely called something else.

It's a nice friendly place, busy this afternoon with the Commonwealth Games being shown on the TV. The long bar is located at the back with a large wooden gantry, lots of standing space in front, a sort of semi-circular set of seating opposite the bar at the curved front windows, and with the high ceiling, hanging lights & pictures just generally gives an air of old fashioned hospitality. On the 4 hand-pulls were Arran Sunset, Inveralmond Inkie Pinkie, Deuchars IPA and Scottish Borders Game Bird, so I was happy to continue the Borders theme, take a 1/2 of the Game Bird and retire to the snug/alcove area to the left of the bar. There are books & board games tucked away in here, but I was content to try to catch the attention of this guy - he could easily have starred in the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games.

By now I really needed to head back to get my bus but managed to drop into a bakers for a fruit flapjack and into Villeneuve Wines, located directly opposite the main bus stop on the High Street.

In the back they have a nice selection of Scottish bottled beer and also a separate shelf for bottles from the local Freewheelin' Brewery.

I went for a couple of bottles of their stronger beers, Double Blonde and XXXBitter, and look forward to them and also to any future instalments of Beyond Beer; apart from the weather it was a really great day out in The Borders.

Return transport:-
  Bus: Peebles to Edinburgh South Bridge (X62; 05, 25, 45 on the hour)
  Train: Edinburgh Waverley to Glasgow Queen St. (every 15 minutes)

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