Saturday, 30 August 2014

A Stirling, Thornhill & Kippen cycle loop visiting Fallen Brewing: 30th August 2014

This weekend I wanted to get out and go for a cycle around the Forth Valley area (or western Stirlingshire, or the eastern edge of the Trossachs - I'm not sure what the correct name would be for the actual geographical area). It's fairly flat and, get on the right roads, fairly quiet and my proposed route would also allow me drop in to see Fallen Brewing, who had just recently started brewing on their own brand-new kit just outside the lovely village of Kippen.

View Kippen in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen St to Stirling (18, 41(fast), 48 on hour)

There's now a really convenient place to hire a bike in Stirling, the Stirling Cycle Hub located adjacent to the Stirling train station buildings. It's an initiative supported by Transport Scotland, Scotrail and Sustrans to promote cycling in the Forth Valley, help organise cycling events and hire out bikes, and it seemed as if they'd just recently celebrated their 1st year of opening ('birthday' cards were still up on the wall!).

The people inside were really helpful, showed me some of the best off main-road routes on their fantastically fast, wide-screen computer setup and then let me get on my way. To-be-honest the most difficult part of my route was finding my way through the centre of Stirling but when I made it through King's Park and onto the road to Cambusbarron I knew I was heading in vaguely the right direction. The road out of the Cambusbarron, the Touch Road was fairly undulating at first, but then settled down to be flat and quiet until I reached the main A811 road through the Forth Valley. I had to head along this for a couple of miles before crossing the River Forth and turning up the long, straight and traffic-free road which connects up to the A84 Callander road. From here I could see the occasional rain squall which partially whited-out the Trossachs hills in almost a snow-storm manner, but these thankfully managed to stay somewhat north of me.

Luckily I only had to be on the A84 for a hundred metres or so before joining the quieter A873 which took me all the way through the green Stirlingshire countryside to the small village of Thornhill, and not too far into the village I came across the white-washed long set of buildings that is the Lion and Unicorn Hotel.

I locked the bike and entered into the corridor to the lounge, found the modern teak panelled bar area on the left side of the large room (I think there was also a bar/games room which serves drinks further on to the left) and ordered a pint of Belhaven IPA which was available on the single hand-pull. This is probably Belhaven's best beer, an OK lemon-citrusy golden ale (there was also a Belhaven 'Lion and Unicorn' House Lager and a couple of other kegged beers (Tennents, Belhaven Best, Guinness) to go with a decent whisky selection), but it was a shame not to see any relatively local beer.

The Lion and Unicorn is definitely a food-led place during the day (Thornhill is not a large place) with lots of tables in the dining section, spread over a number of areas with mostly wooden beamed low ceilings and exposed brick walls.

On the walls were a number of pictures of the Lion and Unicorn in days gone by, features of the Stirlingshire countryside and also some modern artwork for sale - I actually quite liked this original of Balmaha Bay for £95.

The menu is good quality Scottish country-pub food with some interesting local meat dishes, and since I needed more than a sandwich today, I decided on the Chicken, Leek & Mushroom Puff-Pastry Pie, with the veg really nicely done slightly 'al dente' and the creamy, spicy sauce really very good - a excellent meal indeed.

On a sunny day it would be great to eat out in the beer garden facing the hills, and on the lower part of the beer garden it seems you can even put your washing (or sweaty cycling top) out to dry!

Next I needed to head due south and thankfully this was somewhat across, rather than into, the blustery westerly wind. After 20 minutes or so I eventually re-crossed the meandering River Forth and just down from the bridge I found the lovely old Station House, where in the grounds Fallen Brewing has sprung into life. This place used to be the station for Kippen on the Forth and Clyde Junction Railway which operated between Balloch and Stirling until the 1950's; the original signal box is still standing next to the house and I think the main brewery building was originally an old railway goods shed.

Paul Fallen was cleaning up in the brewery before attempting to make a start on building a treehouse for his kids but was kind enough to show me around the brewery and chat a bit. Incredibly enough Paul's beers have only been around since the middle of 2012, initially cuckoo brewing at TSA, then at Tryst and now finally at his own place since April of this year. Almost all of Paul's beers such as Blackhouse (Smoked Porter), Dragonfly (US Amber), Grapevine (US Pale Ale) and Odyssey (Blonde/Pils) are quite hop forward and 'modern' and all have definitely improved in reliable quality and intensity since he's been brewing in his own premises. The main construction work for this only started in February (although he had begun the administrative/red-tape processes for this back in 2012) with a new concrete drain floor, lined walls and a new frontage all required before being able to brew for the first time at the end of April. The new 10BBL kit is obviously still super-shiny bright and after less than 6 months he's now almost up to full capacity in the mash tun...

...with some of the more recent brews likely to spill over the top of the fermenters. Paul (and one other person, Matt) brew once or twice a week at the moment, but with another fermenter on order (bringing this up to 3 in total) that's likely to change to at least 2 times a week. The new kit means he has been able to brew some new beers and they now all seem to have railway/station related names (Platform C, Just The Ticket, Local Motive - Paul did cringe a bit at this, but then he does live in the Station House, so why not?).

Paul also dry hops in the conditioning tanks, and uses hop pellets for this which are not bagged. He feels that being able to physically 'swirl' the hops throughout the tank allows the aromatic oils from the pellets to be more evenly distributed and definitely helps the viscosity and intensity of flavour of the beers, and this is something he was never really allowed to do at TSA (or to the same extent at Tryst). Fallen 1703 is the house beer he does for the Cross Keys in Kippen - it's a nicely balanced low abv bitter, but Paul has just recently dry-hopped this with loads of mosaic and, as well as a fantastic tropical aroma, now has an almost tangy, mango-orange finish - it seems a completely different beer (and will be called Local Motive).

He also still hand-bottles all the beer with 1 or 2 people helping out, taking a good day out to do this (as per a lot of brewers he'd rather not send the beer away to be bottled, it's definitely becoming a trend). Outside there's a separate store for the casks & kegs, with a new order of 200 casks having just been delivered. Paul also tried to get a delivery of Euro-kegs but it seems they are just very difficult to get hold of at the moment so he'll be concentrating on cask beer for the next few months. He also mentioned that his keg beer is not filtered or pasteurised, it's the same beer as cask beer with some priming sugar added and then left to settle.

It's great to see that things have worked out for Paul and Fallen Brewing - the brewery is up-and-running & already expanding, he's happy with the beer quality and he can't supply enough beer at the moment to keep up with demand - definitely a good situation to be in. I left Paul to supervise his kids building the treehouse and headed just a hundred meters or so down the road to the roundabout on the A811 where the modern Woodhouse Farm and Coffee Shop has been open since the middle of last year, with the left of the building comprising the farm shop & deli and the right side the circular coffee shop/restaurant.

Inside the bright farm shop are all sorts of tasty treats - a full meat shelf and cheese counter, lots of home-made cakes, ice cream & chocolates, as well as fresh fruit & local eggs - it's a really well stocked, interesting shop to browse in. Paul rents shelf space from the Woodhouse and in addition to selling his own beers (both new & old labelled bottles were present, plus some mini-casks) he chooses the other bottled beers - I saw Alechemy, Highland, Loch Lomond, BrewDog, Cromarty, Thornbridge, Thwaites and even some Kernel bottles - I never thought I'd ever see Kernel beers in rural Stirlingshire!

I tucked a couple of bottles into my rucksack and headed across the roundabout and although I'd forgotten what a climb it is from the roundabout to Kippen village itself, I just about managed it without getting off (in the lowest possible gear). For such a small village there are two good pubs in Kippen, the Inn at Kippen is more than decent, but my favourite is definitely The Cross Keys.

They always have Fallen 1703 (their house beer, the Cross Keys was founded in 1703) on, sometimes with another Fallen beer, sometimes with a guest beer (today Belhaven IPA, sigh...) and there's also Erdinger Weißbier on draught. I got a pint of 1703 from the lounge downstairs, but then walked up a few steps to main bar. It's a nice cosy place, slightly smoky from the first fire of the season that was lit the night before, the day's papers are normally on a table somewhere, there are all sorts of interesting maps of the Trossachs on the walls and books & games are available on the window shelves.

Yet again I wasn't able to get a decent photo of Ben Ledi from the outside beer garden (too hazy) and so after finishing my pint I headed away from the A811 and down some side roads towards 'Burnside'. From this high-up vantage just outside Kippen there were great views down the length of the Forth Valley with the Ochil Hills in the distance and the Wallace Monument just visible as a narrow man-made object.

The minor road eventually petered out to a grassy path through a field and then a rocky track across a small burn, all of which form part of an old military road connecting Stirling to Balloch & Dumbarton.

Although this was good fun to cycle along it really was quite rocky & gravelly in places and about a mile out from Gargunnock I came to a bit of a bumpy halt. The back tyre was completely flat and when re-inflated only lasted 2 minutes before giving up again. A passing farmhouse-holder did take pity on me and even though we managed to find the puncture hole using the bubbles-in-a-bucket-of-water technique and get it patched up, it only lasted less than half a mile before failing again, arghhh...! I then gave up and called the Stirling Cycle Hub who said they would send someone out with a new inner tube and although I managed to walk the bike into the centre of Gargunnock, try another puncture repair (which failed again), I eventually decided to wait for Tony to cycle out from Stirling (he took all of 28-minutes from starting off, damned impressive). With the quick release levers on the back wheel it didn't take long for the inner tube to be switched over and Tony was then able to shepherd me back to the Stirling Cycle Hub along the main A811 road (now fairly quiet) and directly through Stirling city centre - many thanks indeed for all the help. Due to the time lost because of the puncture around Gargunnock-way I wasn't able to drop into any pubs in Stirling (I've still to try the newly opened Wetherspoons (The Crossed Peels) or the Curly Coo Bar nearer the station), but later on in the week I was able to pick up a couple of new Fallen Brewing beers from Hippo Beers in Glasgow's West End. Named Kiboko Pils (after the wide nostrilled genus of hippo) they are the same base Fallen Brewing Sleeper Pils but dry-hopped with different hop combinations as chosen by the co-owners of Hippo Beers, Alex & Derek (one with Citra & Centennial the other Simcoe & Chinook). They're running a 'friendly' competition to see which one their customers prefer and having tried them both I've put my vote with the Simcoe & Chinook camp (I prefer the additional bitterness in a pils).

Return travel:-
  Train: Stirling to Glasgow Queen St (19, 49 on the hour + others)

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