Thursday, 23 October 2014

Into Darkness from Abernethy to Glenfarg: 18th October 2014

Having been to various beer festivals & breweries in the past few weeks I was keen to get out in the fresh air and get back to walking between some interesting pubs. One of my favourite places in the autumn is the stunning Perthshire countryside, and out in Abernethy in southern Perthshire there is a really great pub that I'd not visited in some time, the Cree's Inn. Looking at this on the map I also spotted an intriguing disused/dismantled railway line (and associated tunnels) which I could hopefully take to walk through the Ochil glens to an old coaching inn, the Bein Inn, before heading back home.

Outward transport was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen St. to Perth (41 on the hour + others)
  Bus: Perth Bus Station to Abernethy (Stagecoach 36; 20 on the hour)

The centre of Abernethy is now bypassed by the main road and so when I got off the bus I had to head up a narrow street towards the church, the small Museum of Abernethy and the war memorial on the main street. There's no doubt what feature dominates the small town - the high Round Tower of Abernethy built at the end of the 11th Century as the bell tower for the adjacent church. It's 1 of only 2 Irish-style round towers left standing in Scotland (the other is in Brechin).

There's also a Pictish symbol-stone at the base of the tower which was discovered nearby; it doesn't date with the Tower (it's from a lot earlier) but from an upkeep point-of-view it makes sense to keep them both together.

The key for the tower is kept at the Berryfields Tearoom opposite the tower and so is only available when the tearoom is also open. Thankfully today was one of those days & times and so I went inside to pick it up. It's a huge wrought iron thing with a colourful tied ribbon on it, deliberately done, I guess, to make it difficult to lose or forget. The lock for the large wooden door is quite easy to turn and once the door is opened there are a couple of information panels at the base of the tower on its history and that of Abernethy.

Unsurprisingly there are quite a few winding steps which lead up the top of the 22-metre high tower but it's no real problem climbing them. A bit trickier is the ladder at the top which leads to the main hatch - the latch for this was fairly tight and the hatch sprung up quite fast.

When I got the top the views were definitely worth it - great 360-degree panoramas of the close-up Ochil Hills to the south, the Strathearn river plain to the west, and north-east to the River Tay, the Carse of Gowrie and the Sidlaw Hills (Dundee may have been out there somewhere but I couldn't see it today).

I could also see my next destination, the Cree's Inn, nestling amongst all of the multi-coloured foliage at the edge of Abernethy.

I spent a bit of time at the top of the tower and by the time I headed back down the lights had automatically timed out, but there are light switches all the way down the staircase. I gave the key back to the staff at the tearoom and then headed into the main street of Abernethy, but to be honest, there's not a lot there - one small 'corner' shop, a hairdressers and a pub (The Inn, Abernethy, which seemed quite nice). I had hoped to buy some Abernethy biscuits in Abernethy but the nearest local bakers seemed to be in Bridge of Earn or Newburgh - drats! If I had had more time I might also have tried some of the walks around Abernethy Glen to the south of the town, but instead I headed to the east of the main street where the Cree's Inn is located. It's a really pretty pub (look at all that ivy), is named after the first owner Thomas Cree and it opened up dead on 12noon.

I think the last time I'd been in was about 5 years ago, on one snowy afternoon on the way to Dundee, but it doesn't seem to have changed much in the intervening years. I mentioned this to the young barmaid and she said the only thing that she knew which had definitely changed was that the carpet in front of the bar had been replaced with a hard wood floor - probably to the relief of everyone who had to clean-up in the pub. The main black-wood bar counter is immediately on the left hand side of the long bar/lounge area and they normally have 6 hand-pulls on from various English and Scottish breweries (I'm amazed that they can get through that many). Today the choice was a bit safe, but I was happy enough to take a pint of Gales/Fuller's Seafarer, a decent amber bitter (also available were Thwaites Wainright, Greene King IPA, Taylors Golden Best, Loch Ness WilderNess & St Austell Tribute).

They normally do decent pub meals (and takeaway food) at lunchtime but the barmaid explained that there hadn't been any food that week because the owner's wife had gone down with the autumn cold/flu thing that seems to have infected 1/2 of Scotland - another drats! Instead I had to make do with a packet of spicy peanuts and asked permission to take a couple of photographs of the bar. The main room extends for quite a distance through a couple of partitions to the brick fireplace at the back with masses of dried hanging hops & pump-clips adorning the wooden beams, and prints of 'ancient' beer adverts (loads of Tennents ones), collections of beer mats and pictures of old Abernethy dotted around the walls - the place is definitely a bit of a labour of love to the hop and the hop-based drink.

There's a smaller seated snug-area across from the bar where there are more dried hanging hops, a dart board and some character cartoons (including one of the owner).

I was really tempted to stay and try a few more beers but decided that at least some substantial food was a good idea. I therefore headed back to the Berryfields Tearoom (for the 3rd time that day, I was thinking of getting one of their loyalty cards).

The choice (and especially the service) really is very good in here, from breakfasts to soups to paninis, but since I wanted something fairly quickly I went for a bacon roll and pot of tea, the latter served in a really dainty china cup with equally dainty milk-jug.

Various people did come in-and-out of the tearoom for takeaway goodies (the scones did look fantastic) but I decided to start off on my search for the disused railway line. This involved a walk back along the A913 to Aberargie where I crossed the road and took the first minor road on the left, followed by another left on next narrow lane (there was a small "Private Road, please do not believe your Sat-Nav" notice here which I 'missed'). I went past a small farm and a couple of empty buildings and then up an incline until I came to a high stone viaduct which looked like an extremely promising candidate for the disused railway line. I thought I might have to scramble up the bank of the viaduct, but there was easy access to the railway line path on the far side.

The railway line used to be part of the direct line from the Forth Railway Bridge to Perth but was closed in 1970 when a lot of the railway bed route was needed for the M90 motorway. The path is quite clear of debris and easy to follow but it wasn't long before I came to a dense copse of trees which almost completely hid the 1st tunnel entrance. This tunnel is (doh!) pretty big and since it curves considerably was completely dark inside with absolutely no sign of the tunnel exit from the entrance. *DEFINITELY* take a torch of some sort (I took a large LED lantern) when exploring through this.

The tunnel is about 500metres in length, has lots of bricked up side refuges in the tunnel walls, but was very dry and almost completely empty. Most of the way through the tunnel it was so dark that I couldn't really get any decent photos until the exit came into view, which (I have to admit) I was quite glad to see. The path of the railway track then continued arrow-straight through lots of fairly dense undergrowth and got quite muddy in places.

Slightly further on I came to a branch in the path - right went up to to farm track, the old railway line continued left and in-and-out of a dip until I eventually came to the entrance for the next tunnel - this was a lot muddier and overgrown than the last one.

This 2nd tunnel is lot straighter than the 1st and about the same length, but even though there was always a slight dim light present all the way through the tunnel there were still a couple of times when some large masses of piled logs appeared out of the darkness without any warning! And at the exit of the tunnel there seemed to be the remains of a burnt-out car.

The tunnel comes out immediately before another impressive stone viaduct, this time crossing the River Farg and the B996 road. To get down to the roadside I had to cross the viaduct and then scramble somewhat down the left side, although it's a fairly well defined path.

After that it was a matter of walking for about half a mile or so on the verge of the road (it wasn't that busy, only 2 or 3 cars went past giving me a wide berth) until I reached the Bein Inn, located at the junction of the A912 road (and with great views of the Ochil Hills).

I checked the bus times and then went into the main reception of the Inn and then straight through into the MacGregor Bar. Even mid-afternoon it was fairly busy with families & couples out for a late lunch with the single member of staff coping pretty well. On the small bar at the far end of the room was one hand-pull with Inveralmond's lovely citrusy Ossian available (although there were a number of bottled beers available both in the fridge and at room temperature).

I took a pint of Ossian, got out of the way of the people eating and headed back into reception area where there were a number of small tables and some comfy sofa seats in front of the fireplace. It was a nice relaxing place to sit for a beer and there were papers about and also WiFi access available (there was absolutely no 3G/4G signal at all).

Pint finished I headed out for my bus. I could have returned directly to Perth but since I had a bit of time to spare (unusual) I was able to take the bus in the opposite direction to the small village of Glenfarg a couple of miles further down the B996 (there was no way I would have risked walking along even this fairly quiet B-road for that distance). I got off at the corner of Glenfarg main street where the magnificent, almost castle-like structure of The Glenfarg dominates the street.

I entered through the front foyer and looked in at number of rooms off the main corridor for the bar (most were, again, fairly full of people having something to eat) before the owner eventually spotted me, explained that the bar was only open in the evening, but was happy to direct me to a small side-room (and associated side-bar) at the front where there were a couple of comfy seats. From there I could just about spot the pump-clips for the beers that were on in the main bar, Wells' Bombardier and Waggle Dance, so I ordered a pint of the Waggle Dance (very sweet honey up-front masking perhaps some light citrus bitterness, but it certainly got my energy levels back up).

From what little I saw of The Glenfarg it seemed a classy place and the staff were very polite & welcoming. Before my bus back I had a little bit of time to wander around some other parts of Glenfarg (the noise from the nearby M90 Motorway is always present around the village) where I found the small village store (with lots of bottles of Shepherd Neame Bishops Finger available for some reason) and also this building which intrigued me, the old village library (now a private house complete with clock tower, wow!). All told it was certainly quite an interesting day out in this part of southern Perthshire.

Return transport:-
  Bus: Glenfarg to Perth Bus Station (Stagecoach 56; 12 on the hour)
  Train: Perth to Glasgow Queen St (13 on the hour + others)

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Craft Beer Kitchen Birthday Brewday: 6th September/4th October 2014

Stewart Brewing have been operating since 2004 at their premises in Loanhead (just outside the Edinburgh by-pass) but continued success for their great range of beers has meant they moved to a new unit in a different part of the same Bilston Glen Industrial Estate in the middle of 2013. As well as their brand new 40BBL kit they decided to install a demo/pilot/brew-your-own kit, christen it the Craft Beer Kitchen and this has been operational since April 2014. It's a place where you can book-up and then brew your own batch of 40 or 80litres of beer for a Wedding (see The BeerCast), Birthday or just because it's fun and it's possible to-do-so. This year is a fairly big Birthday for myself and a number of old School/University friends and so we decided to have a go at brewing a Birthday Beer that we could all drink and celebrate with.

Outward transport was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen St. to Edinburgh Waverley (every 15 minutes)
  Bus: Edinburgh Waterloo Place (Stop ZH) to Loanhead (X62; 00, 20, 40 on the hour after 10am)

I'd been to the old Stewart Brewing premises a number of times, but the new building at the far end of the Industrial Estate is far larger and more purpose built than the old one, with additional space available on-site for future growth (and they have a table-tennis table & some bench-tables out-front under a canopy - cool!).

We headed into the main entrance of the building where there is a well maintained shop full of bottled beer (from Stewart & other Scottish breweries), brewery merchandise, loads of awards and a dedicated growler station with 20 or so taps. It's such a welcome change compared to the old unit which ran the off-sales from a corner of the admin office immediately adjacent to the stores space.

We were given a number of tokens which allowed us access to the beers available from the growler station (mostly Stewart's core range of beers but also some Craft Beer Kitchen specials, although we'd missed the 5 Shades of IPA beers that had been on the week before at the Stockbridge Tap - drats!). There was also a bit of confusion when it seemed our booking hadn't been logged - that's why I always print things off! When this had been sorted out our brewer/helper for the day, Craig, came out to meet us. He'd just graduated from the Heriot Watt Brewing and Distilling course that year (producing some gluten free beer for his final year project (we were able to buy some bottles of these the next time we were in)) and he was really helpful, informative and just very patient with us old duffers. The Craft Beer Kitchen setup is situated in a small corner of the larger brewery space just outwith the brewery shop with the bottling area, storage space & weighing equipment set next to the three multi-purpose custom-built vessels which are used as a combined hot liquor tank, mash-tun and copper for the brewing process.

Looking around it's somewhat smaller than the large 40BBL mash tun & copper that Stewart Brewing use as their main kit...

...and pales into (almost) insignificance compared to the mass of dual-purpose fermenting/conditioning vessels that take up most of the space inside the brewery.

We had been allocated vessel number V3 with the water already up to temperature from the steam that is used to heat these 3 small vessels and the main brewing kit. Now we had by far the most difficult decision of the day to make - what style of beer to brew? (we honestly did not know when we arrived at the brewery what this would be.) The most common beer type brewed at the Craft Beer Kitchen is definitely the Pale Ale/IPA (normally a sort of Sierra Nevada clone), but after some toing-and-froing we decided to try for something similar to the beer that started us drinking way, way back in the time of excursions to the Fisherman's Tavern in Broughty Ferry and the Ferry Tap in South Queensferry, Orkney Brewery's lovely Dark Island. If pushed I'd say that Dark Island is now perhaps a bit sweeter than it used to be (although that could be from looking back through rose/beer-glass tinted spectacles) so we wanted something with a more bitter, burnt and dry finish (I actually wanted to add some wersh blackcurrants & blueberries but was voted down by the other guys - spoilsports!) and maybe just a bit stronger from an abv point-of-view. This choice caused a bit of a problem, there wasn't really an off-the-shelf recipe for Dark Island in the Craft Beer Kitchen 'book of beer' or in any of the real ale reference books, so we were forced to improvise slightly. Instead we followed the recipe for a generic Brown Ale, but would add more chocolate malt and change most of the hops, so I guess we didn't really follow much of the recipe at all. So first things first we had to measure out and grind the pale & chocolate malt using the hand grinder.

This all went into the mesh compartment in the centre of the brewing vessel - doing this means that there is far less spent grain/residue left at the bottom of the vessel - effectively there is no real need to 'dig out the mash tun'.

We also had to measure out and add a fair amount of malt extract (all-grain homebrewers can look away now, this is mostly used to shorten the mashing process) - it's seriously thick & viscous stuff so there was a lot of stirring required (I took some photos).

This was then allowed to stand for approx. half an hour so that the starch in the grain was converted into fermentable sugars (we had a beer or 2 at this point) and then this sweet wort was then raised to the boil in preparation for the hops. First of all the bittering hops, in our case target hops were measured out and added. Standard practise at the Craft Beer Kitchen is to only use hop pellets (it's a bit of a disappointment) but, again, this to done to minimise cleaning (and, I assume, to keep the costs down). We had to apply these slowly (only a few pellets at a time) otherwise the wort started to boil/effervesce over.

We then left this to boil for another 30 minutes and decided to go and get some lunch (brewing is a hungry business). Although there is a huge Greggs bakery just up the road it doesn't do takeaways, and with the café-diner (Chequers-Revive) at the start of the industrial estate closing at 12noon on Saturdays, we were left with the option of the large Asda at Straiton and various variants of sandwich/wrap meal-deals. When we got back we started on the aroma hops - we had decided on cascade to give some additional lingering bitterness (we put in a extra 10% over the recipe) and then after a further 15 minutes we added some Polish lubelski (saaz equivalent) hops, to give a bit of a smooth dry finish and hopefully a slight heather/floral aroma before boiling for a further 15 minutes. At this point we did comment to Craig that we perhaps didn't think the colour was quite dark enough and so (since the customer is always right - ha!) we added some black malt extract before this was boiled again for a further 15 minutes (a post-lunch beer was had). This time the colour looked pretty good.

Craig then switched the heater off to let the wort cool down a bit, but as it was doing so the vessel next to ours had a bit of hiccup and started to froth over the top somewhat. Craig went straight for the mop/squeegee and said this wasn't uncommon with the changes in steam pressure as the main kit went through it's cycle, but I'm glad it wasn't our wort/beer that ended up on the floor!

With the wort cooling down Craig then hooked up the heat exchanger to get the wort down to ~20C.

And then it was a matter of filling up the fermenting containers and pitching the liquid yeast. This was done by switching between the 2 containers a couple of times and so adding the yeast as the containers filled. These are 45 litre plastic fermenters with the beer being dispensed into the cask or bottles using CO2. Craig checked the temperature of the wort (20C) and the OG (1049 I think) a couple of times and seemed happy with the way things had gone.

Even with both fermenting containers full there was still a fair amount of wort still present in the bottom of the stainless steel vessel; this was simply flushed down the drain. I should have taken a sip just to satisfy my own curiosity, but I didn't - fool!

The containers were then sealed, we waved goodbye to them and crossed our fingers. Craig advised us to come back after 3 or 4 weeks and so we booked our bottling slot in for the 4th October (and then took the bus to the Cask and Barrel South Side for some further refreshment!).

Fast forward 4 weeks and we were back (after braving the horrendous roadworks just past the Asda in Straiton). After storing away our 72 pint cask we were shown directly to the bottling/storage area adjacent to the Craft Beer Kitchen vessels where 2 bottling shifts are possible at the same time. This morning we were there with another group who had also brewed a Birthday beer (an IPA).

Keen to crack on straight away we were given a short tutorial on the bottling process and then got to work. Three is probably the optimum number of people for the bottling - one of us washed the 500ml bottles in groups of 12, and then filled them up to the bottom of the neck from the single tap. The flow from the single tap wasn't particularly fast and we soon found out why - after the first few bottles the beer got pretty lively and it was normally a matter of filling the bottles a bit on the low side and then topping them up afterwards.

Of course this meant we could (at last!) sample the finished beer. We were worried about the colour beforehand but it turned out great, almost jet black with a very slight red tint and the abv also came out dead on what we wanted, 5.0%, so first impressions were very good. The beer straight from the tap was a bit cold and maybe a tad fizzy but there was the hint of slight blackcurrant fruits and lots of dark chocolate upfront, some citrus earthiness & a long bitter coffee finish - it was maybe somewhat one dimensional, but not bad at all. This was a definite relief (and a pleasant surprise) but with glasses filled we still had to complete the rest of the bottling. I was entrusted to cap the filled bottles in the single mechanical capping machine (thankfully this had a magnetic catch for the cap) and then wipe the bottles clean (especially the base) before handing them over to my other friend who added the pre-printed labels from the roll that was fed from what seemed like an old printer transport before stacking them in the Craft Beer Kitchen cardboard cases.

We rattled through the bottling in just over an hour and managed 58 bottles (we probably drank maybe another 2 and swapped 3 with the other group), so just short of 5 cases. This was a bit less than the 40 litres or ~6 cases advertised but Craig did let us choose 6 bottles from the shop by way of recompense, and hopefully this won't happen when we open the cask. Our name for the beer was 'The Missing Dwarf'- a bit of an old fogies in-joke in that another friend with whom we normally hang-out with couldn't make it up for the brewing, and since his nickname came from being slightly vertically challenged, this seemed like a decent enough name (sorry, mate). I sent the photo out to Stewart Brewing and we had a bit of e-mail ping-pong with the label design, but it turned out really well (although I didn't see the typo in one of the names - always get the final label checked!).

We took our equal share of the bottles back home and we also tried a bottle against our benchmark & inspiration, Orkney Dark Island, and as expected, it was nowhere near as sweet or plum-like upfront, but it definitely had a somewhat similar, burnt, bitter & dry finish - pretty well what we were hoping for. All told the whole Craft Beer Kitchen experience was great fun, interesting and a more than worthwhile afternoon-and-a-bit out - a big thanks to everyone who helped us. We'll definitely be trying another brewday sometime in early 2015.

Update December 2014
The cask of The Missing Dwarf went on at the Milton Inn, Monifieth, the weekend of 5th/6th December with all the proceeds going to Macmillan Cancer Support. Many thanks to Mark Barton at the Milton, Ash and the rest of the staff for allowing this to go on & for promoting it and also to Jenny at Stewart Brewing for providing the pump-clip. It's certainly quite nice to see your own beer on the blackboard of a pub...

...and even more pleasing to drink your own beer in a pub. The cask had effectively 'conditioned' in the Milton's cellar for close on 2 months and helped by Mark's great cellarman's skills came out smoother, with slightly more body, but still had a great bitter burnt finish. Judging by the amount that we had during the weekend and the money that was raised for Macmillan (a grand total of £227.95) I think it can be termed a success.

Return transport:-
  Bus: Loanhead (X62; 04, 24, 44) to Edinburgh Salisbury Place (for Cask & Barrel South Side)
  Train: Edinburgh Waverley to Glasgow Queen St. (every 15 minutes)