Friday, 1 May 2015

A Saturday Session before and at Innis & Gunn: 25th April 2015

Even before Saturday's trip to Edinburgh I'd been to some interesting beery events during the week (really unusual for me) - Paisley Beer Festival had continued to raise the bar for Scottish beer festivals in terms of the best selection of beer around (and had further expanded upstairs in Paisley Town Hall with another bar & lots of seating), I'd popped in to chat with James Watt at the BrewDog EFPIV Scottish Launch at BrewDog Glasgow, and now I was heading to another 'craft beer' event in Edinburgh - an Innis & Gunn Saturday Session which seemed as if it was going to be... well, I wasn't quite sure... part tutored beer tasting, part social gathering and perhaps a bit of marketing.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen St. to Edinburgh Waverley (every 15 minutes)

I got into Edinburgh around 12noon and this meant I could head out to a couple of places in the centre of Edinburgh before walking up to the Innis & Gunn West End HQ for the scheduled 2:00pm kick-off. I first of all headed out from the rear exit of Waverley Station, along Market Street, up and over the Royal Mile, and eventually into the subterranean narrows of the Cowgate. There are still a number of stag and hen orientated venues along here, but also quite a few more interesting places, the newest of which is the large, two-storey premises of OX184, the latest venture from the Fuller-Thomson people.

The exterior is by no means classical or elegant (resembling a modern University dormitory), but at least there are some huge high windows, they've put flowering plants in the outside window boxes, and there is also some excellent minotaur-style artwork on the outside wood panelling (which can open up on sunny days).

The first thing that hit me when I walked inside was the smoke, not foggy, impenetrable smoke, but a lovely aroma of slightly peaty, wood-fired smoked food, which brought old-fashioned campfires to mind, and that's got to be a great help when going into anywhere for something to eat. Downstairs is a large, high space and has a lot of the industrial chic that is prevalent nowadays - red painted girders, aged panelled wood, a number of long benches & tables, more seats & coloured tables similar to Dukes in Dundee, hanging downlights & larger globelights, shiny air conditioning ducts and combined red heaters/lights which reflect & twinkle in the row of large hanging glass bottles over the bar. And slightly away from the bar are shelves full of whiskies and other spirits barricaded off behind a grid of metal latticework.

There is an array of shiny taps well-spaced behind the bar, today consisting of number of 'house brewer' Tempest beers - Easy Livin' Pils, Long White Cloud, Unforgiven, Armadillo and the fantastic Red Eye Flight cocoa stout, as well as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Fyne/Siren Saudade, Six°North Table Beer and Brewdog Alice Porter - all keg beers, but all excellent beers in their own right. I took a schooner of the Easy Livin' Pils (smooth and bitter) and sat down to peruse the menu sheet which consisted of a number of brunch specialities (served until 3pm) and also mains, mostly grilled/smoked meat-based, but also a fair few veggie options. Selection made, I was able to wander up the winding metal staircase to the first floor where there is a row of high-backed, almost cage-like, booth tables as well as a smaller bar and a collection of high-tech, shiny coffee-making equipment.

Behind the bar is one of the grills, looking a bit under-used at this early time in the afternoon (although they do food until 2:30am (and are open until 3:00am), hoping to cater for the post-pub/bar trade).

I headed back downstairs and it wasn't long before my lunch arrived, a Waffle Sandwich of Fried Smoked Chicken with a heaped mass of savoury fries. I wasn't sure if the slightly sweet waffle would actually work with the chicken, but there was a lot of smoky BBQ sauce in there which actually held it all together really well (and the fries were outstanding, with mayo of course).

Lunch was very tasty (and good value for Edinburgh), the service was excellent and with a great beer choice (all that Tempest!) I'm hoping that OX184 will go from strength-to-strength. Leaving OX184 I continued further along the Cowgate, past BrewDog Edinburgh and then up the cobbles of West Bow to the always inviting frontage of The Bow Bar.

Today was the 100th Anniversary of ANZAC Day, and the Bow Bar was commemorating this with a beer from resident Antipodeans Elixir Brew Co. called (unsurprisingly enough) ANZAC. This has been an annual occurrence since 2013 and I'm ashamed to say that I'd never tried it before, but today I was happy to remedy that by taking a pint, accepting one of the home-made oaty biscuits on offer, and putting all my change into the box on the bar for the Edinburgh ANZAC Memorial Fund. The ANZAC beer is brewed with similar ingredients to the biscuits sent to ANZAC soldiers who were fighting in World War I, oats, golden syrup & coconut, and so was very sweet & smooth but then a mass of Australian & New Zealand hops (I could certainly get the Nelson Sauvin) helped to balance it all - it was a lovely, boozy treat.

And funnily enough, when I turned around and looked at whom else was in the bar, there were Benj and Sevare from Elixir Brew Co. with a few friends (I think the plan was to stay there all day, but I believe the 2 casks of ANZAC were finished off by 9pm, wow!). Benj was kind enough to invite me over and then explain how the ANZAC had dropped in strength from its original incarnation (up at 7.4% to a (vaguely) more sessionable 5.9% this year) and that the home-made biscuits should definitely be eaten with the beer. After chatting away for a bit (we somehow managed to get onto 80's metal-rock bands and blue beer) I had to leave to make my way to the Innis & Gunn HQ just off the very west end of Princes Street. This meant braving the heaving hordes of people in The Grassmarket but then a more sedate wander through Princes St. Gardens.

The Innis & Gunn West End HQ is at 6 Randolph Crescent and looks as if it is a converted townhouse; apart from the small Innis & Gunn nameplate there isn't too much to distinguish it from the surrounding apartments.

I knocked on the door, pushed it open (since it was unlocked) and entered into the main hallway where I was met by a huge, brightly coloured Innis & Gunn logo and a whisky barrel, with founder/brewer Douglas Sharp's welcome words writ large on the other wall.

There's also a brewing and, in particular, an Innis & Gunn illustrated timeline on the ground floor wall...

...which leads up a fantastic spiral staircase to the skylight in the roof. It's a very impressive building indeed.

I was then met by the lovely Claire and shown into the, well, drawing/sitting room I guess, where we were given a choice of Innis & Gunn beer from the well-stocked fridge (I went for the new White Oak Wheat beer) and then just relaxed for a bit in one of the numerous comfy armchairs whilst waiting for everyone else to arrive.

This gave me the chance to chat to some of the other attendees about Innis & Gunn beers and also have a think about my own attitude to them. I definitely really liked them at first (in particular the Original, the Blonde and the Rum Finish), and even though I found them quite sweet (and in some cases extremely so) that didn't bother me too much because they were so different. However at some point either my own tastes changed or the recipe and/or body of the beers changed slightly when they switched from barrel-ageing their core beers to instead using oak chips in 'oakerators', and I pretty well stopped drinking them for a time. It didn't help that I just didn't like their Lager (too corn sweet) or the Melville-branded fruit beers (almost artificially sweet) at all, but now it seems that they have been developing some interesting and innovative smaller batch beers, so I was happy to go into the tasting with an open mind and give them another try. We therefore finished our beers and followed Claire into the tasting room next door.

There were 4 beers to try and Claire let us pour the first one (the Original, which I found to be virtually all vanilla in the aroma with a sweet vanilla taste, but just a tad thin) whilst giving us a brief overview of the history of Innis & Gunn and how the oak-aged beers came into being back in 2002/03. This is pretty well explained on their own web-pages and in other places so I won't go into detail here, but there were a few interesting snippets that Claire told us about. In particular that the amount of 'thrown-away' beer that was being consumed by the William Grant employees in Girvan after being used for the original Grant's Ale Cask Finish Whisky was somewhat higher than reported, that Douglas Sharp had thought about calling the beer something seriously over-the-top (Double Scotch Tartan Ale was mentioned!) before opting for Innis & Gunn, that they use their own Innis & Gunn specified Golden Promise pale ale malt, and that they had now changed over to low-weight brown bottles to replace the clear bottles that they had previously used for most of their core beers - definitely a good decision. We then moved onto the 2nd beer of the day, the new White Oak Wheat beer that I'd had in the sitting room. This was something that one of their brewers, Rachel Sutherland, had wanted to try for a while, but Claire indicated that it had simply taken a long time to acquire all the Bergamot Oranges that they needed for a full brew - the majority of the crop from Italy's Amalfi coast is pre-allocated for Twinings who use it in their Earl Grey Tea. When the shipment finally arrived (all 300KG of it!) into the Innis & Gunn HQ last December the 2000 or so oranges had to be hand peeled (mainly by Rachel) over the course of 4 days - I like the dedication of all of this.
(pic from Innis & Gunn twitter page)

Only the green zest was needed for the beer (which was then dried by a local firm), but that left the problem of a huge amount of Bergamot Orange pulp. Some of this was used in the Innis & Gunn kitchen for the Christmas-time beer & food matching events but Claire also headed around a number of Edinburgh restaurants with a taxi full of free Bergamot Orange pulp which eventually ended up in courses such as a Bergamot Orange Tart with Vanilla Yogurt Sorbet at The Pompadour.
(pic from The Pompadour twitter page)

The dried bergamot zest was then infused into the beer and blood orange juice was also added during maturation. It's a Kristallweizen and so is fairly robustly filtered and therefore poured pretty clear, but there was a nice spicy orange flavour to it, some wheat/biscuit tones and a long, dry tannin-like finish. It's still fairly sweet (it has gone through bourbon-infused oak chips in the oakerators) but I have to admit I really quite liked it (a naturally cloudy Hefeweizen would be great in the future!). Next we tried the Rare Oak Pale Ale which had probably the lowest abv of the beers today (at 5.6%). This had a more biscuity-lemon citrus flavour, not too much sweetness, and then a slight honey-sweet almost herbal-bitter finish. Claire indicated that this could be from the sweet gale that is added and also since Scottish oak is used in the maturation process the full-on oak-sweetness is reduced quite a bit. Finally we tried the Bourbon Cask Dark Ale which was the only beer which hadn't been matured in the oakerators. This is the process that Innis & Gunn developed back in 2010 to head-off a possible barrel shortage at Grant’s and which puts dried oak chips cured with the alcoholic spirit into the maturation tanks (or oakerators) to attempt to replicate barrel-ageing. I'm not 100% convinced about this, but it does mean that for the large full-size brews at Tennent’s Wellpark brewery they can use the oakerators without having to use a quite massive amount of barrels (as an indication Goose Island had 30,000 barrels in their warehouse for Bourbon Country Stout before the AB-InBev takeover). The Dark Ale tasted of mellow-vanilla bourbon, almost some coconut and then had nice burnt bitter finish - it just seemed to be a bit more intense (and a bit more balanced) than the other beers we'd tried that afternoon. Tasting done we then headed downstairs to the small basement bar where there were a few keg lines setup with the Original, Irish Whisky Finish and the Lager available to buy (there's even a hand-pull there, but it's been unused since the Toasted Oak IPA that was brewed for the Wetherspoon Beer Festival back in October 2013).

I instead went for something I hadn't tried before, a bottle of the Scotch Whisky Porter. This had some almost Auchentoshan Three-Wood-like dried fruit-sweetness, more vanilla, and ended in a bitter, sticky-toffee finish (OK, still sweet), and actually this seemed a bit more like the Original that I remembered from pre-oakerator days. Chatting away to Claire and other attendees I realised that I'd had a really fun, interesting and informative couple of hours (high abv beer definitely helps!) and that it was certainly worth the £15 that I'd paid for it. Claire had shown me how enthusiastic, meticulous and hard-working the Innis & Gunn people are and she even dropped a few hints about an Innis & Gunn brewery (plans for which de-cloaked the same week) and we talked about some of the smaller, innovative batch beers. One of these, Hot Rocks, was brewed with no hops (instead sweet gale, meadowsweet, mugwort horehound, pink heather flowers and heather honey were used) and to a supposed 'ancient' process in which the grains are caramelised over hot granite rocks (there's a limited batch of only 120 bottles for this so I can't see it having been brewed at Wellpark, even the Craft Beer Kitchen could do that batch size). It's a really innovative concept, but when I left the Innis & Gunn townhouse I dropped into Cloisters on the (slightly circuitous) way back to Haymarket Station and as a bit of an antidote/balance to some of the sweet beers I'd tried at Innis & Gunn I picked up this - an Elixir beer made with caramelised onions, Indian spices and aji chilis. If I ever find something like coming out of Innis & Gunn I'd be quite amazed (but more than happy!).

Return travel:-
  Train: Edinburgh Haymarket to Glasgow Queen St. (every 15 minutes)

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