Black Isle takeover Nobles

There are always plenty of beer events in Edinburgh – as any regular reader of this website will know. Only a small proportion of them take place in Leith, however – which is a surprise, given how many great pubs you can find there. It’s also something of a shame, as Leith has a reputation for what Morningside types would no doubt term ‘interesting characters’. Friends of ours, for example, recently saw a woman crouched on the pavement looking through her handbag, which contained a large quantity of raw meat (although who hasn’t left the house in a hurry and picked up the wrong bag?).

A couple of sunny evenings ago – and it’s always sunny in Leith – we made the trip up there to Nobles Café Bar, and a Black Isle Brewery takeover. These type of events were once pretty rare, but have rapidly become the default beer/pub event. It stands to reason, as the brewer gets the full range of their wares showcased, regular punters can still find their favourite, and tickers get the new rates. The only losers (although hopefully they win in financial terms) are the pub management, who have to change about a dozen casks/kegs in an evening, and generally work up a sweat.

Everyone in Nobles was perspiring on Tuesday – due to the astonishing early-spring weather, the place was rammed. They aren’t known for hosting events such as this – or maybe the numbers of thirsty Leithers were underestimated – but it looked as if emergency bar staff had to be summoned to deal with the two deep queue. This says something for Black Isle – who, as we posted recently are really on a high at the moment, and obviously have an eager fanbase.

Nobles is a cracking bar – it looks great, both inside and out, and the staff (even when clearly stressed) are very friendly. We arrived about an hour before the event started, and went straight for the house beer – Nobles IPA. Brewed for them by Black Isle, I believe (correct me if I’m wrong) it to be an unfined, dry-hopped, cask Goldeneye. Hazy and with a thick head, it has the sweet biscuity malt characteristic of Black Isle beer, with some orange citrus on the finish, as the results of the dry-hopping come out through the aftertaste.

Next up, another tweaker – organic Red Kite served nitrogenated on keg. This is one I really wanted to try, as Scottish malty nitro offerings are usually fairly awful. Mentioning no names, of course, but Black Isle’s version (codenamed ‘Better’) was a revelation. It tasted like cool chocolate cream. The bubbles give it that mouthfeel, of course – but as opposed to all the others out there – the beer actually tasted of something. Demerara sugar, toffee, fruit, weetabix and cocoa. Yet, all those dark, ‘portery’ flavours served cool and gassed to the max were highly refreshing.

We finished on an experiment – a side by side tasting of Goldeneye and Unfined Goldeneye whisky cask. It’s always interesting to roll the dice on the same beer served on different dispense (although last time, at the legendary Magic Rock takeover of the Stockbridge Tap I was so far gone I can hardly remember the obvious differences – in fact, it may have just been one beer I was drinking, it only looked like there were two). Having more of my faculties this time around, we put them up against each other.

A huge difference, of course. Kegged Goldeneye is clear as a bell and properly golden in colour. It has a bittersweet, biscuity malt backbone that verges into the metallic on the finish. The newcomer (which, incidentally, was a one-off) was hazy orange, with a soft, woody flavour. Almost like a whisky milkshake, it was mild and oaky, with that whisky edge building into the aftertaste. This replaced the classic biscuity finish of the regular Goldeneye, and gave the beer a completely different feel. A quick straw poll found two votes on our table for each version…

Thanks to Nobles for hosting the event, and of course to Black Isle for the beers. Nobles Café Bar is on 44a Constitution Street – the number 16 goes right past, and stops outside. Stay tuned for our next tap takeover, as there are at least three happening in Edinburgh during April. Follow our Twitter feed to keep up to date.

What’s brewing in Edinburgh?

Edinburgh has a rich history when it comes to breweries – the golden age at the turn of the twentieth century supported well over thirty in the city. These days, that glorious (if ultimately untenable) number has reduced to a mere one – Slateford’s Caledonian. Their last major competitor, McEwans, was recently demolished for housing – although the old Fountain brewery had been a redundant shell for a long time.

On the other side of the bypass are Stewart Brewing, who are enjoying a purple patch as they seek to enlarge their premises in Loanhead. Apart from them, Bob Knops puts out his Edinburgh beers via TSA’s equipment in Stirling, and Innis & Gunn do the same via the Wellpark in Glasgow. But there’s certainly room for other brewers to enter the local market – Edinburgh drinkers are notoriously thirsty, particularly as we’re approaching Spring and then our two weeks of Summer.

Well, buckle up Edinburgh beer fans – there are now four new players on the scene. If proof were needed that British brewing is in a healthy place, this is yet another example. We’ll be running full features on each of the new producers when we can get a chance to visit them (as only two are currently in action). Until then, here are the names to bear in mind with regard to new beer in the Lothians this year…

Alechemy Brewing Ltd Livingston, West Lothian
Official Website / Facebook Page / @AlechemyBrewing

If you looked up ‘work in progress’ in a brewer’s dictionary, it would currently show a picture of Alechemy Brewing Ltd. At this very moment, their brewery is being welded together in a prefab unit on the Brucefield Industrial Park in Livingston. Founder James Davies moved up to West Lothian from Nottingham, with designs on opening a production brewery in an area with little beery presence. Over last weekend, the conditioning tanks arrived, and at the time of writing the rest of the kit is en route or being plumbed in.

James is keen to get his beers on the market as soon as possible, with Alechemy concentrating on the cask market. Edinburgh should see a lot of their beer very quickly, with rumours of a launch event at one of the city pubs. Alongside the draught, James will also be putting out a smaller range of bottled beer on shorter runs – looking towards the bigger abv options and hoppier numbers. Clearly, if you’ve ever read more than a single post on the BeerCast, you’ll know that’s right up our street.

Keep checking their Facebook page as the rest of the gear goes in, and once the beer is flowing, we’ll be sure and try the beers when they arrive. James is obviously very enthusiastic, and wants to run an open, friendly brewery – so once they are on their feet, anyone in the Livingston area (or beyond) is welcome to head down and pay them a visit.

DemonBrew Prestonpans, East Lothian
Official Website / Facebook Page / @DaveDemonBrew

DemonBrew’s Dave Whyte isn’t exactly a new producer – his Summer Storm was well-received at last June’s Scottish Real Ale Festival, for example. But the size of the kit, lack of storage space available, and a certain amount of politics all mean his beers are very rare – and only now are beginning to appear in Edinburgh. Using the striking but archaic five barrel plant at the Prestoungrange Gothenburg (the ‘Goth’), Dave averages a brewday per week and has recently begun to set his sights wider.

The equipment is owned by Fowlers Ales, but not currently used by them – it had been operated as Prestonpans Ales, but the brewer Roddy Beveridge tragically passed away in 2010, aged only 43. Dave works independently from these two organisations, but sells his beer to the Goth – putting him in the unusual scenario of ‘cuckoo’ brewing in a brewpub with a ready market. However, speaking to him the other day he would clearly love to take the kit to a new location and go solo.

Dave’s passion is new world hops – specifically the Pacific Jade/Gem varieties from New Zealand. The Goth’s most famous beer (other than the discontinued Fowlers Wee Heavy) – Gothenburg Porter – is produced by Dave, but he clearly has his sights set on hoppier additions to the lineup. Having said that, he recently invited the Heriot-Watt Brewing Society along to produce their festival beer – a 6.6% stout. If he can get a wider distribution network in the city, look for his beers to really take off.

Eclipse Brewery Edinburgh
Official Website / Facebook Page / @EclipseBrewery

Of our four new producers, Eclipse Brewery have the longest road ahead of them – as they have no kit, and are just at the very initial stages. However, having spoken to co-founder Michael recently, they clearly have a strong idea of where they want to go. Having formed an LLP company, they are currently sourcing a bespoke brewery to be sited in Edinburgh (or more likely on the outskirts). Once in place, they are keen to get their beers on the market before the end of the year.

Michael’s background lies in Germany, and he told me he wants Eclipse to produce unusual beer that you can’t get anywhere else in Scotland – such as a recipe involving authentic Bamburg rauchmalt, for example. He’s extremely enthusiastic in his outlook, but well aware of all the huge hurdles they need to overcome before anyone can enjoy an Eclipse Rauchbier. Unlike our first two newcomers, they are going for the bottled beer market initially, rather than starting off casking their products.

Their blog will be fascinating to follow – having started from scratch following a number of years homebrewing, they have nothing concrete other than Michael’s recipes. However, once they get that concrete (and steel) in place, the real work will begin. Every frustrated blogger has thought about opening their own brewery – we’ll be following Eclipse closely to see how they get on.

St Andrews Brewing Company Glenrothes, Fife
Official Website / Facebook Page / @standysbrewing

For a business to succeed, one of the things needed is to find a gap in the market. Bob Phaff identified one – the lack of any decent beer in St Andrews. Other than a couple of decent pubs – and one very decent bottle shop – all those thirsty golfers, students and tourists have a disappointing set of options from which to choose. No longer, as the St Andrews Brewing Company have arrived to supply eastern Fife (and beyond, as Bob’s beers have already arrived in Edinburgh).

Currently working on a 4bl plant located in Glenrothes – which came online in late February – the eventual plan is to operate nearer to St Andrews itself, but having a central location probably works in his favour at the moment. With Yorkshireman Stuart Noble on board, they have already produced a core lineup of five beers – all in bottles at present. Ticking every box, their lineup includes an IPA, golden ale, and an oatmeal stout – each one with a distinctive label designed by local artist Susan McGill.

St Andrews Brewing have strong foundations – they are positioning themselves into a ready market, have their range of beers already formulated, and are already putting them into local bottle shops. As the word spreads, look for more beers to be added to the selection as Bob and Stuart build on their early momentum.

Heriot-Watt Beer Festival 2012

That pen is not mine, incidentally

Having never been to the Heriot-Watt Beer Festival before, I was told the sun always arrives for a scheduled appearance (making it the exact opposite of the Highland Show). Sure enough, the weather was glorious in Edinburgh yesterday, just in time for the 27th HWFest. They take their beer seriously out at Riccarton – the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling has sparked (or sparged) the careers of dozens of the UK’s best brewers (and, presumably, distillers). Each spring the Heriot-Watt Brewing Society hosts a charity beer festival, encouraging the students – and guests – to drink decent beer.

If you want an example of the way the beer scene is changing, then you only needed to have stumbled off the 25 bus yesterday afternoon. There must have been over a hundred students sitting (or sprawling) on the grass in the sunshine, enjoying the beer on offer. Every so often, they would go back inside for a refill, like a line of ants heading back to the cool nest. This was great to see, as was the enthusiasm of the volunteers helping out – although most of the punters seemed to know exactly what was on offer, and what they wanted.

In my day, the University I went to had a ‘real ale society’ that met in the ‘alehouse’ bar – i.e. the bar that only postgraduates used. Every Friday night, all of the other students would file past it without looking, on their way to the joys of the main bar downstairs. With hindsight, queuing three-deep for warm pints of McEwans 70/- (albeit at £1.20) wasn’t the way to go – although for all I know the ‘alehouse’ served exactly the same thing. I do remember venturing in there once and drinking Mickey’s lager, so that answers that question.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and the eager students at HW get to pick from a range supplied by forty breweries. Standing in line to have your hand stamped to prove you’re over 18 (a line which featured RateBeer king Craig Garvie – who looks like Frankie Boyle’s older brother) was a surreal experience, and one that also took me back (although at least now the ink from the stamps washes off – don’t try and be clever and get them to stamp your forehead – take it from me).

Once the tokens were acquired – in the shape of a red piece of card with tickable boxes for halves of beer – it was into the bar to see what was on offer. First up, Loch Lomond Kessog (4.5%), which had a fair bit of blackcurrant at first – followed by a vaguely sour aftertaste. Tempest Unforgiven (5.4%) was next, and once again proved another belter from Gavin in his borders dairy. We keep banging on about Tempest, and will carry on until someone listens. Are they the best brewery in Scotland at the moment?

Unforgiven contains Tempest’s signature NZ hop backbone, but true to form also involves a whole lot more – in this case, oak chips and dried juniper berries. How they get such a balance of flavour with ingredients such as that is beyond me, but they do it with everything they produce. Firstly, there was touch of berry fruit, before the smoke arrived – but not to huge Bamburg level, it was pitched just right – before the finish flicked into sloe gin-esque juniper dryness. Great stuff.

After that, it was on to the best beer from one of the best new producers in Britain – Summer Wine Teleporter. Our recent SW BeerCast also featured this one (their ten-malt porter), but I hadn’t had it on cask before. As expected, it was every bit as good as the bottled version. If a beer can be soothing, then this is just that – it’s like drinking alcoholic cocoa. Summer Wine have blazed a hop trail over Yorkshire, but for my money their non-hoppy beers are even better – with Teleporter the absolute pick.

Finally, I ended up with the festival special – Heriot-Watt Demon Dark Ale (6.6%). Produced by members of the HW Brewing Society, it was brewed at the Prestoungrange Gothenburg in conjunction with Dave Whyte of DemonBrew (read about the brew day here). We’ll be featuring Dave next week on the BeerCast (along with other local Edinburgh-area brewers), but it was great that the festival organisers got to head out and make their own beer – and for Dave too, as presumably he got to drink more cups of tea with his feet up.

It was the perfect way to round off the HWFest, dark and highly drinkable. Quite a heavy hit of molasses sweetness was well balanced by a touch of citrus from the Pacific Gem hop. There was chocolate in there as well, and the whole thing finished very nicely. Dave brought three casks of it along, and I’m guessing that it went pretty quickly (although I believe Tempest Citra was the first to go). After that, it was back for the bus and home to scrub off the fact that my right hand was informing the world I am actually over 18.

The 27th Annual Heriot-Watt Beer and Cider Festival continues today (Friday 23rd March) from 12pm to 11pm, at the Heriot-Watt Student’s Union, Riccarton Campus. Check here for more information. Many thanks to Stewart and the team at the Society for the invite.

In praise of…the Draper’s Arms

‘Gastro’ is often the dirty prefix when it comes to lovers of traditional pubs – signifying the changing of the guard, unpronounceable bar snacks and cold, insipid beer. The reality, of course, is that there are plenty of outstanding gastropubs out there – just as there are many run of the mill examples, and a few shockers. Stripping back the floors to bare boards and throwing in mismatched furniture is no guarantee of success – but neither does it mean the pub will have become uncomfortable and unwelcoming.

Pub goers in Islington may well be more familiar with the concept than drinkers elsewhere in the country, but for the Gastro-curious I would recommend without hesitation the Drapers Arms in Barnsbury. The large blue/grey frontage sits flush with the extremely dapper three-story townhouses that line the roads of this part of London (I’d also suggest a wander around the nearby Lonsdale Square to get an idea of the neighbourhood). Where the three doors used to lead to different parts of the pub, they now all open directly onto the open-plan dining area.

If just reading that paragraph causes you to tut and shake your head wistfully, then fair enough – I can sympathise with the very many pubs ruined by having original features removed. But in the case of the Drapers – any changes they have made fit with the building, and really work. The large green wooden bar looks great, as does the upstairs dining room and the beer garden out the back. The toilets even have Belfast sinks and quilted toilet paper*, with the walls adorned with old painting and sketches of the exterior.

Gastro obviously pertains to food – but many of these pubs have great beers on as well – such as the Drapers three handpulls. During our visit Dark Star’s original Dark Star was flying out, and with good reason. I knocked back three pints before I really knew what was happening. As the pub began to fill up, we ordered some food and ended up with a superb steak and kidney pie, which took over half an hour as it was cooked from scratch in the oven.

So if your much-loved spit n’ sawdust local was swallowed up by the late 90’s Gastropub revolution, I feel your pain. But – like footballers who play for the ‘big four’ – they can’t all be bad. Take that chip off your shoulder and replace it with a bowl of chunky ones, cooked in goose fat. Take a punt on a haggis scotch egg (as seen on the bar snack menu). At the end of the day, we’re all the same – as long as good beer’s involved, we can be gastro. Go to the Drapers Arms – you won’t regret it.

Drapers Arms website

* Yes, quilted toilet paper. In a pub.

BrewDog Edinburgh’s 1st birthday

It’s exactly twelve months to the day since BrewDog Edinburgh opened its doors, signalling the start of the southward charge of the Fraserburgh concern’s bar empire. The second BrewDog tied house to open (behind the original in Aberdeen), the Edinburgh branch has since been followed by another in Glasgow, and then a whole host – either open or in the planning – in England. Edinburgh being our hometown, we were there at the ‘soft’ launch a year ago, powering through eleven high-gravity beers on a school night.

Fast forward those twelve months, and this is as good a time as any to reflect on what their arrival has meant to the Edinburgh beer scene. Following the Cowgate fire* that area of the city became even more run down than it already was, with a steady stream of stag and hen groups wandering up and down from the Grassmarket. I said at the time the location would always see a steady stream of customers – and even now BrewDog Edinburgh fills up very quickly at weekends (also; it’s pretty small).

Prior to converting the dilapidated Chasers cocktail bar, BrewDog had no permanent presence in the city, instead hosting launch events in places like Cloisters and Holyrood 9A whilst supplying plenty of other pubs. Since then, quite obviously, the events have transferred to their own bar – but also (and this is only a personal observation) their number of outlets across the city have reduced. This makes sense, to get BrewDog fans – of which there are many – spending their money in BrewDog bars rather than those of the competition. (BrewDog even print their own money these days).

Actually, other than the excellent Holyrood 9A, there really wasn’t anything like the BrewDog bar here before it opened. Brauhaus served a range of imported bottles, 9A had a good mix of kegged lagers – but that was about it. Surely it’s no co-incidence that over the past year both of those bars have raised their game significantly when it comes to beer choice – last week Brauhaus had a De Molen import on keg, for example. Holyrood had the ultra-rare Harviestoun Ola Dubh 12 on cask.

This could all be down to the increased availability of these interesting beers, of course, but BrewDog Edinburgh started to give people a focus for a different type of drinking. As we discovered on the opening night, instead of buying four pints in a round we ended up buying a bottle and four glasses. To be honest, other than trying each new beer they release, I can’t remember the last time I drank a BrewDog beer in their Edinburgh bar – the imports are usually too good to pass up. You pay a premium for this method, of course – an eye-watering £12 for a 330ml bottle of Kernel Imperial Brown Stout springs to mind.

But, as ever, people will pay a premium for quality products served well. I’d challenge any ‘hater’ to visit BrewDog Edinburgh and chat to the staff, and not be surprised. Extremely well-trained, they are surely the friendliest bar staff in the city. Flying in the face of all the PR twaddle about being uncompromising and punk, the people that work there are fantastic. Boy, are they ever patient too – as I overheard first hand when the bloke next to me asked for a pint of Guinness. He got something better, in the end, of course.

Anyway, the bottom line is that it’s different enough to fit in well, and it’s great to have the choice of going to somewhere like it. Cask ale may not be on the menu – the writing was on the wall for Trashy Blonde long ago – but the bar has become a must-visit on Edinburgh’s beer tourist trail. There may be significant competition on the horizon, but I think BrewDog Edinburgh has a long future ahead of it, and long may it stay open.

*Which we were a part of – on a night out with London-based BeerCaster Andy, he suggested going to a Jazz club (it was a majority decision). On arrival, there were flames billowing out of the door, leading Andy to utter one of his classic all-time understatements – “Oh, it’s on fire.” We ended up in the City Café before being evacuated by the police, and leaving to a wall of heat from the bottom of the hill. Despite all the damage though, thankfully nobody was hurt.

Porterboy Speaks

If you can see though it, I’m not interested. File it in the same pigeonhole as lemonade, sparkling water, gin and tonic. Then upend the pigeonhole in the sink. As it swirls down the plughole, if you can still see the plughole, let it go. Dark beer is where it’s at. Go and throw plastic chairs around in a European square if you like lager. Drink it from your Sun-branded plastic bowler hat. I’ll take no part. Sit in a cave for three weeks if that’s your thing, let those ‘flavours’ come together. Do that, and think how many decent beers you could have drunk in that time.

Shorts Brew Black Cherry Porter could have been one of those things. But, sadly, it isn’t. A journey of discovery, with no abv on the label (turns out it comes in at 7%) and mention only of added ‘black cherry puree’. Fair enough. Dark needn’t mean bland, after all. Light beer has a handle on that. This one is very dark – black as night. Spumey head surges upwards, a brownish-burgundy colour – even knowing the added ingredient this comes as a surprise, and one I can’t work out whether I like or not.

Carbonation! Why? It thunders around the mouth, a sizzling cloud of chocolate and cherry, blackberry jam and sugar. Then the tart finish arrives. Not for this one the gentle, slow linger from roast to dry roast. There must be a fair whack of yeast in the bottle – it’s settled out at the base of the glass as a white slick, spiralled downwards out of the beer column. Similarly, this is where the beer falls down – the sharp tangy fruit, rich chocolate, and yeast flavours jar against each other, running three separate races into the aftertaste.

Lagerboy is away