The everlasting Guest Ale

Posted by on Feb 15, 2017 in Pubs | No Comments

Guest Ales. They come in packs of five or ten, depending on what pub chalkboard has grabbed your attention, and they rotate more regularly than Abraham Lincoln in his grave these days. Chances are you will have pondered a selection of Guest Ales at some point in your drinking careers, wondering which of them to take a chance on. Unless that is you only ever drink in Freehouses, in which case you must have a very full beer notebook/Untappd account (delete as per generation). The promotion of Guest Ales over Tied Monopoly lines is one of CAMRA’S crowning glories and has been a true bastion of choice for anybody visiting a pub for a generation. Visit the same pub over a period of years and you can enjoy literally hundreds of different beers. At least, that’s what I thought.

About ten years ago during my wild and crazed dalliance with golf, I used to play in a selection of different courses to the east of Edinburgh, along what is cheerfully known as ‘Scotland’s Golf Coast’ (if you have never heard of St Andrews or Ayrshire). We always had a good time visiting these out of the way places, even the one where the old boy in the clubhouse quietly said to me as I paid “Next time perhaps sir would kindly wear a collared shirt”. Anyway, one of the other courses we went to a few times was in Gifford, a small village a few miles from Haddington. After each round we’d head to the local, the Goblin Ha’, named after an underground hall in a nearby ruined castle, the supposed haunt of hobgoblins.

The thing that kept us returning were the beers, and chief amongst them Hop Back Summer Lightning. One of the most famous real ales in the UK, back then it was notable to us only because it was light, hoppy and tasted good after a long (very long in my case) round of golf. As one of the formative golden ales devised in the 1980’s to help pull people away from lager it has won well over seventy different awards since first brewed, not least the one all brewers wanted to win – the BeerCast Beer of the Year, back in 2008. But it rose only to those giddy heights because we had discovered it, and its distinctive yellow pump clip, on the handpulls of the Goblin Ha’ in Gifford sometime earlier that year.

Anyway, by chance a few weeks ago I was in the area once again, this time with a wife and dog in tow and we found ourselves in Gifford at lunchtime. Stopping off at the Goblin Ha’ for something to eat brought a jolt of recognition – one of their Guest Ales was…Hop Back Summer Lightning. The same beer, in the same pub back on and being served on that one random day when I happened to be back in Gifford almost ten years later. What were the chances of that?

Summer Lightning pride of place at left (photo with permission from Goblin Ha’)

Well, as it turned out, for that specific beer in that pub, very high. It turns out that Summer Lightning isn’t really a Guest Ale but a regular, which makes it even more remarkable. The locals love the taste so it is re-ordered whenever near to running dry. Having asked, the guys at the Goblin Ha’ tell me that it outsells any other ale they put on, week after week. Local resident (and creator of Hot Rum Cow magazine) Fraser Allen has a similar theory, but also points out a fairly neat tie-in that could explain its omnipresence at the pub for the twelve years or so he has lived there…

So this raises another question. Is Hop Back Summer Lightning at the Goblin Ha’ the longest-distance regular ‘Guest’ Ale in the country? Those casks that are depleted with regularity by the locals have over an 800-mile round trip from the outskirts of Salisbury to East Lothian and back. You do sometimes see Hop Back beers on at other real ale pubs in Edinburgh, but only rarely and in no way as often as Summer Lightning sells in the Goblin Ha’. It’s quite something that the brewery can get their flagship golden ale up to a pub 400 miles away to cater for a small, but discerning group of beer drinkers. But then, that is the beauty of the British pub – and the pull of Guest Ales. As sometimes, they become more than just an infrequent guest…

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