Category Archives: Pubs

The everlasting Guest Ale

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…

Two more Scottish breweries to open bars

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Everything happens in threes, as they say – and a mere handful of days since Innis & Gunn took the plunge and opened their first bar, on Lothian Road in Edinburgh, two other prominent Scottish breweries have announced plans to do something similar; almost literally around the corner from each other. Beer drinkers of Inverness – you’re about to get a lot more options in the near future (subject to planning and licencing; conditions apply). Yes, the pearl of the Moray Firth is due to become the staging ground for something that has become more and more prevalent of late – mid-size breweries taking the plunge and opening their own branded on-trade premises. And that can only be a good thing.

It was reported in the Press & Journal that the first of these beermakers is likely to be the Black Isle Brewery; a planning application has been lodged to convert an old charity shop on Church Street in the city to a bar with a rooftop drinking terrace and a self-contained 48 bed hostel above. The same article goes on to state that the Cairngorm Brewery are hoping to restore the really rather beautiful AI Welding building on Academy Street – a mere three-minute walk away. Others have tried – and failed – to restore it in the past; Cairngorm have owned the historic building for a while so here’s hoping it can be renovated and given another lease of life.

From a rough calculation, if these two projects get the go-ahead and come to fruition, they would be the ninth and tenth small to mid-range Scottish breweries to open a bar that is distinct from their place of brewing (a figure that discounts Greene King/Belhaven, C&C etc, as well as brewpubs, of course). The others I jotted on the back of an envelope being Arran, BrewDog, I&G, St Andrews, SixNorth, Tempest, WEST and Williams Bros.* Actually, of those, WEST opened their WEST on the Corner only a couple of months ago – so the trend is definitely on the up.

* If I’ve missed any out here, let me know – thanks to RC for spotting SixNorth.

Having a street-side outlet for your beers is a fantastic idea, if you can source the capital and the planners come on-side. As much as I love heading out to Industrial Estates or other out of the way brewery locations, to get your (sorry for this) brand out there, a bar serving your beer in the centre of the city is a much better proposition. Plus it can deliver the beers in exactly the way your brewer intends, every time. It can be tough, finding a location that works for a bar and guarantees enough trade – but if you can and manage to convert it, having a bar adds a massive layer of confidence on top of your organisation.

In fact, whilst we’re on the subject – let’s put out another five breweries that I would love to see open their own premises one day…

Harviestoun – With Cairngorm and Black Isle pulling the trigger, a Harviestoun-branded bar somewhere in the greater Stirling area would do really well, I think. Give it a Scottish feel for the visitors who pass through, serve Schiehallion and Bitter & Twisted on cask and keg for the craft-curious; oh, and a devoted Ola Dubh tap.

Cromarty – Maybe an arrangement with the Anderson in Fortrose, but I can’t imagine anywhere better to go for a few beers than a bar with the original Happy Chappy himself perched on a stool at the end of the counter. And with the range of beers from Cromarty, it would surely be hugely popular.

Stewart Brewing – Another brewery expanding and getting into different lines and styles, Stewart could bank a bit of the change from the Craft Beer Kitchen and convert one of Edinburgh’s many historic buildings into a centrepiece ‘destination’ bar for all those people who love their beer and make the trip out to Loanhead to fill up the growlers.

Traquair – Yes, they are really tiny – and the stunning Traquair House is reason enough to go to them, but every Scots-themed bar I’ve been in would be transformed by a range of historic ales from the Innerleithen concern pouring from the taps. I know they only produce one beer for draught, but this is a fantasy list, anyhow. It would be one heck of a place to go.

Orkney Supergroup – Whilst we’re on the theme of fantasy bars, let’s imagine that the centre of Kirkwall cries out for a brewery bar, and Rob Hill and Norman Sinclair square up and shake hands. It would be like Theakstons and Black Sheep opening a pub in Masham, only with Old Norway, Skullsplitter and Orkney Porter on draught.



Anyway, whether those come to fruition or not, it’s great news that two more Scottish breweries are having a go and opening their own premises. I’ve only actually been to Inverness – the happiest place in Scotland – once (without stopping) – on the way back from a family holiday in the Highlands when I was about 14, and the only thing I can remember was that I went into a small sporting goods store and bought a single golf club; a 7-iron. Two points related to that – a) it probably doesn’t give me adequate knowledge of the city, and b) yes, I really was a teenage tearaway.

UPDATE
Thanks to Paul Grant for pointing out that the AI Welding conversion would be Cairngorm’s second bar; they already operate the Winking Owl in their hometown of Aviemore. My main point still stands, though!

Beacons

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What’s the best time of day to go the the pub? The time that you fancy a beer, obviously. But the thing about these living-rooms-at-length are that they cater for all kinds of situations. And that’s as true for the cliched ‘life events’ that we celebrate there (wedding receptions, final exams, the conclusion of a life) as it is for the actual point of the clock when we cross the threshold.

Drinking is a pastime suited to the evening, yes – it lets off steam after the day of work; it requires you to simply crawl home and into bed afterwards – but from the moment the heavy bolt is drawn back and the pump clips turned outward-facing for the day (not that they still do that, I don’t think), the pub is fair game. The optimum time for refreshment varies with each individual drinker – but here are some of the very best times to get the beers in…

Opening Time
I’ve covered this before, on the BeerCast – but the idea of waiting for a pub to open still feels a little naughty, if you’ll pardon the schoolboy phraseology. It’s as if you shouldn’t be there – you’ve got a million things that would better occupy your time, and yet here you are, loitering outside the Mango & Mongoose at five to midday. Why? Well – for the very best time to be inside. When there’s nobody else in, and you feel like a Lord of the Manor (until the other regulars turn up).

Lunch Time
Pub Lunch – still the best three hours you’ll spend on any given weekend (or weekday). Roll up with nowhere better to be, papers tucked under the arm, dog or children in tow, and park yourself. At lunchtime, the mood shifts from the committed daytime drinkers to the more socially-acceptable food-involved pubgoer. So take full advantage, order the roast or the chef’s special, and start working your way along the handpulls.

Finishing Time
This, for me, is still the absolute best time to head to the pub – the first beer after a day’s work…well, a day’s clacking at the keys – is a moment to keep you going from early morning onwards. I think the reason why is that it’s the most adult of rewards (apart from…well…) and it gives you the opportunity to feel you’ve earned it. One of the best days of the week to go out is Monday, as you never need something to look forward to more.

Night Time
But then, there is the simple action of being drawn to your local light an IPA-obsessed moth, and meandering towards its welcoming glow. Take the photo at the top of this post. The Guildford Arms in Edinburgh, looking like an absolute beacon in the dark. Who could walk past that, if they turned the corner and saw it standing there? And more importantly, why would you want to walk past?

A great pub means so many different things, depending on the time of day. What’s the best time to head down, do you think? (‘All Day’ is a perfectly acceptable answer. Sometimes.)

Innis & Gunn Beer Kitchen opens

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This year is already shaping up to be a big one for Innis & Gunn. Having launched their Beer Bond back in May with a view to raising £3m to fund the construction of a new brewery – a figure they were very close to, as of a month ago – they have also now added another branch to their tree in the form of their first bar – the Innis & Gunn Beer Kitchen, right bang in the middle of Lothian Road, Edinburgh. It’s a sign of two things – firstly, the continued development of that particular street (the Kitchen occupies a former pole-dancing bar) – and secondly, that I&G are becoming ever more confident in moving away from the behemoth-sized shadow thrown by the Wellpark in Glasgow, and more directly towards their customers.

And this is great, it really is. The one consistency that Innis & Gunn have had over the years is a loyal customer fanbase. I can’t count myself amongst them (in terms of the beer), but there are so many people who appreciate their output, it’s a major surprise why it’s taken them this long to venture into their own premises. But then, this is I&G we’re talking about, I guess. From their Edinburgh office, tucked away in a New Town crescent, to their corner of the Tennent’s facility in Glasgow – until now it’s as if they have been satisfied with the arm’s length approach of sales, export and PR to get their message across. First the brewery, and now the Beer Kitchen; 2015 is the year I&G have put boots on the ground.

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The Innis & Gunn Beer Kitchen is going to be huge – I’ve absolutely no doubt about that. I mean, it looks great, has lots of neat touches and cool seating areas – but its success will undoubtedly be down to what it represents, as well as where it is. Firstly, the latter – the location is perfect for the flights of after-workers from the financial centres across the road, who now have an alternative to the West End or George Street. It also adds another point of difference to Lothian Road, as the Hanging Bat did when it opened a couple of years ago (albeit, you would imagine, for a slightly different clientèle).

I think the real story here, though, is the fact that the Beer Kitchen is now a focal point for Brand I&G, much the same way as similar bars are for other breweries who have launched premises away from their brewery taps. And it makes perfect sense – I&G are a high-street name, so having a beer and food-based bar with their neat branding on it is a natural progression. I’ve never been to an Innis & Gunn event that is anything other than packed, so they clearly have the potential to fill their new bar on a regular basis.

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So what is it like, then? Well – it’s laid out very intuitively, with an open-fronted area at the doors complete with London-style streetside drinking shelves. Interesting fold up and padded seats abound, that will likely lead short and interesting lives. There’s an odd little espresso bar thing on the left, before the bar opens up into booths and comfy seats, with areas to eat and – a rarity for Edinburgh – a stand-up perching table with room for people to get past or queue for the bar and not elbow you at the same time. At the back, casks yet to be racked are kept in full view.

In terms of the beer, the full home range is on, including an unfiltered lager (which I asked for twice, and twice was given a beer as clear as a bell, so it might not be connected yet). They have a hugely impressive range of guest bottles and cans, and on draught guests from Drygate (of course!) plus Lagunitas IPA, Camden Pale and Pilot Mochaccino Stout. Wine is served in frozen glasses, which is odd – the staff are eager and extremely helpful, as you’d expect. The Innis & Gunn Beer Kitchen is a confident, on-message place – and as such, the perfect vehicle as they continue to branch out.

Final JD Wetherspoon score…2-2?

The planning application for Jimmy Chung’s on Waverley bridge has been approved

So, it has taken a while for due process to work through, but yesterday notice was given that the third of four planning applications pending for JD Wetherspoon in Edinburgh had been granted. The Council has given the go-ahead for the Jimmy Chung’s on Waverley Bridge to be converted into one of their pubs, with one minor condition; the ‘proposed external colour scheme is appropriate to the character and appearance of the Conservation Area and World Heritage Site’. No neon pink or lime green then, presumably.

Once the UNESCO pantone-chart has been consulted, and some kind of arrangement made with Jimmy Chung’s, it looks like we’re set for an Edinburgh Tap-style Wetherspoon at the entrance to the station – assuming the operation of the bar is approved via a variation application to the existing licence. It’s interesting that very few people seemed unduly bothered with this one of the four proposals – I wondered at the time what effect the lone objection to the Waverley Bridge proposal would have,* given that the Victoria Street plan was met with such vociferous negativity.

* It was detailed in the Council report that said objection contained ‘various comments regarding the proposed operator and nature of their operation’

Mind you, history is on the side of the Waverley scheme as the building on the bridge used to be a pub before it was turned into a restaurant in the mid-2000’s. The planned beer garden to the rear will certainly have stunning views looking up to the Balmoral and Scotsman Hotels, and it should do hugely well you would have thought, given the amount of pedestrian activity on the bridge. It also means an uncertain future for the Nor Loch, the bar inside the station – particularly given the general consensus on Trip Advisor. (“Don’t bother complaining pal, we don’t care.”)

In terms of the bigger picture, it was reported a couple of weeks ago that the Lothian Road plan for the Picture House was ‘set’ to be approved, following the release of a Development Management Sub-Committee report which concluded the application be granted. But, as of this morning, that decision is still pending, so nothing concrete has been decided – and the renovation of the HMV Picture House remains much-discussed. Still, unless something happens at the eleventh hour, it looks as if that will also be granted, and the 13,466-strong petition against will count for nothing.

If this is the case – will JDW be satisfied with the final outcome of all this? They were unsuccessful in applications covering the Empire Bingo Hall on Nicholson Street and the plan for St John’s Church on Victoria Street, both of which were rejected on grounds of noise and suitability (it was noted that there were no residents nearby to Waverley Bridge – the nearest being 70m away). Aside from the time it has taken, to be granted two of the four – assuming the Lothian Road plan is eventually given the green-light – will undoubtedly be seen as a success for Wetherspoon, and give them seven pubs in Edinburgh (plus two more at the airport).

It always seemed to me like the Victoria Street plan was a knee-jerk, based on the stunning building there and what could potentially be done with it – the plans JDW submitted were certainly ambitious, before they were turned down. The Empire Bingo Hall is certainly on a busy street, and right next to several interchange bus stops – but the two sites approved I would think give Wetherspoon the best bang for their buck. The constant streams of traffic along Lothian Road and to and from the station will surely make these two new pubs (if the doors eventually open) successful, pretty much from day one. Whether that’s a good thing for Edinburgh depends very much on your personal opinion…

First In – Waiting for the pub to open

The fantastic Craw Inn, Auchencrow, with pump clips from the ages (including cask ale from BrewDog; Hype and The Physics, top left)Craw3

There’s only a certain amount of time that you can sit in a pub car park before passers-by begin to get suspicious – even in a place without passers-by. Yet it sometimes happens; you’re in town for something else and make a spur of the moment decision to nip for a quick pint, or (like us the other day) impulsively swing off a main road to a pub you’ve heard about and never visited, only to find yourself half an hour early for opening time. We’ve all been there at the end of a night, last to leave; bolts clunked home as the back of your head clears the door jam – but what about at the other end of the drinking day?

Even today, when you can find beer in most urban areas – and can port about a few decent emergency cans if not – there’s still something slightly naughty about being the first person in a pub. No matter how many beers you’ve ordered in your life, walking into an utterly deserted bar feels strange – when it happens to me, I instantly get the feeling that I’m doing something I shouldn’t be, and somebody in a position of authority will swiftly turn up and lead me out by my earlobe. Either that or it feels like they have opened up purely for me, as if I’ve been granted the freedom of the city (or are the lone survivor of some appalling yeast-triggered apocalypse).

I should say at this point that although I do have experience of being ‘First In’, my history is not a lengthy and detailed one. Before the Craw, it had happened only once; at the City Arms in Manchester, when on a drinking afternoon with my Dad. On that occasion, I was actually the first in a line; behind the two of us there were a couple of others, and good-natured banter was exchanged before the door thunked open at Noon and a swift flurry of elbows propelled me over the threshold. The early start that day was down to territory; the securing of the favoured City Arms corner seat.

Of course, there’s something hugely pleasant about being the sole customer of a wonderful pub. All is quiet and pristine; the drinking equivalent of new sheets, or a sparkling bathtub. Not just the corner seat – every seat is free. The papers are unsullied, sudoku empty and waiting. The clock ticks away softly. You might even be guaranteed to hear your tunes on the jukebox, if you stay for a fourth pint. You feel compelled to ask the person behind the bar if they are open, when you know full well they are, otherwise the door would be locked. It still seems too good to be true, though.

The only downside of being First In, then, is what happens if the arrival is mis-timed. You end up sat in the car, road-menders staring accusingly at you from their freshly-dug hole. Dog walkers looking at their watch and tutting. Yet how close to the bolted door is it acceptable to wait? Within touching distance? Or peering round a distant corner, pretending to be lost in the window display of Topps Tiles? And the very worst thing – you count down the time and stride boldly up at one-minute-past, only to telescope your right arm into a door that should be open. Damn those weekend opening hours!