It was fairly clear from the beginning that our fourth BeerCast brewday would be unlike any of the others. Following trips to Alechemy, Ayr and DemonBrew, our visit to the Black Isle brewery actually began several weeks ago, when chatting to our host at the launch of their Cold Turkey breakfast beer. Head brewer Colin Stronge (normally an ebulliently raffish character at the best of times) was bouncing around like a caffeinated spaniel, trying to keep himself from blurting out what we were going to be brewing. On the drive up to the brewery, sales man Lewis was chuckling to himself about the weekend ahead, as the Black Isle van vibrated up the A9 like the Millennium Falcon making point five past light speed (albeit at 60mph, obviously). Despite themselves, neither wavered, and the brew was a complete surprise until we arrived at the Munlochy farmstead, perched on the lozenge-shaped peninsula a few miles north of Inverness.
The Black Isle Brewery were founded in the late 1990’s, and the buildings sit on the Old Allangrange farm, located down a few single-track roads off the A9. Run by the Gladwin family, brothers David and Mike are at the helm – David also looks after the farm, and on the Sunday morning was zipping about on a quad bike, feeding the horses, a throng of pointers and spaniels in his wake. The brewery is a world away from the ‘aluminium and concrete box on an industrial estate’ staple – animals are everywhere, watching the goings-on with amusement or indifference. In every direction, fields – some with grazing sheep, others producing the organic barley used by the brewery. Old farm buildings are put to use in variously inventive ways – a woodchip burner in one, dairy cow in the next. In between, the barrel store, batches of Black Run ageing quietly in oak.
So, the first of those differences from other brewdays was the location. The second was the beer we were to be brewing. When Colin finally let the secret out, on the night we arrived, our faces must have been something of a picture. For some time, he’s been in contact with Pluscarden Abbey, a Benedictine Monastery on the outskirts of Elgin. The monks there live as self-sufficiently as they can, growing their own vegetables, pressing apple juice from their orchards, and so-forth. But a few of them have become very interested in beer – which the monks consume a few times a year, at celebration feasts. Other than ourselves, the Black Isle team had invited Brother Michael from Pluscarden over for the day – and we were all to brew a Belgian Abbey-style blonde ale – with input (both figuratively and literally) from Brother Michael.
Colin weighs out the hops for the brew, which was scheduled to be 5.1% and – in his typical house-flavour style – loaded with new world hops. Rakau, Magnum and NZ Cascade for the aroma, to be exact. As he was weighing them out, Mike Gladwin arrived with milk from Molly the dairy cow for our coffee – and commented on the small size of Colin’s hop bucket. However, as Mike handles the money side, there was a rueful grin on his face as Colin admitted a bigger bucket would mean more hops. Since arriving from Marble of Manchester, Colin’s tweaked several of the Black Isle staples – tinkering with Yellowhammer, and quadrupling the bitterness in Goldeneye. Next month, a further BI regular will be re-released. It’s all part of the central core idea of brewing; experimentation. It really fosters success – reviewing successful lines can make them even more well-received.
Other than having him on-hand to help out (here breaking up the Magnum hops for the late-addition), the reason Brother Michael was taking such an interest is that Pluscarden are planning to begin brewing themselves. Under the tutelage of the brewteam at Black Isle, around half a dozen of the twenty monks at the Monastery are extremely keen to establish what would be the first genuine Abbey brewery in Scotland (and, depending on how quickly they start, the UK). Brother Michael was recently down in Ampleforth, speaking with the monks there – but as that beer is brewed for the Ampleforth monks at Little Valley Brewery (ironically by one of Colin’s predecessors at Black Isle, Wim van der Spek), if the Pluscarden brothers begin producing on-site, they will become the true first Abbey brewery in Britain for hundreds of years.
The beer that we all put our hands to this weekend then, is just the start. The beginning of something that could be unique to Scotland. The plans are to produce other Abbey-style beers at Black Isle down the line, with input from the Pluscarden order, before the Abbey starts production for themselves. For the first beer, Colin decided on a blonde – so, Belgian beer fans can probably guess what some of the other styles might be. It was great for us to be a part of this – Brother Michael was extremely enthusiastic – he told me the monks at Ampleforth had given him two cases of their Abbey beer to try, which they were saving at Pluscarden for a feast. It wasn’t just us that got a surprise, as Michael brought with him three containers of springwater from the Abbey, to give the finished beer some genuine monastic authenticity.
It will be interesting to see how the new world hops affect the typical Belgian Abbey-style flavours. Although by their nature the monks are highly traditional, Michael was quite taken with the aromas spiralling out of the copper as the kiwi hops were added. Time will tell as to whether the Pluscarden Abbey beers become high-alpha, and if the brewing Brothers become hop-heads from the start. I’m not exactly an expert, but it seems that despite being Benedictine, the order at Pluscarden aren’t from the Trappist branch of the Roman Catholic church, so when they get going, will be producing Abbey, rather than Trappist, beers. The Belgians do have a distinct ‘Abbey designation‘ which, although being less exacting that the Trappist, contains such luminaries as Maredsous, Grimbergen and Leffe (albeit, several of the twenty or so are owned or licenced to the big producers).
The beer we helped (in a small way) to produce will be launched later this month, on Wednesday the 27th of March, at Noble’s in Leith. As befits Black Isle’s multi-dispense approach, it will be going into cask, keg and bottle (most being released in the latter). The exact specifics are still to be discussed – the beer is only just fermenting, after all – it doesn’t even have a name yet. But look out for it in the beer shops sometime at the start of next month, with some possibly heading out for their important export market. Come down to Noble’s at the end of the month for the first tasting, though, and try it for yourself – the entire Black Isle team will be there. Hopefully, too, will Brother Michael – but we’ll see…
Many thanks to David and Mike at Black Isle for the invite, and Colin and Vicky for letting us stay in their cottage over the weekend. Stuck on the bus in traffic this morning, I was certainly envying Colin’s twenty-second commute to the brewery!