Showing posts with label real ale. Show all posts
Showing posts with label real ale. Show all posts

Friday, February 1, 2019

Real Ale: Real Craft

I am in the planning stages of going home to Scotland for at least a month this summer. Inevitably that means things like plane tickets, making sure travel documents are up to date, getting passports for a pair of 15 month old children, getting 15 month old children to sit still for photographs for said passports, and so on and so forth. Thankfully my current employer is ok with me taking my computer with me and working from the UK so I don't have to use up all my holiday time, working in IT is fantastic at times.

Inevitably intermingled with all these practicalities are thoughts of beers to hunt out, pubs to go to, breweries to visit, that kind of beer tourist crap that I admit to being terrible at. You see, I have this problem, when I find a place I like I often don't feel like changing it up, and I have a short list of must hit boozers and must drink beers for my time home. One thing all these bars have in common, whether in Inverness and environs northwards, or in Glasgow, is they have decent selections of cask ale.


While I am not a member of the Campaign for Real Ale, and in no way, shape, or form an anti-keg beer zealot - forget dry January, that would be abstinence in the US - I do consider myself very much a fellow traveller on the path of real ale righteousness. Nothing, and I literally mean nothing, beats a pint of flavourful, well conditioned, well tended ale drawn from a cask, served at the right temperature. That is something each boozer on my little list has in common, they do cask ale right, and that means sparkled as well, naturally.



There does seem to be something of a false dichotomy though in the UK when it comes to the relationship between cask ale and craft beer. Just so there is no room for misunderstanding, let me say very clearly that the biggest difference I see is that craft beer is ultimately a product of a brewery, while cask ale is a craft throughout its life cycle.

Think about that for a moment. Craft beer basically gets made, kegged, chucked in a pub cold room and then poured from a tap. When the keg kicks, a member of the bar staff goes to the cold room, puts a new keg on and carries on. It is exactly what I did for many years behind the bar at the Starr Hill brewery tasting room. It doesn't take any special skill to pour beer behind a bar that serves kegged craft beer. That's not to say that keg beer is crap beer, it is after all just a different dispense method, rather that when it comes to delivery there is very little that can go wrong once the keg is tapped.


Now consider real ale, delivered to the pub cellar where it needs to sit at the right temperature until it is ready to be vented, and even then it takes time to get to the appropriate condition for serving. It takes a trained cellarman to keep the ale flowing with as little disruption to customers. Even in the pulling of your pint, there is right way to pull through a beer engine. There are many stages at which real ale can turn to shit, especially once it has left the relative safety of the brewery, and of course once the cask is tapped the clock is running on when it will turn to vinegar, a problem that keg beer generally doesn't have, I know of breweries that have found old kegs of beer in the back of their storage and put it on tap to customers who were none the wiser, and happily paid full price for essentially old beer.

I think sometimes cask ale gets a raw deal, demeaned by crafties and lout drinkers alike as old man beer, mistreated by far too many pubs, in the US often served slapped on a bar and with the cask groaning with silly shit, and cloudy as fuck too. When the craft of real ale is done right, the beer has passed through the hands of multiple artisans (and being a good cellarman is an art), and the end product is a pint of beautifully cool, well conditioned ale, there is nothing that compares.


Cask ale is the product of craftsmanship from beginning to end.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

#WestHighlandWay - A Drinker's Guide Part 3

Our stay in Bridge of Orchy made a nice break in more ways than just a comfy bed to rest our heads after a day among the hills. The folks at Taransay Cottage are vegetarians, and so breakfast didn't come replete with black pudding, bacon, and other sundry pork products, which was actually a welcome change despite being an unreconstructed meat lover. We had also spent the evening talking about hiking, music, and other stuff, so while I had a couple of bottles of beer, the only throbbing the morning after was the ever expanding blister on my toe.

I was really looking forward to the day's hike, we would be crossing one of my favourite places in Scotland, Rannoch Moor. Prior to our hike I had only ever seen the Moor from the A82, usually from the heights of a Skyeways bus (showing my vintage there!) to or from Uig heading to or from home, and I had always been enchanted by the expanse of empty moorland. Before reaching the moor though we had to cross Ben Inverveigh and pass the Inveroran Hotel too early in the day to be open. Having wandered past, cursing the time (as lovely as yoghurt, fruit, and bread is for breakfast, I was famished and wanted to keep my packed lunch a bit longer), we eventually came to Thomas Telford's drove road.


For those not versed in Highland history, the drove roads replaced the old military roads in the late 18th/early 19th century, and their primary purpose was to provide a better way for Highland farmers to drive their cattle to market in the south. It was on a remnant of that road that we would cross Rannoch Moor, and it was a bitch of a hike with my feet starting to scream with pain from my blistered toe, and a hot spot developing on the sole of the same foot. Still, the scenery was stunning and the actual hike not wildly difficult, but the relief as we started our descent into Glen Coe was palpable, and we noticed that there were still pockets of snow high up on the mountains.

We would spend the night in a microlodge, aka 'hobbit house', at the Glencoe Mountain Resort, where there is a cafe that sells beer, but we decided to drop our bags, shower in the converted shipping containers, and stroll off to the Kings House Hotel's Climbers' Bar. For those unversed in Highland hotel lore and custom, most hotels have a couple of bars, a lounge bar and a public bar. Lounge bars tend to be carpetted, upholstered chair affairs, while public bars tend more to the wooden floor and furniture. If you know me, you know where I much prefer drinking. Hotels also tend to insist that us grubby hikers of the world drink in their public bar, also known from time to time as a 'boots bar'.


Having wandered round the back of the hotel, for that is where hotel public bar doors usually are, I found myself looking straight into pub heaven. No carpets, solid wooden furniture, a hole in the wall bar with a couple of handpulls, and a bar back laden with single malt. Mrs V snagged a small table practically in front of the bar, next to a trio of climbers who had spent the day Munro bagging, while I got the drinks in, cider as usual for the wife, and a pint of Cairngorm Black Gold stout from one of the handpulls for me.


My previous experience of Cairngorm beer was when I was home in 2014, and while it was perfectly acceptable bottled, I wasn't left with any urge to find more of their beers. Black Gold though was in absolutely tip top nick this time, and it shone, The highest praise I can give it is that if you took my much missed Starr Hill Dark Starr Stout at its peak in around 2014, subjected it to proper cask conditioning, without the silly fripperies of bullshit additions, you would have Cairngorm Black Gold. It was divine, roasted coffee, dark chocolate, a silken mouthfeel, and as the drizzle floated in the glen outside, it was just the beer I wanted. The plan was simple, a couple of pints, a feed, and head back up the road to the hobbit house for an early night.

Well, that was the plan. The reality turned out rather different, though we did get the feed, and a bowl of whatever soup of the day was on certainly warmed the cardiac cockles. The plan, though best laid, started ganging agley while I was getting a second pint and Mrs V got talking to one of the chaps sat on the adjacent table, for some reason the bar staff were fannying about with the TV looking for football. As I mentioned in the previous post, Mrs V was starting to get ill and had taken a hot toddy in Crianlarich in an attempt to head off a sore throat, to little effect. I only caught snatches of the conversation as I stood waiting on the barmaid to give up with the TV, including advice to the effect that Irish whiskey is best used in hot toddies. A few moments later, with bread mopping up the remains of the soup, a toddy was placed in front of Mrs V, the lemon studded with cloves, something I had not seen before in a toddy.

Thus started a evening of banter, round buying, and being in a Highland bar at it's finest. With a few pints inside me, I decided it was time to indulge in my other barley based love, single malt. Behind the bar was Balvenie Caribbean Cask,a 14 year old whisky matured in rum casks, which goes very very well with cask stout you know. Rounds of whisky ensued, and eventually we had to head back out into the gathering gloom of a drizzled Highland summer night.

Weaving our way up the hill, easier said than done walking into the wind, the drizzle turned to rain, heavy and backed by a reasonable breeze, that made the final few hundred yards up the hill a struggle, honestly it was the wind and the rain, not the beer and whisky. Soaked and blootered, I passed out and slept like a bairn.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

CAMRA - A Fellow Traveller's View

I have never been a member of CAMRA, at least not the Campaign for Real Ale (the homebrew club I go to is called the Charlottesville Area Masters of Real Ale). It really didn't make any sense to be a member when I lived in Prague, and it still doesn't now that I live in Virginia. Those facts though don't change the fact that whenever I go home to the UK I drink mostly real ale, actually that's understating it a bit, I actively hunt out real ale. I consider myself something of a CAMRA fellow traveller and am grateful that they took the step to protect, promote, and campaign for a wonderful expression of beer drinking.


Having said all of that, it is clear to me that the Revitalisation Project that CAMRA are now undertaking is kind of overdue. I remember running into some CAMRA members when I lived in Prague, Liverpool had spanked United 4-1 at Old Trafford, and we went to Pivovarsky D?m for some celebratory pints, and got talking with them about Marston's MD referring to certain sections of the CAMRA membership as 'gobby Hobbits'. These guys were, if memory serves, knowledgeable about beer in general, appreciative of a good lager, and good company over all.


That's kind of what I would like to see come out of the Revitalisation Project, a campaign that knows and promotes good beer in general, sure with a focus on real ale but without being snotty about it.


I would also like them to drop their quasi-nationalist double standard. If you go to the Great British Beer Festival the foreign bars serve beer from kegs rather than casks, seemingly the thinking being that this allegedly inferior product is perfectly okay for Johnny Foreigner but not for John Bull Esq. Good beer is good beer whether served from a cask, keg, bottle, or can, and British brewers shouldn't have to labour under the misapprehension that cask is the be all and end all of British beer.


As well as being an opportunity to broaden the scope, and appeal, of the Campaign, this project is also an opportunity to re-victual the idea cabinet so that once again CAMRA is a vital part of the beer scene in the UK in a way that is relevant to drinkers in the 21st Century. Without it, I fear the Campaign will become just a chapter in the next edition in the Oxford History of Beer, an important chapter yes, but still just history consigned to the page.

Old Friends: Joseph's Brau PLZNR

I have to admit that there really are not that many things that I miss as a result of this pandemic. I am sure that comes as something of a ...

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