Beer Matters

North of the Border

In my 40-odd years of beer drinking I’ve never had much enthusiasm for Scottish beers, believing that the Scots are generally better at doing other things with malt liquor than adding hops to it. My introduction to Scottish beer was probably Younger’s Tartan, an appallingly sweet and fizzy brew even by the standard of the keg “bitters” of its day. I first visited Scotland for a weekend in Edinburgh in 1980 and vaguely recall drinking Broughton Greenmantle (still available) but Saturday quickly degenerated into a whisky tasting crawl around the bars of Auld Reekie. Apart from a brief business trip to Glenrothes about 10 years later I had not crossed the border again until Mrs Bibendus and I set off to do a spot of “island hopping” this summer. I was pleasantly surprised.

There is no brewery on the Isle of Bute - although if I were the Marquess (and I must confess the sight of the magnificent Mount Stuart House gave me serious problems with the tenth commandment) I would waste no time in setting one up in my 500 acre garden. However, the Port Royal Hotel in Port Bannatyne, as well as serving excellent Russian food (the landlady’s name is Olga), keeps a firkin of Killellan Bitter from the Houston Brewery (Johnstone, Renfrewshire) on the bar and very good it was too. In addition to assorted Russian lagers there were bottles of Imperial Russian Stout (now brewed by Harvey’s) which went down well with Olga’s chocolate cake.

Islay is of course famous for its eight distilleries but since 2004 it has had its own brewery, called appropriately enough Islay Ales, which produces a good range of beers in both cask and bottle-condition versions, from Finlaggan Ale, a light session beer, to Dun Hog’s Head stout. The Port Askaig Hotel had most of them in bottles and the brewery shop in Bridgend is generous with samples. I particularly enjoyed the hoppy Ardnave Ale and the new Single Malt.

While the likes of Islay Ales are clearly being quite adventurous with hops, the Oban Bay Brewery (established 2009) would seem to be aiming for a more recognisably Scottish flavour. Their session beer Kilt Lifter is pleasant enough but makes few demands on the taste buds while the stronger Skelpt Lug is somewhat in the style of a traditional “heavy”. Fair Puggled purports to be a stout but does not quite have the intensely dark colour and roasted malt bitterness one might expect. They can be sampled at the Waterfront Bar which fronts the brewery in Oban town centre, overlooking the harbour. The Isle of Mull also has a brewery but I can’t tell you much about it as we were only there long enough to grab a quick ride on the steam railway before catching the next ferry northwards.

Arriving at the Duntulm Castle Hotel on the northern tip of Skye we were dismayed to find the bar had run out of local ale. Fortuitously at that very moment the proprietor arrived back from town with a fresh consignment so we were at least able to enjoy a couple of bottles before dinner. Hebridean Gold is light and refreshing, Red Cuillin more malty and Black Cuillin a dark ale brewed with oats and heather honey. They can be had on draught in the Bakur Bar at Uig Pier, just a stone’s throw from the brewery. Our visit there was particularly welcome after a five hour hike over and around the Quiraing and Meall na Suiramach, during which my boots began to disintegrate and I had to walk or scramble the last two or three miles with both soles flapping at every step.

Returning to the mainland via the Skye bridge we headed for Loch Ness and a boat trip on water that was distinctly choppy compared with eight sea crossings which had been like the proverbial mill pond. The monster duly failed to appear and our guide admitted, after 40 years studying the Loch, to being a reluctant sceptic. The cafe bar opposite the car park in Drumnadrochit had Cairngorm Black Gold (SIBA Supreme Champion Beer 2009) and Monster Mash, albeit under light pressure. On the Caledonian Canal, just above the Laggan Locks where it joins Loch Lochy, is a floating pub called the Eagle. I stopped, more out of curiosity than anticipation, and was surprised to find it boasted four handpumps, all in use. My pint of Atlas Nimbus was superb.

Our last two hotels, Spean Bridge and Busby of that ilk respectively, failed to produce any decent beer although just around the corner from the latter was the White Cart, which was displaying the Cask Marque and produced a very acceptable drop of Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted, possibly the most exported of Scottish beers after the ubiquitous Deuchar’s IPA.

It occurs to me that, apart from the last one (within 10 miles of Glasgow Cathedral), none of the establishments I’ve mentioned is anywhere near a ring of bells. Never mind - when I’m the Marquess of Bute I’ll build a tower right next to my brewery.

Maximus Bibendus

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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