On Friday I popped over to Larbert with a friend for the beer festival. On seeing the festival banner outside the hall with the name in Comic Sans, we nearly turned around and went home again, but after covering our eyes we made our way inside in the interest of good beer.
Larbert's a small festival with only 45 or so beers, but that still gives adequate choice for a session. We started with Highland's Scapa Special which made a really good first impression with a sweet and floral citrus aroma, a little bit of yeast flavour and a bitter finish.
Do you ever find when drinking several beers that you notice the same flavours in all of them? It goes in phases with me. For a while I tasted hard, chalky water in everything. Before that, sulphur. Tonight it was something reminiscent of outside lavatories. I don't know why.
I'd been looking forward to trying a beer from Fife's Luckie Ales for a while. They brew some recreations of historic beer, but at the festival only 70/— and Amber Ale were on offer, as well as a wheat beer we didn't try. 70/— had toasty malt and a full flavour, a slightly mushroomy aroma and that outside-toilet note. It wasn't bad, certainly better than the Amber Ale which was really sweet and tasted mostly of burnt sugar.
Another small Scottish outfit which is happily brewing again after an interruption is the Gothenburg from Prestonpans. Their Porter was roasty and stouty but a little thin. My pal decided at this point to go for one of the "foreign beers" on the list and returned with Crouch Vale Essex Boys Bitter. It has a slight note of treacle and is bitter and watery, quaffable by the gallon but tastes weaker than it is. Following that, Inveralmond XXX was grainy and sugary, unimpressive despite the excellent name.
Highland IPA was less immediately approachable than the Scapa Special, and seemed a little one-dimensional at first (possibly still a tad green), but as you drink it you start appreciating its dry, bitter, austere character.
Next up were two Tryst beers. Tryst is the local brewery in Larbert and the brewer himself was wandering around when we arrived. Castlecary House Hotel, a custom brew for a local hotel, was very good indeed, with spicy hops and a sweet malt body. Dobbie Shuffle was "delicious" according to my friend, seemingly so good that he forgot to offer me a taste before it was all gone. No, I don't know what the name means.
I looked at the menu, saw the magic words "Pies: £2.50" and thought "that's expensive for a Scotch pie"; but it turned out they were proper big rectangular pies with a selection of fillings. We got stuck in to a couple of those, which means sadly there are no tasting notes for the Gothenburg 80/— and Oakham JHB we had to wash down the pies. I really like JHB and its peppery, severe bitterness, but you only ever see it at beer festivals up here, so I always go for it when I see it. You all know what it tastes like anyway, and if you don't, go and get some because it's awesome.
It seemed to go downhill from there. Tryst's Carron Oatmeal Stout was sadly too flat to be enjoyable, while Loch Leven Golden Goose was bitter but was missing any aromatic finish. Nice if you like plain alpha acid but ultimately disappointing. I'd never heard of Loch Leven before; it seems that every time you turn around at the moment there's a new brewery. Also new are Tempest from the Borders, who promised an un-named prototype beer but unfortunately didn't manage to deliver it in time for the festival.
Devon Ales Pride 90/— was crap and neither of us could think of a good word to say about it. Burton Bridge's XL Bitter was rather less crap, but nonetheless a Boring Brown Bitter (ABCP style 9E), but with an appropriate amount of Burton snatch, and that mushroomy flavour again.
Tryst Raj IPA saved the day, a dry, bitter beer with resiny hops, and having got all the scoops we wanted, we finished off with some more JHB and Scapa Special.
It's odd; there's a clear cultural divide among Scottish micros represented here. The likes of Highland and Tryst are making intense hoppy beers; on the other hand some others seem determined to churn out one tedious brew of brown 80-shilling sugarwater after another in the belief that it's traditional.
Still, well done to CAMRA for making Larbert a town worth drinking in for two days in the year.