Sunday, 7 March 2010

Scotland, a beer desert?

I noticed from Tandleman's increasingly plaintive tweets on his recent jaunt to Glasgow that he wasn't having much luck finding good beer.

This is a shame, because there's plenty of good beer being made in Scotland at the moment. It's getting hold of it that's the problem, and that's hard enough for those of us who live here.

Whenever I've been in Manchester or Sheffield I've been struck by the way these cities actually seem to have a beer scene, in the way other cities have a music scene. They are also in a part of the country that has a living, uninterrupted real ale tradition, where you can often drink beer from a local brewer in one of their tied pubs.

Scotland doesn't have that. Cask beer was more or less destroyed in the 1960s (thanks, Bass and S&N) and what we have now is a revival. Most of our breweries, too, are relatively recently established micros selling to a limited number of free trade outlets.

This all makes for a different dynamic of beer supply. You can't just go into a pub belonging to a local brewery and expect to find something drinkable. The specialist pubs and old-established freehouses are the only reliable sources for a decent pint. There is an abundance of these in Edinburgh, and an adequate number in Glasgow, but elsewhere they become like welcome oases. It's not as bad as it once was but visiting many a Scottish town is still pretty grim unless you know exactly the right place to go. And sometimes there isn't a right place.

One related phenomenon that has always struck me is that the market for real ale in Scotland is (as far as I can make out) in the big cities, but many of the breweries themselves are in remote locations: Arran, Colonsay, Loch Fyne, Islay, Skye, Lewis, Ross-shire, Fraserburgh, Orkney, Shetland. I understand there are sensible reasons for this but it still seems odd – or maybe I'm just being a townie and these places are not as far away as I think.


  1. It is pretty difficult to get a good beer in Glasgow, you're virtually forced to brew your own. Even at the Bon Accord, the pints can be variable. Then you've made your friends trek up to Charing Cross to an old man's pub, and then complain about the beer. It's not on!

  2. Oh, it's not quite that bad. Blackfriars and the Three Judges are consistently reliable. The State is usually a good bet too, and there are maybe another dozen in the city centre where there might be something good if you are lucky.

    Agreed that the beer quality at the Bon can be hit or miss. They seem to order beers that they've never sold before irrespective of whether they are any good or not. Many of them are, many aren't.

    But there have been two crucial events leading to a dramatic decline in the general standard of beer: Caledonian apparently cutting the hopping rate in Deuchars, and Greene King taking over Belhaven and ruining the beer selection in their pubs.

  3. Judges is pretty good, it was my local for a while. I never seemed to have heard of whatever they have on draught, though.

    Are you sure Caley have cut the hopping rate in Deuchars? Communication from one of their brewers here seems to indicate their hopping is fairly generous:

    The trouble is most pubs that serve it in Edinburgh don't know how to handle real ale. I know of one pub in the Grassmarket (not that I'd drink there) recycle their Deuchars slops.

  4. I can second your point re; edinburgh. Had some nice beers up there. The post's on the blog somwhere if you're interested...about october last year, I reckon.

  5. Although I'm not in Scotland, I've been looking into all the breweries there. I too was surprised that a huge majority of the breweries are in small towns or remote locations. I am a big fan of breweries out in the middle of nowhere, where they can quietly practice without being too (overly) influenced by the market and current trends. It seems though that there is more than plenty of room to expand into the bigger cities. I was surprised also to only find a couple Glasgow beer blogs: this one, and Hop Topic. There might be more, but I haven't been able to find them. Both of these blogs are really great reads, and I think may play a big part in getting more people interested in Glasgow beer.

  6. Geoff, that email from the Caley would be a few years old now. Deuchars was fine then. Of course I can't say for sure that it's changed, not having seen the brewing logs. But I've drunk hundreds of pints of it over the years and I believe I noticed it suddenly losing hop character. Yes, it could be my palate adjusting to hoppier beer. But try it yourself, does it taste to you like it's still hopped the way that chap describes?

  7. If only Sheffield had a music scene *and* a beer scene... we'd be laughing then.