The Scottish Real Ale Festival in Edinburgh is an odd beast. It's supposedly Scottish CAMRA's premier festival and awards the Champion Beer of Scotland, yet is dwarfed by the bigger Paisley Beer Festival and restricts itself to Scottish beer only. I'd never been before so wanted to give it a go.
Even having had my fill of Fyne Ales Jarl at the weekend, I couldn't resist a sneaky first pint and it was just as good as it had been at the brewery. The dust of the street washed from my throat, I paused for a quick discussion with CAMRA colleagues about ideas for how we can stifle innovation in British brewing in the immediate future. Nefarious plans made, it was back to the drinking.
I'm not too keen on whisky-matured beers in general because the whisky almost always overpowers the more subtle flavours of the beer. I'd rather have my whisky and beer in separate glasses. Having said that, I had been looking forward to trying Orkney Dark Island Reserve served cask-conditioned. Sadly, it was a complete mess. Hot alcohol, coffee, charcoal, astringent wood and overwhelming green-apple rawness. Maybe the bottled version is better.
Highland Sneaky Wee Orkney Stout was less than half the strength but much more enjoyable. Nice light-bodied black beer and had, unusually, a fair bit of English hop aroma in the finish. American stouts often have a strong hop finish, but using English hops for it was a new twist to me. While drinking it I noticed a lot of the same brewery's Island Hopping being poured, so I ordered that before it ran out. It's as pale as the Jarl but quite different in aroma; lots of citrussy hops and sulphur, a splendidly quenching beer with a magnificently dry, bitter finish.
Gothenburg/Fowler's from Prestonpans is a fascinating micro/brewpub drawing on the heritage of the onetime Fowler's brewery (closed by Bass in the 1960s). Prestonpans 80/– had toffee, roast grain, smoke and a little bit of butter. It tastes like someone's been reading the style guidelines for "Scottish Ale". Despite that, it's not bad and I could see myself drinking a couple of pints of this before I'd start screaming "Give me some hops!".
I'm starting to think there's a secret competition for who can dress up as the most stereotypical real-ale enthusiast. There's a chap here wearing a wooly jumper and an anorak, in June, and carrying a plastic bag.
Highland's Orkney IPA is a nice easy-drinking beer of the kind that just seems to disappear before you get round to writing about what it tastes like. Fowler's Gothenburg Porter is brilliant, light-bodied and sweetish with a prominent charcoal finish.
At this point I took a break from drinking and went for a wee walk in the Edinburgh sunshine. It's not too far from the Assembly Rooms to trendy Stockbridge and its pretty wine shops and delicatessens. The Stockbridge Tap is a lovely pub. Old brewery mirrors and a slightly more adventurous beer list than most pubs, alongside some scarily old and expensive whiskies. I had a half of Highland Orkney Blast which didn't impress; I found it flabby and too sweet, with a decent hop aroma but not enough bitterness to balance the syrupiness. Highland is a good brewery but I think several of their other beers, like the aforementioned Orkney IPA and Island Hopping, are much better. I made my way back to the festival — and was quite bemused to find that the same beer had been chosen as Champion Beer of Scotland in my absence. But having won the title three times in four years, Highland clearly have the knack for hitting the taste of the judging panel.
Islay Single Malt has a cute name, but wasn't very interesting. Deeside Talorchan, on the other hand, was spectacularly good — lovely, soft-tasting beer, chocolate and bacon, which is a much better combination than it sounds. It was nearly time for my train so I finished off with Strathaven Summer Glow. This appeared in my local a few months ago and I thought at the time it was staggeringly good. I hope Strathaven will make it a regular as it's streets ahead of their other beers. Here it had a nice, not too extreme bitterness and powerful aromas of tangerine and, unaccountably, shellfish.
I think that may have been a sign for me to give my palate a rest and go home, so I did, pondering on the train that despite the limitation to Scottish beer only, the brewing scene is now easily capable of providing a very impressive selection of beers.