It's always nice to get out into the countryside, even if you only see it from the window of a train. Larbert is not too far away from Glasgow — 25 minutes or so from Queen St station, and for two days each year CAMRA make it a place worth visiting for beer. The Larbert beer festival is the first of the year near me, and I've started to see it as an indication that spring has come, despite the fact that this is only its third year.
It may now be unfair to say Larbert isn't worth drinking in the rest of the year, for there is a notice in the festival programme stating that the Station Tavern is now selling real ale — but we didn't have the drinking capacity or critical facility to pop in and check the place out on our way home, so this will remain a task for another day.
Last year I complained about the festival banner in Comic Sans, and the organisers have done it again this year, just to spite me. Probably. Never mind that, into the hall, where a stern notice warns patrons that tap dancing is not permitted in the foyer. Pay in, get your festival glass, the usual; then finally into the main hall where you are faced with the dilemma of how many tickets to buy. Yes, it's one of those beer token festivals, where you have to estimate in advance how much you're going to sup. I always buy conservatively, even if it means having to queue up again later for more tickets. It makes me look less of a lush and there's less risk of them asking "Are they all for you?"
My usual beer festival practice is first of all to get a pint of something weak and refreshing, to wash the travel dust out of my throat and give me a breathing space to persue the programme and decide which beers I want to try in halves. Usually this first beer ends up being a light or a mild, but Larbert is showing a distinct tendency to pale'n'hoppy this year (a welcome change from last year's toffee-tinged beer list). This is no great surprise as Larbert is the home of pale'n'hoppy specialist Tryst, and it's their Transatlantic Hop Trials #1 that I go for. It's just right, tastier than the last time I had it, in perfect condition and only 3.8%.
The chap pulling my pint turns out to be Davie Whyte, a leading light in the Scottish Craft Brewers. You'll be hearing his name more often in future as he's also just taken over brewing chores at the Gothenburg in Prestonpans following the sad death of Roddy Beveridge last year.
My friend Ed arrives and, after having the esoteric ticket-purchasing system explained to him, manages to get a pint of Tryst Raj IPA. Our pints gradually disappear as we catch up. On the list of beers to try is one from Barney’s. This comes from the Behind the Wall brewbar in Falkirk, which I’m pleased to see is brewing again, and from what I've heard is also selling more exciting beer than the last time I visited it. Unfortunately the Lager Beer is awful, full of off flavours — taste this to find out why big mass-market lager producers prefer to filter the flavour out of their beer. I hope that these are teething troubles and will look out for Barney’s beers again.
There are two beers on sale from Bridge of Allan’s TinPot nanobrewery, one of the most experimental brewers in Scotland and best known for a notorious beetroot and black pepper beer. Unfortunately Thai Pot is already finished, but there is still some Marmalade Pot left. Marmalade beer sounds ace, I guess the inspiration comes from the yeast and hop flavours that are sometimes described as orangey – but it doesn’t really work. All the sugar has fermented out and just a pithy bitterness is left, otherwise for some reason it tastes more minty than marmaladey.
I’m determined not to miss Harviestoun Ola Dubh so order that next, despite its 8% alcohol and likely effect on my palate. It is tremendous. I am normally not keen on whisky barrel-aged beers because the results are often quite crude; I’d generally rather have my beer and whisky in separate glasses. I am glad that people are doing it, but I live in dread that all the third and fourth-rate micros are going to jump on the bandwagon and I’ll have to taste their horrible beers. Happily Harviestoun don’t fall into that category. Ola Dubh is as apparently effortlessly stylish as all their beers and it’s superb. Whisky and oak are subtly apparent, but don’t overpower the stout. Lovely.
More Tryst please. I’m always suspicious of beers named ‘Gold’. I think they’re going to be parsimoniously hopped and flabby. Gold XL is neither, it’s just brilliant, but I am too busy chatting to people to write down why, beyond “lovely and floral”. Blue Monkey BG Sips is next, which tastes of washing-up liquid, in a good, citrussy rather than soapy, way. Glencoe Wild Oat Stout from Traditional Scottish Ales is next. All their beers are quite sweet and it doesn’t work in all of them, but it does here.
It’s time to get the train back to Glasgow. Thank you Forth Valley CAMRA, see you next year.