Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Linger on those pale (beers under) blue skies

Although it's only the second year, Fyne Ales' summer festival is already a firm fixture in the Scottish beer drinkers' calendar. The formula is simple: great beer in breathtakingly beautiful surroundings.

It looks remoter than it is. In fact it's only just over an hour on the bus from Glasgow. A couple of people even cycle up. I'm not that hardcore and the hike of just under a mile from the bus stop to the brewery is enough for me. My timing is perfect and I have just enough time to put my tent up before the bar opens.

Jarl was launched at this festival last year and went on to become a minor cult, enough so that it was upgraded from a seasonal to a regular beer. It was one of the first Citra beers on the market and was followed by a rash of similar ales as brewers realised that Citra beers are pretty much guaranteed to succeed.

So everyone was waiting to taste this year's seasonal – well, I was, anyway. Outdoing Jarl is a formidable challenge to any brewer and I wasn't convinced it could be done.

The new beer is called Fiddler's Gold and is 4.3%. I like it, not everyone did, but even though both are pale'n'oppy it's a quite different drinking experience from Jarl. It has none of the citrussy notes. What it has is intense, medicinal bitterness. Clean and vaguely lagery, it uses a new hop, Delta (bred from Cascade and Fuggles) and Perle, which is possibly where the lageriness comes from.

Did I mention pale'n'oppy? This must be the top pale'n'oppy festival line-up in Scotland. Marble, Hawkshead, Thornbridge, Otley, Moor, Steel City, Oakham and more. When I comment on this, head brewer Wil shrugs and says "I just bought beer from my mates", which is as good a way of choosing beers as some others I can think of. There are dark beers as well but the straw-coloured session beers definitely predominate.

My next scoop is one from the ultimate scooper brewing company, Steel City. Riot in Paradise has a lot of yeasty flavour and doesn't taste anything like the claimed 100 IBU. Good but not outstanding. Quick halves of Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout and Hawkshead Windermere Pale don't quite live up to my expectations of them, based on memory in the first case and other people's opinions in the second, though both are good.

Should I take the brewery tour? I'd already been round it last year, and it's not a big place. What's changed since then? Three new fermenters? OK, I'll go and look at fermenters then; that's always fun (I am quite serious, I do really like seeing fermenters, especially when they're full of beer).

Wil is leading the tour and it draws a substantial crowd; about 30 people are crowded round the mash tun as he explains the brewing process. Every time I am here it amazes me that such stunning beers come out of this tiny brewhouse – there literally isn't room to swing a cat, at least not without it hitting the brew kettle. The set-up is not unusual: malt comes down a pipe from a grist case mounted in the ceiling into the mash tun. If you want to know the exact mash temperature and boil times you'll have to go and take the tour yourself. Most of the beers have a little wheat in them for head retention purposes. Hops are all whole and the aroma addition is 5 minutes before the end of the boil.

Then it's into the cold room where the tall fermenters dominate. It smells lovely. All that beer … Yeast health is a priority here, explains Wil, since they are operating at capacity and if the beer isn't ready to cask he doesn't have a fermenter to put the next brew in.

There's a treat for visitors on the tour – a cask of two-year-old Benleva IPA (5.7%) is set up. It's smooth, mellow and oily. Actually, there are two treats, because there's also some Alchemy X111 from Thornbridge Hall, an American brown ale which is dry and roasty. So yes, the tour was a good idea.

Back outside the sun is shining and someone is playing Johnny B. Goode on the fiddle (it's better than it sounds). Some of the local lads have discovered Oakham Attila, because it's the strongest beer at the festival. Uh-oh. Me, I've moved on to Thornbridge Evenlode; like coffee liqueur chocolates in liquid form. Marble No 3 Pale Ale is GOOD and Thornbridge Sequoia isn't really, though not bad as such, just not to my taste, too oxo-cubey).

Earlier in the day one might have questioned the wisdom of having Fyne's 6.8% Sublime Stout and Thornbridge's 7.7% St Petersburg at a festival in the sunshine. I recall avoiding them last year for fear of falling over. Now, as the temperature plummets, we move on to these and gather round the bonfire in an attempt to keep warm. Drinking Sublime Stout by firelight while hippy girls sing California Dreamin' in the distance isn't the worst way to end an evening, and as I settle down in my tent I chance upon a passage in the new book from Charles Bamforth: "beer is never better than when drunk close to the brewery". Charlie's right, I think.


  1. I can't add to your comments about Fyne ales, having drunk much less of them than you, but I can say that the title of the post is one of the most willful bits of lyric-mangling I've seen (outside of The Beer Nut's blog).

  2. Great write up - sounds like a fantastic festival! Unique location, close to a brewery, lots of pale and hoppy beers for the sunshine and then some stronger, dark stuff for the night time.

    We should try and get a load of bloggers up to it next year. The Beer Monkey suggested a twissup - sounds good to me!

  3. You said the same thing last year Mark ;)

  4. You can't fault his consistency or enthusiasm!

  5. lovin the title musical reference also.

  6. I agree with the write up , what a wonderful weekend it was. My sister and friends were camping so Im wondering if it was them who were singing "California Dreamin" A big thank you to Tuggy and her family for a wonderful weekend. Cant wait for next year.