Wednesday, 29 May 2013

We’re all going on a Summerhalliday

Nice space for a pint, whether there’s a festival on or not

It’s summer in Edinburgh, making for a long, hot walk down to the south side. The Summerhall complex is soon found and, well, I think I deserve a crisp glass of refreshing beer on a day like this.

Summerhall is a new – what shall I call it? arts centre, venue space, something like that. The Germans would say a “social centre” and that’s what it reminds me of most. They tend to be old industrial or commercial buildings with their former purpose remembered in the name, generally unimaginatively called “The Old Printworks” or “The Old Station” or some such thing (in this country, of course, we prefer to demolish the old buildings and throw up some shoddy flats in their place). The old courtyard of the veterinary school that once occupied the buildings makes a pretty good beer garden, and the various spaces are being used for arts events and let to start-ups.

This part of town is beer central: as well as Summerhall, there’s the biggest homebrew store I’ve ever seen, the excellent off licence Great Grog, the Cask & Barrel Southside for old-school real ale and The Southern for the trendy and rich. All within a couple of streets of each other.

The beer is made behind one of those wee doors on the left
For beer lovers the most exciting feature is that the complex features its own microbrewery. The beer connection is fitting since the site was the Summerhall Brewery a hundred years ago before the vet school was built. Logically, the new regime was keen to bring brewing back to the site.

Barney’s Beer has been operating for a few years from the back of a former brewpub in Falkirk. Unfortunately, the beer was generally dire. With the move to Edinburgh, I am extremely happy to report that the quality is much improved.

Before I even get my first beer I’ve spotted the two people I expected to see here. Adam, who puts in more miles hunting beer around Scotland than anyone else, and Rich, who writes more about Edinburgh beer than anyone else. They helpfully point me in the direction of the bar. In the beer festival, on the first floor, it’s deserted – everyone is sitting outside in the sun, those lucky enough to have grabbed a seat at any rate.

Nonetheless there’s still a queue for beer. Around fifteen beers are on offer, only two from Barney’s (the third has sold out). I have the porter which is a tad dull but there’s nothing wrong with it. Volcano IPA is more interesting with a decent hoppiness, though it’s a little slick and sticky. This is supposedly a version with New Zealand hops. If anything it tastes more European to me.

The brewery itself is located in a side building off the main courtyard, and is tiny. With Andrew “Barney” Barnett (who is much better looking than the caricature of him on his bottle labels) standing in the middle of the brewery, from where he can touch the copper with his right hand and the fermenters with his left, it’s the shortest brewery tour in the world – once you’re in, you've seen everything.

As befits a beer festival on this historic site, I bump into a couple of chaps I know from the Scottish Brewing Archive Association. They’ve got a stall and the original floor plans of the old brewery up on the wall.

Wanting to drink outside in the courtyard, we head to the temporary Inveralmond beer wagon. This is pushing their Sunburst dvanáctka (Bohemian Pilsner fae Scotland, as the posters declare), with their other beers relegated to bottles in the fridge, which, given that Sunburst is currently only 2% of their production, indicates where the brewery thinks the opportunities for growth are.

I’ve spent a bit of time recently transcribing head brewer Ken Duncan’s anecdotes about Inveralmond’s Czech yeast strain for a forthcoming issue of the SBAA’s Journal. So it felt like a nice reward to finally get around to tasting the beer.

Do you know, it’s very good indeed. Lovely and bitter with a bit of malt sweetness and nice hop aroma. I like it better than any of their ales, in fact. A rather nice smoked sausage from the stall up the stairs rounds it off pretty well.

I like this courtyard – I expect it is a splendid place to sit on summer evenings even without a beer festival. But as there doesn’t seem to be much chance of getting a seat in the courtyard, it’s time to split and head round the corner to the Cask & Barrel Southside. A lovely basic, empty pub with the odd group of men sat at tables studying pints of cask ale. There, a new Alechemy beer I haven’t seen before, Starlaw. Full of raw bitterness, it’s not my favourite of their – Alechemy and Tryst are the two Scottish breweries who on occasion produce beer that’s just too bitter for me. Great Heck Voodoo Mild is good, but past its best and the next time I go to the bar it’s finished. But replacing it is Raw Zenith, 3.7% and pale and hoppy. Yum. At this stage, anything stronger would have wrecked me, so I’m glad of it.

Disclosure: Inveralmond Brewery offered me a complimentary ticket to the Summerhall festival. I would probably have gone anyway.

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