Friday, 26 June 2015

I drank bitter all night


I didn't intend to go to the Glasgow Real Ale Festival and spend all night drinking bitter from old-fashioned family breweries. I really didn't.

But as soon as I got into the hall and saw that there were five Harvey’s beers on sale my fate was more or late sealed. I love Harvey's and it's so rarely seen up here that I will take any chance I get to drink it, even though in principle I approve of the fact that it's hardly ever distributed far from its home turf.

The sweet yet dry and austere flavour of Harvey's is common across all the beers I sample from the proper 3.5% IPA to the stronger, sweeter Thomas Paine.

A new brewery in Great Yarmouth, Lacons, seems to draw on brewing heritage for inspiration too – it is named after a defunct former brewery in the town. Head brewer is Wil Wood, formerly of Fyne Ales, which is probably why the festival organisers have chosen to stock the beers. On tasting them the Wood signature of a clean, satisfying hop edge is immediately apparent. I've wanted to try these since Wil left Fyne, and I was not disappointed. The glorious 8% Audit Ale is rich and luscious with fresh orangey notes rather than the shrivelled raisin flavours found in other barley wines. A substantial resiny hop bitterness balances it out.

But it’s so luscious that a half is enough. I am greedy and try to cram in a second at closing time, and it's too much.

Theres wood of a different nature further down the bar. Theakston Old Peculier is by all accounts not the beer it once was. I only have it because it comes from a wooden cask. You can really taste the wood, notwithstanding Ron’s research suggesting that you shouldn’t be able to. It doesn’t save the beer though, which tastes of treacley water that's had some pencils in it.

You'd think that people wouldn't come to a beer festival to drink beers as common as Timothy Taylor Boltmaker, but they do. Well, I do. This mousy, unchallenging beer is subtly addictive and massively drinkable.
If Old Peculier has lost its mojo, on the other hand, I am reasonably sure that Timothy Taylor’s and Harvey’s beers have not changed much. There’s surely a reason these old-school breweries are so revered. So I spent my evening mostly drinking those. Not a bad choice, and there's always tomorrow. The G-RAF is on until Saturday.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Iain Turnbull

A while back I went to a brewer’s funeral. Iain Turnbull was a man I hardly knew at all—in fact I only ever met him twice; but he made such an impression on me that I had to go.

Iain was the type who would, and did, do things like request a Welsh-language census form while living in Stornoway, just for the fun of being wilfully vexatious. He worked at Courage before moving to Brains in Wales, took a break from brewing for some years and returned to work in microbreweries when they started to appear in Scotland. He was involved in the re-establishment of brewing in the once-famous brewing town of Prestonpans, and was one of the group who set up Restalrig and then Fisherrow breweries in Edinburgh, but the sudden death of their managing director David Murray hit the latter business hard and it closed a year later.

Iain was a believer in the adage “If you want something doing properly, do it yourself,” and had elected to conduct his own funeral service from beyond the grave, via a pre-recorded CD. It was something of a surprise to suddenly once again hear his light, melodious voice that had never quite fitted his beardy exterior. Before the service I had been told a rather indiscreet anecdote about Iain by an old friend of his, but Iain himself managed to outdo this by some margin. It was certainly one of the more eccentric funerals I have attended: the coffin arrived in a brewery van carrying three empty casks on its roof in the departed’s honour, and once we left the chapel to the strains of “Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside” we were taken to the highly-regarded Staggs pub in nearby Musselburgh, where Iain’s funeral beer was on tap.



When I first met Iain he had already been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had been featured in the press as the brewer who’s brewed his last beer with the proceeds going towards a cancer charity. This extremely strong and sweet beer had been in cask for three years since it was brewed. Iain had actually brewed his “last” beer several times, having neglected to die when the doctors had predicted he would. The last time I saw him a few years ago he was still working, consulting on some brewery project or other down south.

For a terminally ill man, I had thought Iain showed remarkable devotion to the cause of beer when he made the not inconsequential journey from his home in Stornoway to central Scotland to work at CAMRA beer festivals. But at the funeral one of his daughters mentioned that he had later undertaken even more arduous trips to South Wales to visit them — by public transport, mind you.

I meant to get in touch with Iain and interview him for this blog, and now it’s too late. The breweries he worked at, Restalrig and Fisherrow, are in danger of being forgotten, because they didn’t survive, coming in a rather odd period when the likes of Tryst and Fyne Ales were being set up but the explosion of new breweries of recent years hadn’t started yet.

There’s a much better tribute to Iain than I could write here, and some history of Fisherrow, in the form of its archived website over here.






Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Wait, yes it IS your grandad’s homebrew – so what?

It’s a truism that advertising and other PR campaigns are disproportionately aimed either at the young and would-be hip, for reasons which are better explored elsewhere. It seems to me it’s as true of beer as of anything else.

Why the rest of us should care what the young and fashionable are drinking, however, remains something of a mystery. Nonetheless, much of the discourse – especially in the mainstream media and especially around beer festivals – focuses quite unnecessarily on demographic aspects. Does your beer festival attract young, trendy people? Great! Do an older, beer-bellied and tatty-jumpered crowd come? Uh-oh – no double page feature in the Sunday paper for you!

So it was quite refreshing to hear from the PR agency of the charity Royal Voluntary Services. Over the last weekend the RVS put on a one-day festival in Hoxton, GrandFest, “celebrating the craft skills of the older generations.”

Eight masterclasses were on offer, each given by a practitioner over 70 years old who has been doing it for years. One of the classes was homebrewing, given by George, who claims never to have drunk commercial beer. Here’s a wee video:



I asked George a few questions about his brewing.

I wanted to know whether George, who said in the video he’d been homebrewing since the 1970s, had done it continuously since, or given up for a while like many others. Continuously, more than ten litres of beer and wine a week, was the answer.

George’s favourite kit is Premier Bitter and he likes blackcurrant and elderberry wine,  although he says the Elderberry can take years to settle.

What commercial beer did George drink, if any? None! Only what he made.