Sunday, May 31, 2009

Scotland trip recap part 1: Edinburgh

Greetings from Aviemore, Scotland! As I type this, I'm sitting in my room, letting a pint of Cairngorm Wildcat work its way through my belly (or, more accurately, liver) and watching 40 Year Old Virgin. Yes, that's what's on BBC 4. However, while we're currently in Aviemore, the photo above is of Edinburgh, where we started our little journey six days ago.

I had hoped to blog about the trip throughout the week as we made our way through Scotland, but our first two stops didn't have internet access and we couldn't get our computer to log on at the third. So now, six days into our eight-day trip, I'm finally getting around to posting about the first leg of our trip. Unlike our Germany trip, I didn't take any tasting notes, but I think I still have some interesting tidbits to share.

We arrived in Edinburgh on Tuesday morning. It didn't take us long to end up at our first pub, the Halfway House. Now this isn't just any pub... It's the 2009 CAMRA Edinburgh pub of the year! While you like to save the best for last, I had a list of four pubs to visit based on various recommendations and it was the first we came across so in we went. Wow, was it awesome. It was maybe the size of my basement, and because it was mid-afternoon it was empty save two guys who I think were owners or managers or something.

My first pint was Stewart Brewing's Leinster Lightning, a dark cask ale from an Edinburgh brewery. I can't find any record of its existence online, but I thought I overheard that it was a dry-hopped version of their 80/- or their No. 3. It was nearly still with virtually no head. It also had a subtle malt sweetness balanced with a decent herbal hop kick. What was most noticeable from my first real ale was that their was a nutty quality that I believe is from oxidation. I know that many CAMRA folks get all in a huff if you use CO2 to blanket the cask so that it doesn't oxidize. It got me thinking... Maybe oxidation is to English cask ales what souring is to some Belgians (and now American wild ales): something generally perceived as a flaw that a small group of enthusiasts actually finds preferable. I wasn't ready to give up my amply-carbonated American and German beers for their cask-conditioned brethren, but I can see how it appeals to some and I definitely enjoyed it as a change of pace. I went on to try an Everards Tiger Best Bitter; Leah had a Cairngorm Trade Winds and a Houston Peters Well Bitter. We also had some great pub food, as you can see in the picture below.

The next pub we visited was the Old Bell Inn, where I tried haggis for the first time and actually liked it! I had tried "haggis bits" (nuggets of deep-fried haggis) at a great pub in St. Louis called the Scottish Arms, but didn't really care for it there because it had some flowery spices (possibly rosemary?) that I didn't think worked with everything else. Here, however, the spices were blended quite nicely. The barley gave it an interesting texture, but overall I couldn't see how people who like other types of sausage would find this particularly objectionable. I guess my best description would be a cross between sausage and meat loaf, if that makes any sense. That's haggis served with neeps (mashed turnips) and tatties (mashed potatoes) on the left.

The next day we stopped by the Guildford Arms, which was notable for two reasons. First, while the Halfway House was cool because it was so small and cozy, the Guilford Arms was equally opulent. Okay, opulent may be overstating it, but it was a gorgeous hardwood pub (as you can see to the right). The other great thing about the Arms was it served me my first pint that blew me away: Orkney Dark Island. I was starting to think that cask ale was more about the whole cask experience and less about the particular ale, and then I tried Dark Island. Now, I'm no stranger to the joy that is the Orkney Brewery (as evinced by the fact that I included their Skullsplitter in my Top 20 Beers post a while back), but I didn't expect this one to stand out so much. It was dark but not heavy, complex but not overbearing, and it had a hint of smoke that hit you up front and got your attention without overpowering everything else. Just an incredible beer.

After two days in Edinburgh, I was definitely digging the whole cask ale thing. I think it's a great way to enjoy a pint, and definitely a nice change of pace. However, I'm not ready to drink the CAMRA kool-ade and declare all other beer a fizzy mess. Anyway, I'll offer some concluding thoughts after we get back to the States. For now, however, we have lots more to recap. After two days in Edinburgh, it was time to jump in our silly car with the steering wheel on the wrong side and head west toward the Isle of Skye!

Jump to Scotland trip recap part 2 here.


Blogger Brian said...

great stuff. I'm a HUGE fan of the cask, and truth be told, if I had the option (well I HAVE the option..but it's pretty damn inconvenient) I would probably drink cask conditioned beer 80% of the time (I think I'm actually able to pick out and appreciate the oxidization nowadays).

Isent it funny how American programming can be so enjoyed when traveling abroad. I remember being in London and watching "The Dark Knight" and being happy as hell..but then again I WAS an extra in that movie..yeah I'm kinda a big deal.

Enough rambling - point is this was a great post!


3:55 PM, June 02, 2009  

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