Scotland trip recap part 4: Black Isle and Cairngorm Breweries
After leaving the Isle of Skye (and almost running out of gas between Kyle of Lochalsh and Inverness... don't you think there'd be a petrol station somewhere along the 80 miles of highway between the two cities?) we headed east to Aviemore, a town in the southern Highlands that is almost like Vail or Breckenridge here in the States; it's a skiing and outdoors hotspot, lying at the foot of the Cairngorms National Park.
However, before we got to Aviemore, we stopped at the Black Isle Brewery. Black Isle gets a lot of attention because it's an organic brewery. While I may ruffle some feathers by saying so, I could care less about organics (in fact, to the contrary, I am concerned that organic farming may actually use more resources than conventional farming; that being said, as long as people have done their homework I respect whatever decision they reach on the issue and I'm really not interested in debating it on this blog). My concern is singular: is the beer any good? I'm happy to answer strongly in the affirmative when it comes to Black Isle.
Before I get to their beer, I should recap their tour. Unfortunately, since we were there on a weekend, we weren't able to talk with any of the brewers there but our tour guide was wonderful. The brewery isn't terribly big (as you can see in the picture to the right) so the tour was pretty quick. We were informed that the brewery will be expanding to a new building, but it was inspiring to see what they've done with a pretty small brewhouse (as you can see with the picture below, their bottler only does two at a time).
On to the beer... Like many newer Scottish breweries, they aren't terribly beholden to tradition. They did have a Wee Heavy in their lineup, but even that had a roast malt quality that didn't seem quite to style (though it was very good, mind you). While I enjoyed many of their beers, two stood out. The first was their Heather Honey Ale. I don't have any tasting notes (and it's too late for me to bust open one of the two bottles of it that I brought home) but their website describes it as "a triple style golden ale made with honey gathered from the heather covered highland mountains." At 7.5% ABV, it had a nice alcohol kick (uncommon for a UK beer) but more importantly nice Hefeweizen-like esters that kept this drinkable. A great beer.
The other Black Isle beer that blew me away was their Export Oatmeal Stout. Another high-gravity beer, the rich, roasty flavors--with, again, just a touch of smoke--helped mask the alcohol warmth. Readers of this blog know that I am in no way biased towards high-gravity beers, but both the Heather Honey Ale and the Export Oatmeal Stout had tons of flavor that really impressed me. I was definitely glad we decided to stop by Black Isle on our way to Aviemore.
Once arriving in Aviemore, we quickly made our way to Cairngorm Brewery. Cairngorm was a little bigger than Black Isle, but not much. One interesting thing I learned from their tour... They skim the active yeast from the top of their fermenters at high Kräusen to harvest yeast for future batches. When I pointed out that most of the brewers I know take their yeast from the bottom of the conical fermenters, our guide's response was, "But this is top-fermenting ale." She had a point, I suppose. Funny how many brewers do different things different ways and good beer results either way.
After the tour, we got to try their entire line-up which consisted of eight different ales. Like Black Isle, Cairngorm was willing to push the envelope on its beers though its lineup still felt decidedly Scottish. The night before our tour I enjoyed a pint of their Wildcat on cask, and I'd have to say it may have been my favorite beer that truly seemed in the Scottish tradition (nice and malty with a hint of roastiness and just enough bitterness... awesome). At the brewery, my favorite beers were their Blessed Thistle and their Black Gold. The Blessed Thistle is (as you might guess) bittered with thistles rather than hops. They then use both hops and ginger towards the end of the boil. It was unique without being too spicy or medicinal. The Black Gold is described as a "Scottish stout." Based on my tasting, that term means the roastiness of a stout along with the caramel sweetness of a Scottish ale. It won the CAMRA Champion Beer of Scotland in 2005 so I'm not the only one who likes it.
For our last night in Scotland, we enjoyed dinner at the Old Bridge Inn. Since we were in the Highlands, we decided to go with the Highlands venison steak marinaded in juniper berries (awesome) and an Aberdeen Angus sirloin (somewhat disappointing; I probably should've gone with the ribeye instead). I enjoyed final pints of Cairngorm Stag and Caledonian 80/- on cask. For dessert, Leah got one last helping of sticky toffee pudding while I decided to go with a wee dram of Balvenie whisky. I'm somewhat obsessed with Balvenie because it's one of the only distilleries that still floor malts, and when I return to Scotland I really want to tour it. Anyway, I found the Balvenie much smoother than the Talisker, somewhat fruity with honey notes. If it had just a bit of peatiness, I probably would've brought home a bottle. As it is, I think it could still be a good gateway whisky for me.
Towards the end of the dinner, we met a German couple and ended up having one last pint with them. I commented that I studied in Germany and the wife commented that she studied at the University of Illinois. Go figure. I suppose it was appropriate that I would end up using my limited knowledge of the German language on our last night in Scotland since we intend on returning to Germany for our next vacation.
The only other thing to note before we returned home was that we were able to sample an authentic (or so we were told) Cornish pasty. This was particularly exciting for us because pasties are common up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, as well as nearby northern Michigan where Leah is from. I found the Cornish variety to be a little more stew-like than its Michigan cousin, which is thicker. On the whole, though, it was pretty similar and damn tasty. A fitting end to an awesome vacation.