Scotland 2011

Becky and I decided to head out of Portland, hopped on I-205 North, and a couple of turns later ended up in: Scotland.  Alright, there was a bit more to it than that, but this isn't a blog that specialized in travel planning.

Most beer drinkers in Scotland—who care about what they are drinking—are firmly planted into two camps: traditional real ales and emerging craft beer. I'm using the word emerging here as compared to much longer held beer traditions, even though craft beer has been emerging in Scotland for well over a decade. I did notice a bit of crossover between these two camps, but staunch traditionalists vigorously wave the flag that reads "Real Ale or Nothing!". While this rally cry is an important to the real ale movement, I can't help but think it was born out of a fight against the demonized mass produced, sanitized, beer, which used to be the only other option to real ales. As breweries like BrewDog and Black Isle Brewery gather a foothold in the Scottish beer scene, beer drinkers do have another, non-evil option.

To check out the real ale scene right here in Oregon, check out Brewers Union Local 180 located in Oakridge, OR. Fantastic, and true to tradition.

First of all, what is real ale?  Let's start of with the definition from the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA):  "Real ale is a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask (container) from which it is served in the pub through a process called secondary fermentation. It is this process which makes real ale unique amongst beers and develops the wonderful tastes and aromas which processed beers can never provide."  Tired of pasteurized, growth stunted, status-quo beers, CAMRA was formed to support the traditional, cask matured, still fermenting, wood leeching, hand pumped deliciousness that comes straight from the cask.  This beer is naturally carbonated.  This beer is alive.  This beer will keep changing and evolving from one day to the next.

CAMRA goals:

  1. Protect and improve consumer rights
  2. Promote quality, choice and value for money
  3. Support the public house as a focus of community life
  4. Campaign for greater appreciation of traditional beers, ciders and perries as part of our national heritage and culture
  5. Seek improvements in all licensed premises and throughout the brewing industry

Despite the above definition for real ale, CAMRA also includes bottle conditioned beers under it's umbrella of real ales. While not served directly from a cask, these are beers that still contain active yeast when they are bottled—usually more yeast is added at bottling for further growth and fermentation.  Most bottle conditioned beers also rely solely on the natural carbonation from the yeast, rather than being injected with CO2 as most cans, bottles, and kegs.  Keeping beer alive and natural is at the heart of the discussion at CAMRA.   Bottle conditioned beer is the connecting point between the two beer camps as we'll see with Black Isle Brewery, which has a line of Organic Live Bottle Conditioned Beers.

Scotland 2011: Inverness
View from our room at the Craigside Lodge. If you're headed to Inverness, definitely check out the Craigside Lodge B&B: right on the river, and right next to the Castle Tavern.  Great view, quiet but centralized location, and Ewan and Amy are great hosts!

When we got to Inverness, we found out that we were staying less than a block from the Castle Tavern.  Having done little to no beer research, this point was lost on us at first—we were simply told it was a place to get a proper pint.  With about 5 cask beers available, almost all Scottish, the pints were indeed proper.  Within two nights, all of the cask beers had rotated to brand new selections.  Over the next couple of nights we sampled (too) many beers and whiskys:

  • An Teallach: Ale
  • Atlas: Three Sisters—4.2% ABV
  • Cairngorm Brewing Co.: Wildcat—"5.1% ABV, A deep amber coloured ale with a complex malt and fruit flavour, with a delicate bitterness from Challenger and Fuggles hops. Strong and distinctive."
  • Cairngorm Brewing Co.: Howler—"4.2% ABV, Rich flavoured Russet (red/brown) ale. Very smooth with lots of fine condition. The initial strong malt flavours gives way to bitter sweet estery finish with a hint of blackcurrant."
  • Isle of Skye Brewing Co.: Red Cullin—"4.2% ABV, The Skye Brewery's much-prasied flagship ale. Reddish-hued, slightly malty and nutty in character, smooth to the taste. A multi-award-winning ale, named after the well-known hills of the Isle of Skye."
  • The Orkney Brewery: Corncrake—"Introducing our new seasonal ale Corncrake! at 4.1% abv, it is a straw Gold colour with a white creamy head, soft citrus fruits and floral notes."
  • Fyne Ales: Vital Spark—"4.4% ABV, A very dark ale with a glorious reddish glow. A full bodied ale which is rich in taste with a dry finish."
  • Springbank—10 Year Single Malt Whisky
  • Cragganmore—12 Year Old Single Malt Whisky
  • Tomatin—12 and 18 Year Old Single Malt Whisky
  • ???—One of several undecipherable scribble on a napkin. The best I can figure is that it might say "R2-D2", but I'm not sure if that has anything to do with beer or whisky.

A quick look at the descriptions and you'll notice that the ABVs on these beers are really low when compared to the high-octane beers that many craft breweries in the U.S. are pumping out. The first thing I thought when looking at the list is: I don't think I've had a beer under 5% ABV in a long, long time.  For the 382 Portland beers with ABV information that our site is currently tracking, the mean ABV is 6.65% (Min/Max: 4/13, Standard Deviation: 1.74).  Add in my tendency to reach for the bigger beers, and you'll see I'm way out of my comfort zone with these sessionable beers.

Many of the real ales that I sampled were variations in the red/amber color spectrum with very subtle hop characteristics: less bittering, and much less floral/citrus contributions than we are used to in this region.  Side by side, they were definately distinct from each other, but much less aggressive than many of our local beers. For me, most beers were reminiscent of the Special/Extra Special Bitter, English Brown Ale, and Brown Porter categories. While the real ales I sampled tend to practice subtlety, served at cellar temp, these live beers can still be complex, usually showcasing the malt side of the ale. For a local taste of this tradition and these styles of beers, check out Brewers Union Local 180. It's the perfect way to see what real ales are all about and well worth the trip down to Oakridge, OR.

The next installment of this article will cover the "new" faces on the Scotland beer scene like Black Isle Brewery and BrewDog.

Article continues here >>.

Check out the rest of the photos here.