Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Drinking My Way Through Scotland and England

I recently got back from a trip to Scotland and England and was asked to do a report on the beers I drank. This was my first trip to Scotland and my return to England after 12 years. Both England and Scotland have a long and colorful brewing history. In addition to this I was also asked to write a whisky report for the Jewish Single Malt Whisky Society, so I had a lot of drinking to do. My game plan was to stick to one style of beer, Cask Conditioned Ales, though there were occasions when they were not available. I travel a good bit for work and personal reasons, when I am on the road, no matter where it is, US or abroad, I always ask for the local hooch. In Europe this is especially satisfying.

Scotch Ale (Classic Beer Style)
Here is a book about
how to make
Scotch Ale
What is a Cask Conditioned Ale? From Wikipedia “Cask ale or cask-conditioned beer is the term for unfiltered and unpasteurized beer which is conditioned (including secondary fermentation) and served from a cask without additional nitrogen or carbon dioxide pressure.” To pour from the ale they basically have to pull it out of the cask and the ale will need a few moments to settle, kind of like waiting for a Guinness. Now a myth about all English beer is that it is served warm, this could not be further from the truth. Many taps you see might say “Carling Extra Cold”. While the Cask Ales are not cold, they certainly are not warm. The casks are kept at what’s called, cellar temperature. These ales have lower carbonation than most beers are also lower in alcohol content. Many between 3.5%-4.5%ABV. They will make you piss before they give you beer goggles. But over all are good sessionable beers.

My trip was 5 nights in Edinburgh, and 4 nights in Lincolnshire, England, near Brigg to be exact. I was traveling with my wife and her parents. My father in law proved to be quite the partner in crime in trying new beers. Here is how this worked, Waiter, “Would you care for a beverage”, Me, “Any local Ale on draft” Father-in-law, “what he’s having”. Pretty simple but we tried about 20 different ales and other beer throughout this trip. (To go along with 45 different whisky samples). No I was not a stumbling bumbling loud Yankee. Some of the beers where half pints, and spread out.

I had the chance to visit a fair amount of pubs in Edinburgh, and will mention a couple now. My favorite was called the Bow Bar, not only did they have an amazing selection of whisky, well over 200 to choose from but they also have a nice beer list featuring many local ales and several imports. The featured brewery of the month was none other than Flying Dog from Frederick, MD. This was a small pub and though it is in a very touristy part of town, it attracts a lot of locals. You know you are in good hands when the sign at the front door says no fancy dress or stag parties. The bartenders are friendly and knowledgeable.

One cool walking tour we did was the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour, I won't mention specific pubs as it's not fair for the tour guides, but this was a cool way to visit 4 historical pubs you may not get a chance to visit on your own. This was well worth our time and I highly recommend it. The guides are actors playing their roles as they take you from pub to pub as they teach you about the drinking habits of famous Scottish writers. They give you time to score a drink at each pub then you sit around and watch the show. I was able to try five whiskies and three ales during this tour.

As it turns out the first beer I had was the best and ironically it was called Belhaven Best, from none other than the Belhaven Brewery in Dunbar, Scotland. Belhaven Best is a cask conditioned ale coming in at a whopping 3.5% ABV. It’s a smooth beer with a nice hazy but amber color and a small but creamy head, and not much on the nose. It was not a very strong tasting beer but had a nice balance of mild hops, and some maltiness, but not an overpowering flavor at all. An easy drinking ale that I thoroughly enjoyed, BBA rating of a 7. On a side note I went surfing in Dunbar and wanted to visit this brewery but was short on time and had to get back to Edinburgh, I did surf in Belhaven Bay though.

Another beer I had was Deuchars IPA, from the Caledonian Brewery, unlike American IPAs this was not a hop bomb and was rather drinkable at 4.5%. This had a hazy orange/amber color. It’s a little sweet and pretty sessionable, I enjoyed it and will also give this one a 7. This was out of the bottle.
One of the most interesting beers I had on the trip, from was from Innis & Gun, their Oak Aged beer, coming in at a trip high of 6.6%ABV. This is brewed in Edinburgh and the bottle claims is has hints of toffee, vanilla, and oak, which I would agree with. It had a deep golden tint with a light yet bigger head. At first it was refreshing, then creamy and carbonated at the same time, eventually it was kind of tough to finish. There is a lot going on and a very interesting beer indeed, but it just didn’t sit that well with me. I would encourage you to try this if you can but cannot give it more than a 5 on the BBA scale.

Now two English Ales from the Tom Wood Brewery in Grimsby England. Yes, the Grimsby of the little known Elton John song, (thanks Blair). The first is their, Harvest Bitter at 4.3%ABV, from their Web site “A mellow beer, pale amber in colour with a subtle hint of Lincolnshire honey in the aroma. Sweet and smooth in the mouth with floral notes lingering in the finish.” My thoughts, bitter, long, and unpleasant aftertaste: BBA rating, 4. Next up, their Best Bitter, 3.5% ABV., their description, “An easy drinking bitter with a fresh dry hoppy flavor combined with a fruity aftertaste and heady aroma.” Me, tasteless, odorless, that’s all there was to it, BBA rating, 4.

Lastly one beer I liked from England was London Pride, 4.7% ABV, this is from Fuller’s Brewery in London, and I was lucky enough to have the cask conditioned variety. After all the Tom Wood’s beer, this really was a treat. This had a darker brown hazy color with a creamy medium sized head. Was a nice drink overall and I give it a BBA rating of 6.

Overall, I had a great time, but after a while the ales seemed rather bland. Sure there were a few standouts and when I go back I’ll certainly will drink the local hooch again but I have no burning desire to run back just for the ale. Though if I do see anything from Belhaven stateside I won’t hesitate to pick it up. On my next trip across the pond I hope to have more time to explore other types of beer, but for this trip I thought narrowing my focus would make it less daunting. Overall, I give the ales of Scotland and England a BBA rating of 6. Somewhere higher others where lower. I will say that the ales where a great way to cleanse my palate in between whiskies. Scotland is a fantastic place, the people define hospitality and I can’t wait to return. To read my report on whisky visit www.jewishsinglemaltwhiskysociety.com


  1. Glad you enjoyed your trip. Edinburgh is a great place to drink. You seem to have encountered some of the most popular ales – like in any country, these tend to be the blandest. Next time you are over, try to find something from Orkney, Fyne Ales, BrewDog or Harviestoun breweries.

  2. Will do thanks for the heads up. I actually have a BrewDog in my cellar. Would love to visit Orkney as well.

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