Guide to Drinking Beer in Scotland
|Outside the Moulin Brewery.
“Have you tried the beer?”
The question was predictable enough, and caught me off guard all the same. Despite the sign outside prominently advertising free tours, I didn’t think the lone employee would actually stop what he was doing to bother with an inquisitive imbiber nosing around his workspace. Yet that’s precisely how I met the brewmaster for Moulin Brewery. A tiny operation just outside the town of Pitlochry, Moulin is one of nearly a dozen Scottish craft beer producers where the art and science of brewing can be witnessed firsthand—but only if you’re willing to skip a distillery or two in favor of a foamier fermented beverage.
Most people associate Scotland with whisky, not beer. In fact, a great many of them travel there just to try their favorite single malt right from the source. And given that the national drink (or pastime, as some might argue) accounts for more than ten percent of Scotland’s total export revenue, it makes perfect sense. Preferring to enjoy my malted barley in other forms however, I planned a trip that led me to the makers of some of the country’s best tawny-colored ales instead.
Airfare costs being what they are, my friend Kate and I opted to begin our formal education in Glasgow, the cheapest city to fly to from New York. Little more than novices when it came to Scottish Ales, we figured a bit of palate prepping at a proper pub should be our first stop anyway. Day one consisted largely of museum hopping and window shopping, but when jet lag finally caught up with us we were more than ready to find a warm and comfortable place to tuck in for a few hours. The Babbity Bowster, an excellent if somewhat difficult-to-find pub in the old Merchant City, met our qualifications nicely: no televisions, a homey, historic interior, and a decent selection of local beers to choose from. We arrived late in the afternoon on a chill day and as a result, skipped the small outdoor seating area. I started with one of their guest beers, an amber-colored Cotswold Lion from the Hook Norton Brewery, while Kate went for a diet IRN-BRU instead. Non-alcoholic yes, but Scottish nonetheless.
Nearly everyone in the tidy, well-lit establishment appeared to be Glaswegian but the majority of the dark green and white booths remained empty as we watched the sky slowly darken through the four large windows overlooking Blackfriars Street. In fact, the scattered conversations were low enough that I felt somewhat self-conscious talking with Kate about the options I had for my second drink. And with 11 others on tap, it wasn’t an easy decision. Finally selecting Caledonian Brewery’s award-winning Deuchars IPA, I decided that this pale ale would go particularly well with an affordable—even at the punishing exchange rate—cheese-plate-laden with enough apples, grapes, celery, and the ubiquitous Scottish oatcakes to quiet two growling stomachs. With six well-appointed, mid-priced rooms upstairs, we could have continued quaffing well into the evening, were it not for our ambitious agenda.
Judging ourselves suitably prepared for bigger, bolder beer challenges, we settled our bill and the next morning rented a tiny turquoise Ford Ka. Heading for the Highlands we drove past Fyne Ales in Argyll, but only paused long enough to refuel on fish and chips in Inveraray. I should add at this point that it is possible to reach many parts of Scotland by train or bus, but impractical for anyone wishing to visit breweries beyond those orbiting the largest cities. A car enabled us to chose our destinations, and linger at them as long as we liked. Before we made it to Moulin however, we spent the night in Fort William on scenic Loch Linnhe. Our itinerary didn’t afford us enough time to see every mash tun and conditioning tank we had hoped to, but this lively town is within striking distance of Black Isle Brewery in Inverness, Cairngorm Brewing Company near Aviemore, or closer still, Atlas Brewery, another place where intrepid beer hunters can sample unique brews on a free evening tour, held daily expect for Sundays from Easter until late September.
As with Black Isle, Cairgorm, and Atlas, an informal tour and tasting is free at Moulin, and it’s also possible to enjoy all of their drinkable products at the adjacent 300-year old inn. Mike the brewer, who was still wearing dark blue coveralls emblazed with the logo of his former employer, Bell’s Scotch Whisky, said he could make about 20-21 kegs a week and showed us his gravity-fed method for filling the small metal barrels. When asked about the difficulty of his job, he replied matter-of-factly: “You just keep things clean and stick to the recipe really.”
Of the four ales on tap at the Moulin Inn, I went for the malty, ruby-colored Ale of Atholl, and Kate the rich, smooth Old Remedial, but apparently the medium-bodied draft called Braveheart is their best seller. Unsurprisingly, its popularity (and in fact inception) coincided with the release of a certain Oscar-winning film sharing the same name. As Kate and I sat outside at a wooden picnic table enjoying our half pints, I don’t remember being the least bit concerned about Hollywood though, or even the fact that I hadn’t yet laid eyes on a spirit still; on the contrary I was already daydreaming about the beers I could taste on a tour of Stewart Brewing in Edinburgh (£8 per person includes food refreshments and a welcome pint) or perhaps even adjusting our plans to allow for a stop in the Scottish Borders to appraise one of the oaky Traquair House ales before heading back to the States. A tour of the house and grounds, which includes the eighteenth century brewery, costs £6.50 and is offered from March to November.
Actually, of all the Scottish craft beers we tried during our eight-day trek, my two favorites came from the same place: Unst. And while I would have gladly tasted them at their place of origin, the remoteness of the Valhalla Brewery—on the northernmost of the Shetland Islands—entails a detour of cask-sized proportions for most travelers. On the other hand, passing through the Orkneys on the way would enable intrepid hop heads a chance to see the Highland Brewing Company—makers of Scotland’s Champion Beer for 2008 according to the Campaign for Real Ale. For better or worse, my tour will have to wait for another visit, although I won’t hesitate to recommend Valhalla’s Island Bere, a smoky ale brewed with heritage barley, and the stronger, full-bodied Sjolmet Stout.
The excursion didn’t take me to every Scottish brewery, and out of necessity I haven’t cataloged every beer variety here either. With a bit of effort, you can discover your own favorites by procuring bottled versions of numerous Caledonian brews through international distributors. But that shouldn’t stop you from experiencing the fruity pleasures of Rope of Sand (made by Fyfe, arguably Scotland’s smallest commercial brewer), or the malty sweetness of the Hop Rocker, from Brew Dog, a new microbrewery in Aberdeenshire, straight from the tap. There’s no better way to try them.