Here I’ll continue an epic series of blogposts about our trip to the British Isles this summer. Much like last year’s trip to Germany and the Czech Republic, this was a self-organized tour with our friends Jim and Lori Stroner, as well as my wife Sarajo (Sj) and myself. I’ll be posting a day-by-day travelogue of the trip as I organize and go through my multitude of pictures. While the posts won’t be fully about beer–there will be a focus on good pubs, real ale, distilleries, and food! So here goes: enjoy!
The UK Beercation 2019 Day 8: Edinburgh
After a nice English (technically Scottish) breakfast at our B&B, we packed everything up into the small SUV, stacking luggage atop Lori and I in the back seats. We seemed to keep accumulating more things (box of beer, whisky bottles, etc) as we travelled.
The Ship Inn
We were headed for Edinburgh, but needed to stop for food along the way, ending up in the cute coastal town of Limekilns at The Ship Inn. This was another adorable old building right across from the coast, serving tasty Haddock fish & chips and hosting a couple of local cask beers including Brew Shed’s Gellet Rock American Pale Ale (tasty but not hoppy enough to stand up to true American Pales). The place had a cool display of tap handle signs hanging from the rafters over the small bar.
I should probably take this time to give an overly simplistic talk about the serving of beers in the UK. What Jim and I were looking for in our pubs was the presence of traditional cask beer. This is live beer stored in casks, which actually finishes fermentation in the cask–becoming naturally carbonated. This is how beer was handled everywhere back in the old days, before the ability to force carbonate with CO2–how the majority of beers are treated these days. This natural carbonation, as well as the room or cellar temperature of the cask is what gives English beer the reputation of being flat and warm. Yes it is warmer than the ice cold American beer, no frosted glass, no mountains that change color when it is cold enough to drink. But the warmer temp allows more aroma and flavor nuance from the beer. This type of beer is also served with a beer engine (or hand pull) which is basically a tap handle that you have to pull towards you and pump a few times to draw the beer into the glass. It is a bit of a learning curve, but once you get used to this method of serving the beer, you don’t want anything different! It also makes all the English style beers you have had in a bottle or on regular tap back home seem like a totally different beer from this. The nitro tap (think Guinness draft) was actually designed to mimic this style of serving but with more consistency in beer handling.
Cask beer or “Real Ale” was in danger of extinction back in the 1960’s to 1970’s, and a group naming themselves the Campaign for Real Ales (CAMRA) was formed in 1971 as an attempt to rescue the failing beer serving methods and brands of the past. With the craft beer boom in the states and cross-pollination of ingredients and ideas, there has been a resurgence in these Real Ales. Even back in Minnesota we have had events like Firkin Fest at the Happy Gnome to celebrate this method of serving, and if you are lucky you may find a cask of Summit’s beer in a cask from time to time. I think I’ll save discussion of the actual beer and flavors for another post, since I’ve gone all long-winded on this! Suffice to say that Jim and I didn’t put any pubs on our list unless they had at least one Real Ale on tap.
Back in the car, we passed throught the rest of the village, the low tide to our side, boats sitting on now dry ground, the scent of the sea tickling the nose. This section of the trip was a bit long, but Jim drove us well. Finally we arrived at Edinburgh (pronounced inexplicably Ed-in-Burro). We ended up at the first Air B&B of the trip, fairly close to the center of the city. We had arranged this due to need for a washer/dryer (starting to run out of clean clothing–especially with unscheduled trips through the swampy mires in Scotland). There was plenty of space for all four of us, as well as a nice little patio and kitchen.
Once we had tossed our luggage inside we had to hoof it across town to get to our pre-organized tour of Edinburgh Gin Distillery. This is a tiny distillery located somewhat hidden in the basement of an old building–much like the speakeasies we once had back in the states during prohibition. They have several types of tour available, of which Sj had booked us into the Gin Connoisseuer Tour.
Our tour guide, Kara, had a wicked dry sense of humor and a fantastic scottish brogue. We got a fun history of Gin, as well as a look at the tiny little copper stills. They now do distilling of their main Edinburgh Gin at a much larger site in an old bisquit factory as well. After the tour side of things, our tour group was ushered into a small dome-ceilinged cubby with a large shared table. Here we were led through 3 gins, two liqueurs, and a G&T. The favorite for Sj and I was the 1670, a limited run gin made with botanicals from the Royal Botanical Gardens. We purchased a bottle of this at the wee shop around the corner. Seriously, I had to duck and only 2 people will fit in this tiny shop. By far this was the most fun I’ve ever had on a distillery tour.
Beer Information on Tied Houses!
Here is our obligatory beer information section to the blog, since I want our beer-centric readers to keep paying attention! I’m going to cover the concept of Tied Houses here, but keep in mind, I have not done extensive research on this subject.
A Tied House is classically a pub or bar that only serves one brewery’s beer. These pubs are often owned directly by the brewery and function sort of like American taprooms as a way to get beer directly to the public. In America, this was very common prior to prohibition, and often led to some pretty outrageous business practices and brewery wars. When prohibition ended, they set up the 3-tiered system of brewery distribution as a way to limit this type of establishment and those laws have remained in place until very recently. Many states still have these laws in place to this day.
A Free House is basically a pub that allows multiple breweries to sell beer there–this is pretty much where we are at for most bars and pubs nowadays.
When we were in the UK, we did find some Tied Houses like —– that had only Sam Smith beers on tap. Most of these would have an associated brewer listed on their main sign. More of the places we visited would have all one brewery’s beers on cask, but have a couple of ciders or macro beers on regular taps as well. I think overall the Tied House concept is dropping due to customers wanting more variety in their beer options.
After getting all crunk on gin and juice we ended up stopping into a Brewdog pub for a taste of some Scottish craft beer. This is not the actual brewery but would be considered a Tied House I guess, though they did have a couple of guest beers and ciders on tap as well as Brewdog beers.
Interestingly Brewdog is one of the few modern breweries to embrace the Tied House concept and buy/build pubs all over the UK. We tried a few very good beers here including the praline porter Zombie Cake and the best Northeast IPA I’ve had outside the USA. They had a lot of options here, including some rare bottles of their own and some guest beers including some from the states. The vibe here was more like an American brewery taproom–industrial, larger, noisy. We did also try the best non-alcoholic beer (Ok 0.5% ABV) that I’ve ever had: the Punk AF IPA.
We took a detour into the older section of the city and had a stop at the large Warhammer store for my benefit. I used to play Warhammer 40K and Fantasy Battle back in the 1990’s and had dreamed of someday getting to one of the UK stores filled with amazing miniatures, so this was high on my list. Interestingly, they now have a Warhammer store in Eden Prairie Minnesota! Unfortunately, they had no BloodBowl stuff, which is what I was mainly looking for. Still a fun stop for a mega-nerd!
Our next stop was Arcade restaurant and whisky bar, near Edinburgh Castle. I’ll count it as a pub in my running tally. Arcade was listed as the premier place to try Haggis in Edinburgh, as well as hosting over 100 whiskys. Yes please.
Maybe we should talk about haggis for a second. Something of a cultural joke dish, like Lutefisk for Norwegian Americans, haggis is something most Americans have never tried and sounds fairly gross to our often timid tastes. Traditionally haggis was made of mostly sheep offal meats like lungs, heart, and liver, stuffed into the sheep’s stomach with onion, suet, oatmeal, and spices. Due to concerns about sanitary practice Scottish haggis has been outlawed in the US for over 30 years. I’ve had it once, at a Burn’s Dinner at Terra Waconia and it was very good. Once you get over your prejudice against any “innard” meats haggis is good!
Arcade’s haggis was upscale, with layers of mashed potato and turnips, topped with haggis and swimming in a rich whisky sauce. The ladies ordered the Princess Diana version with a Drambuie cream sauce that was equally as good. Consider the texture as like a loose or crumbly meatloaf. Later in our trip we saw/tasted haggis bon-bons, as well as atop a hamburger. I finished my serving with a Dalmore whisky sampler that was pricey but very smooth and worth it! This had been a long day, so we called it an evening and walked back in the fading light to our abode.
If you want to hear the episode of A One Pint Stand where Dan and I recap the entirety of my UK Beercation, click on the link below. If you like the podcast, subscribe so you don’t miss an episode!
Ruined Abbey/Churches: 5
Unesco World Heritage Sites: 3
Sheep Innards Ingested: 1