Tuesday, August 23, 2016

#WestHighlandWay - A Drinker's Guide Part 4

The last two days of Mrs V and I's West Highland Way hike covered the 26 miles from Glencoe to Fort William, with an overnight stop in Kinlochleven. 26 miles of some of the most dramatically beautiful scenery anywhere on the planet. Rugged, moody, mountains, innumerable streams tumbling down the hillsides, lochs reflecting the ever changing sky, and, in the distance, the great hulk of Ben Nevis.

Before setting out from Glencoe, there were things to be dealt with, namely the blister that had been slowly building over the previous few days. It had got to the point where I couldn't actually get my boot on that morning, something had to be done. Given that hacking the entire toe off wasn't really an option, I made an incision in the blister and drained it thoroughly before Mrs V went into full on nurse mode and taped it up. Suitably booted we went up to the centre's cafe for a bacon roll, to discover to my joy that they had a full fry available, and so it was back to plates of protein and a pot of tea for breakfast. There really is no finer start to a day of hiking. Re-fuelled we headed out past the Blackrock Cottage, toward the Devil's Staircase and Kinlochleven.


The weather was perfect for hiking, cool, overcast, with the ocassional shower. Once I got going, the toe was fine, but if we stopped for more than a couple of minutes, getting going again was a pain that bordered on masochism. Sometimes though, you have to forget the pain and just revel in the countryside.


I have always loved this part of Scotland, and whether it when travelling home from university, Eastern Europe, or wherever I had been, it was when I got to Glencoe that I really felt back in my element. I love this part of the world, and still have a vague notion that one day I'll stop my wandering and find a place to settle among the mountains, preferably near the sea as well. The big challenge on this particular day would be scaling the Devils Staircase, which takes you to the highest point on the West Highland Way, about 1800ft above sea level, and affords you one hell of a view.


The rest of the day's hike is literally downhill, an almost dis-spiriting downhill at that as you follow the switchbacks into the valley with just tantalising glimpses of Kinlochleven itself. It was on this downhill trek that we ran in to Søren again, bedecked with new hiking shoes and as happy as the day was long having found an English chap to walk the way from Rowardennan with. As we continued on our way, Mrs V commented that she was glad to see Søren again and that he had found someone to walk with, soppy moment alert, but Mrs V really is a wonderfully compassionate soul.

Eventually we reached the bottom of the hill and headed for the centre of Kinlochleven in hopes of remembering where our guest house for the night was. Having failed miserably at the memory game, we popped into the Tailrace Inn to use the free wifi, and naturally slake the inevitable thirst that had built up. The Tailrace is a cozy little pub, just off the main drag, opposite the chippy, and with a draft selection that didn't really appeal in the moment, so I broke with my tradition and joined Mrs V on the cider, Bulmers I think it was, with an unnatural orange glow to it.


I drink much quicker than my lovely wife, so having located Tigh-na-Cheo, our room for the night, I went back to the bar for a closer inspection of the bottled selection, and joy of joys my old friend Bitter & Twisted was there. We would head back to the Tailrace that evening for food and another couple of pints, Bitter & Twisted being available in half litre bottles, before turning in for the night.

If ever you find yourself staying in Kinlochleven, Tigh-na-Cheo is a fantastic guest house, comfortable, a cracking fry in the morning, superb service (again with an Eastern European flavour, this time I think the staff were mostly Czech), and with an excellent range of bottled beer available on an honesty box basis, If you've spent the day hiking, they have absolutely massive baths, which are positively luxuriant after 6 days of just showers. Safe to say, Mrs V and I enjoyed our stay there.


The final 16 miles starts with a steep climb to make the Devil's Staircase weep, then on to the Lairig Mor pass that goes through yet more stunning countryside to Fort William. My feeble words can't do justice to the magnificence, so here's a few pictures instead.




It was walking through Lairig Mor that we needed our rain gear for the first time since Conic Hill as finally the famed Highland weather smashed into us, lashing us with driving rain and a stiff breeze that made limping along almost miserable, but for the growing sense of achievement of being on the final leg. Eventually you scale the last hill, just shy of Dun Deardail, and start the descent into Glen Nevis, with the Ben looming over you. We had originally planned to climb Ben Nevis the following day, but the state of my feet and the weather forecast put pay to that idea.

Coming down into Glen Nevis you are jarred back into civilisation as the final couple of miles are on a tarmac path into Fort William, past the original end of the hike, and along the high street to the official end. After 94 miles of mostly well maintained mountain trails, walking on tarmac again is a brutal return to the real world. Thankfully right next to the end of the West Highland Way there is a Wetherspoon's pub called The Great Glen. It seemed only apt for my first beer having completed the West Highland Way to be the Devils Backbone IPA, brewed specifically for Wetherspoon's.


My memory of the IPA is somewhat hazy now, and note taking wasn't really a priority with an aching body, and trying to decide where to have dinner that night, as well as the thought of the extra mile uphill to come in order to get to our accommodation for the night, an excellent place called Braeside House. I remember that it was very much an East Coast style American IPA, and that was just fine by me. We would return to the Spoon's that evening, having sat on a bench eating a fish supper, and a pint of Innis & Gunn's Craft Lager was downed with some disappointment, it was pretty dull stuff to be blunt, before taking ourselves off to the Grog and Gruel for a nightcap couple of pints from their beer engines. I don't recall what they were, but the condition was excellent, and the spot was duly hit.

When you take into account the getting to and from various guest houses, microlodges, and B&Bs, we must have walked close to about 110 miles in the 8 days we spent on the West Highland Way. The vast majority of pubs were exactly what I would expect from a Scottish boozer, and it was great to see beers from the likes of Harviestoun readily available pretty much everywhere we stopped. One thing that this trip reminded me of was that a good pub is not defined by its beer selection, its number of taps, or the hipness of the breweries they stock. Good pubs are places of banter, relaxation, and shared experience, good beer can help, but it's not a requisite. The night at the Climbers' Bar will stick in my memory for a long time as an almost perfect pub session, and they had all of 2 handpulls besides the more generic big brewery offerings, and the two hot toddies seemed to do the trick for Mrs V's sore throat.

Of course there was more drinking to be done while I was home, but we'll get there.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

#WestHighlandWay - A Drinker's Guide Part 3

Our stay in Bridge of Orchy made a nice break in more ways than just a comfy bed to rest our heads after a day among the hills. The folks at Taransay Cottage are vegetarians, and so breakfast didn't come replete with black pudding, bacon, and other sundry pork products, which was actually a welcome change despite being an unreconstructed meat lover. We had also spent the evening talking about hiking, music, and other stuff, so while I had a couple of bottles of beer, the only throbbing the morning after was the ever expanding blister on my toe.

I was really looking forward to the day's hike, we would be crossing one of my favourite places in Scotland, Rannoch Moor. Prior to our hike I had only ever seen the Moor from the A82, usually from the heights of a Skyeways bus (showing my vintage there!) to or from Uig heading to or from home, and I had always been enchanted by the expanse of empty moorland. Before reaching the moor though we had to cross Ben Inverveigh and pass the Inveroran Hotel too early in the day to be open. Having wandered past, cursing the time (as lovely as yoghurt, fruit, and bread is for breakfast, I was famished and wanted to keep my packed lunch a bit longer), we eventually came to Thomas Telford's drove road.


For those not versed in Highland history, the drove roads replaced the old military roads in the late 18th/early 19th century, and their primary purpose was to provide a better way for Highland farmers to drive their cattle to market in the south. It was on a remnant of that road that we would cross Rannoch Moor, and it was a bitch of a hike with my feet starting to scream with pain from my blistered toe, and a hot spot developing on the sole of the same foot. Still, the scenery was stunning and the actual hike not wildly difficult, but the relief as we started our descent into Glen Coe was palpable, and we noticed that there were still pockets of snow high up on the mountains.

We would spend the night in a microlodge, aka 'hobbit house', at the Glencoe Mountain Resort, where there is a cafe that sells beer, but we decided to drop our bags, shower in the converted shipping containers, and stroll off to the Kings House Hotel's Climbers' Bar. For those unversed in Highland hotel lore and custom, most hotels have a couple of bars, a lounge bar and a public bar. Lounge bars tend to be carpetted, upholstered chair affairs, while public bars tend more to the wooden floor and furniture. If you know me, you know where I much prefer drinking. Hotels also tend to insist that us grubby hikers of the world drink in their public bar, also known from time to time as a 'boots bar'.


Having wandered round the back of the hotel, for that is where hotel public bar doors usually are, I found myself looking straight into pub heaven. No carpets, solid wooden furniture, a hole in the wall bar with a couple of handpulls, and a bar back laden with single malt. Mrs V snagged a small table practically in front of the bar, next to a trio of climbers who had spent the day Munro bagging, while I got the drinks in, cider as usual for the wife, and a pint of Cairngorm Black Gold stout from one of the handpulls for me.


My previous experience of Cairngorm beer was when I was home in 2014, and while it was perfectly acceptable bottled, I wasn't left with any urge to find more of their beers. Black Gold though was in absolutely tip top nick this time, and it shone, The highest praise I can give it is that if you took my much missed Starr Hill Dark Starr Stout at its peak in around 2014, subjected it to proper cask conditioning, without the silly fripperies of bullshit additions, you would have Cairngorm Black Gold. It was divine, roasted coffee, dark chocolate, a silken mouthfeel, and as the drizzle floated in the glen outside, it was just the beer I wanted. The plan was simple, a couple of pints, a feed, and head back up the road to the hobbit house for an early night.

Well, that was the plan. The reality turned out rather different, though we did get the feed, and a bowl of whatever soup of the day was on certainly warmed the cardiac cockles. The plan, though best laid, started ganging agley while I was getting a second pint and Mrs V got talking to one of the chaps sat on the adjacent table, for some reason the bar staff were fannying about with the TV looking for football. As I mentioned in the previous post, Mrs V was starting to get ill and had taken a hot toddy in Crianlarich in an attempt to head off a sore throat, to little effect. I only caught snatches of the conversation as I stood waiting on the barmaid to give up with the TV, including advice to the effect that Irish whiskey is best used in hot toddies. A few moments later, with bread mopping up the remains of the soup, a toddy was placed in front of Mrs V, the lemon studded with cloves, something I had not seen before in a toddy.

Thus started a evening of banter, round buying, and being in a Highland bar at it's finest. With a few pints inside me, I decided it was time to indulge in my other barley based love, single malt. Behind the bar was Balvenie Caribbean Cask,a 14 year old whisky matured in rum casks, which goes very very well with cask stout you know. Rounds of whisky ensued, and eventually we had to head back out into the gathering gloom of a drizzled Highland summer night.

Weaving our way up the hill, easier said than done walking into the wind, the drizzle turned to rain, heavy and backed by a reasonable breeze, that made the final few hundred yards up the hill a struggle, honestly it was the wind and the rain, not the beer and whisky. Soaked and blootered, I passed out and slept like a bairn.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Session #114 - Roundup


For the August iteration of The Session I asked folks to go discover pilsners in all their glory, regardless of where they came from.

In Ireland, The Beer Nut went shopping for a blind three way tasting and found that identifying pilsners is no easy thing. Also Irish, though not in Ireland on the day of The Session, Reuben at The Tale of the Ale was actually in Plzeň, and wrote about the key ingredient for the eponymous beer, the water.

Pottering off further east, Jordan at Timely Tipple also took the core theme of my challenge to heart and bought a slew of pilsners to compare, and also reminded us that Evan Rail has written magnificently on the history of Pilsner Urquell. Meanwhile, the Bearded Housewife, who is currently in the Czech Republic "immersing [his] progeny in their Slavic legacy" took the time to remind us that for Czech folks there is only one Pilsner (a worldview that 10 years in the Czech Republic I have quite some empathy for).

Coming back to the Americas, Stan Hieronymous tells us about pilsners being brewed in St Louis, while in California Derrick breaks down another threesome of pale lagers.  Skipping up to Colorado (if memory serves) Tom Cizauskas from Yours For Good Fermentables uses Mozart as a simile for pilsner, and caused me to blush deeply when I read his post. Due south in Bolivia, Embracing Limitations praises contract brewed pilsners from Trader Joe's.

Finally, heading north to Canada, Alan has nothing to add.

I want to thank everyone that took part in this month's Session, and if I missed anyone, just add your link to the comments on this post.

UPDATE: Mike from Lost Lagers writes about one of my favourite beers right now (I was about to write 'favourite beers to drink' but what the fuck else do you do with beer?), Sierra Nevada's Nooner Pilsner.

UPDATE 2: I forgot to mention my own post, called 'Urquell and Not'.

Friday, August 12, 2016

#WestHighlandWay - A Drinker's Guide Part 2

Now....where were we? Ah yes that's right, Inversnaid. Having breakfasted at the superb Top Bunk Bistro, a fry up that included the world's greatest black pudding (from Stornoway for the unsure), we got a lift back down to the West Highland Way and continued our venture north.

The section of the Way from Inversnaid to the end of Loch Lomond was probably the single most trying part of the hike. It's not steep, it's not difficult to follow, it's not even a study in uninspiring countryside, nope it's just a narrow gauge rollercoaster with trees to the right and Loch Lomond to the left. It's almost claustrophobic, so that when you come out into the open expanse around Ardleish it's quite liberating to be done with the Loch, and then a few miles on you come to Inverarnan.

As you walk along the Way you can see The Drovers Inn from about a mile away, it teases you as the path drifts away and you wonder if you will ever arrive at the village, and then you arrive at Beinglas Farm and see this sign.


Suddenly all thoughts of walking an extra couple of miles for a pint and a feed go right out of your head and your feet throb just enough to say something along the lines of 'sod it, let's eat here' and you fall into a cozy little lounge bar, pretty empty, and you rejoice because a beer you love is on tap, and it will be the first time you have had it on draft.


I refer of course to Harviestoun's magnificent Bitter & Twisted, which is one of the inspirations for Bitter 42, the best bitter that I designed for Three Notch'd Brewing here in Virginia. Sure I've had it from the bottle many a time, but never before fresh from the tap, and what a revelation it is stripped of the abuses of bottling and long distance haulage, cleaner, crisper, hoppier, more delightful. So I had a couple with which to wash down my food, while Mrs V and I struck up a conversation with a Czech girl called Zuzana and the English guy she was hiking whose name escapes me.

By the time you are happily refreshed, the rain is looking ominous again, but when you aren't camping and have a B&B room waiting for you in Crianlarich, you just have to keep on going. The hike along the River Falloch was lovely going, despite the rain, and the mud, and the sheep shit, and the Mrs V suppressing her inner urge to hug on every form of livestock along the way whilst simultaneously being unnerved by the size of the sheep. The constant distant buzz of the A82 reminds you that civilsation isn't all that far away, and after another 4 hours plodding along, playing leap frog with families and couples that you end up on nodding terms with, you come to the side trail down the hill to Crianlarich, the Gateway to the Highlands.


Being Mrs V and I's 8th wedding anniversary I had naturally booked the smallest room in Crianlarich, old charmer that I am. Said room was at the inestimable Craigbank Guest House, a place I happily, and heartily, recommend to anyone looking for a room in Crianlarich. Obviously, being our anniversary I took Mrs V for a slap up meal to mark the auspicious occasion, to the pub next door, The Rod and Reel, where I saw a tap I had not seen in many a year, for Younger's Tartan Special.


I ignored the Tartan Special and went for the bottled Bitter & Twisted while Mrs V stuck with her cider, and eventually a hot toddy because she was starting to feel crappy. On a tip from Paul at Craigbank Mrs V had the chicken curry, while I went for an treat I loved at school, macaroni cheese and chips. Little side story, when I was a kid at school back home in Uist, the canteen had a weekly vegetarian day, it was on those days that discovered the delights of macaroni cheese and chips, with chips drenched in salad cream, I guess we all have weird things we loved as kids. Anyway, while it may have been the smallest room in Crianlarich, it was also a damned comfortable one, and the breakfast in the morning was a belter.

The next morning, Mrs V's birthday no less, we trudged back up to the trail, my right foot was starting to develop a magnificent blister, right on the tip of my pinky toe, which made getting going a little uncomfortable. Once momentum was gained though it didn't bother me all that much, and the walking was simply glorious as we made our way toward the Tyndrum Hills and the eponymous village, which has long been a stopping off point for my family on the drive north.

The Tyndrum Inn is a large yellow building that is simply impossible to miss, and it's public bar is an annex to one side. It was practically empty when we arrived, and so we leaned out packs against the bar and took seats facing the tap handles. I was in the mood for lager, I know you are shocked dear regular reader, and so ordered the Caledonian Three Hop, whose tap was beading profusely, and the dark golden liquid came in a branded mug. The beer itself was pretty good, though it became flabby as it got warmer, but I was drinking slower than usual so maybe that didn't help. However, the sweet potato and carrot soup was a corker that stoked a warming glow ahead of another 7 miles as we heading to Bridge of Orchy.


Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy was probably my favourite 7 miles of the hike to be honest, beautiful scenery and a good track underfoot so that my blister didn't bother me too much. We didn't go anywhere for a drink during our stay in Bridge of Orchy. The B&B we stayed in, Taransay Cottage, also did an evening meal by request in advance and so we shared a couple of bottles with the owners before turning in for the night.

There were three more days of hiking to come, and not one of them promised a midday pint, though plenty of evening drinking, so we'll leave that for next time....

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Session 114 - Urquell and Not


This month's Session is around the theme of 'Pilsners', I asked bloggers to find examples of the various subsets of the pilsner style and do a  little tasting and comparing, but first I have a confession to make.

Believe it or not, I have not always been a devoted drinker of Plzeňský Prazdroj, the original, eponymous, lager from Plzeň. That's not to say that I haven't always been a fan of Czech pale lagers, but in my first few years living in the Czech Republic I preferred Budvar, Velkopopovický Kozel, or Gambrinus. Then as I started breaking out and drinking lagers from small breweries I discovered wonders such as Zlata Labut Světlé Kvasnicové Pivo 11°, Koutský 10° Kvasnicové Světlé Výčepní, or Chodovar Kvasnicový Skalní Ležák.


Plzeňský Prazdroj was something I drank on the occasions when I went to places like U Pinkasů, Bredovský Dvůr, or Bruska. Sure I liked it enough but it was really only when Pivovarský Klub had a keg of the unfiltered, kvasnicové Prazdroj, that was normally only available in a couple of bars in Plzeň, that I realised what a magnificent beer it truly is. Now that it is available in the US, cold shipped in brown bottles, it is a fairly regular, though fleeting, visitor to my fridge.


It seemed only logical for this iteration of The Session then that I get myself some of the original pilsner and subject it to my slightly modified version of the Cyclops beer tasting method, but then I decided it would better to actually write about the beer than have a set of bullet points. Thus I poured a bottle into my hand blown glass from Williamsburg, and as I expected it was a rich golden colour, not yellow, deeply golden. The head that formed was a cap of tight white bubbles that just lingered. I took time to actually smell the beer, something that I find gets overlooked with beers you know well, and there was everything I love about Saaz, the closest description I can come to it like mown grass in a lemon grove, with just a trace of honeyed digestive biscuits in the background. That theme of sweet cereal and bracing hop bitterness continues into the drinking, and while I wouldn't say that I can tell if a beer has been decocted, there is something ethereal about the sweetness, it's almost dainty, lacking the clunkiness of caramel malts. Beautifully balanced, crisply bitter, clean, and thirst quenching, Prazdroj is a classic, simple as.


When trying to decide where in the pilsner universe to go next, Germany was the obvious destination, but which of the many, many, excellent examples of the style would I pour into my goblet? Really there was always a leading contender, a beer that I simply adore, Rothaus Pils. When Kardinal Hall opened up here in Charlottesville and I was able to drop $11 on a litre of Rothaus Pils, I was almost giddy with excitement. I was a little worried that bottled Rothaus wouldn't stand up to draught, what a silly boy I am sometimes. Where Prazdroj is golden, Rothaus is very definitely yellow, again topped with a firm white head that clings to the side of the glass. I don't know, nor particularly care, what hops are used in the beer, but they reminded me of summer meadows in the mountains of central Europe laced with lemongrass. The dominant flavour was that of wildflower honey schmeered onto a lightly toasted slice of homemade bread, with a bitterness that lingers in the background and build with every mouthful. The complexity of this simple beer is astounding and it is one that I never tire of drinking.



Having had the original, and then probably my favourite, where to go next? How about right up to date in the USA? I know there are people for whom Goose Island is off limits, for the same daft reasons as those railing against Devils Backbone, but when they released Four Star Pils a few months back I was eager to give it a whirl. This one pours a similar rich golden as Prazdroj, though the head here is slightly off white, as expected it sits around for the duration. The hops here are a mix of German and American, and it tells in the nose, a gentle blend of the German floral thing and a distinctly American citrus note, all dancing over a base of graham cracker malt. Drinking is a cascade of toffee infused graham crackers topped with bitter orange peel. Sneaking in the background is a light grassiness that sets off the sweetness of the malt nicely. Again a very nicely balanced beer, the bitterness of the hops drying out the finish to make it delightfully refreshing.


So what can be drawn from this little comparative tasting? There is scope under the pilsner umbrella for a raft of flavours and that hop bitterness is a key facet of the drinking experience. True pilsners are not bland in the slightest, and are very much a drinkers' beer. They are not built for sampling a few ounces of in a tasting room and cyberticking it on Untappd, but for engaging in real sociability with real people. So I encourage everyone this weekend to go beyond the IPAs, Belgians, and Imperials of this world, and have a few pints or litres of a pilsner.

Na zdraví! Prost! Slainte!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

#WestHighlandWay - A Drinker's Guide Part 1

I spent most of July back home in Scotland.

For the first eight days of the trip Mrs V and I hiked the 96 miles from Milngavie to Fort William along the West Highland Way, it was the first long distance hike we had ever done. We spent most weekends in the first half of this year training on the Appalachian Trail with friends of ours, one of whom has hiked the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. It became something of a tradition for us to hike in the morning and then head to the pub afterwards, and to a certain extent our trail choices were informed by whatever breweries and bars were nearby. There really is nothing quite as satisfying as that first pint after hiking for for several hours lugging a 30lb backpack with you.

If you've been reading Fuggled for any length of time you'll know that I love pubs, sure the beer is important, but I'd rather have a pint of Guinness in a good pub than drink some innovative IPA in bar full of crafties and trendies. All along the West Highland Way I found good places to drink, most with great beer, some with poorly constructed swill, but all nice places for a bevvy, a feed, and a rest.

Starting at the beginning, quite literally as it is just a few dozen yards from the official starting point of the Way, Mrs V and popped into the Talbot Arms the night before we started our hike. I will just say now that there are 2 magic words that will get me into pretty much any pub and I saw them as we walked past the Talbot Arms on a reccy mission, they are of course the words 'real ale'. Sadly, for all the buzz around beer here in the US, finding properly cask conditioned ale (without the addition of silly shit) is like finding a needle in a haystack. For most of the trip Mrs V was drinking cider, but seeing Kelburn Jaguar on a hand pull, I knew what I was getting, and it was everything you expect from a Kelburn beer, magnificent.


The Talbot Arms is in many ways my kind of pub, a good selection of beer, both keg and cask, staff that are friendly and efficient, and a good atmosphere - that hum of a friends talking, disagreeing, comparing notes, if you're a pub go-er you know what I mean. With a couple of pints of Jaguar in my belly, we wandered back to the Premier Inn to get some kip ahead of the first day's hiking, 12 miles from Milngavie to Drymen.


The first day of the West Highland Way, going north, is not particularly challenging. Of course it helps if your guide books haven't gone north in your dad's car and you have to buy a map before heading away from the obelisk that marks the start of the trip. The weather was ideal for hiking, never warmer than about 16°C (60°F), mostly overcast, and the occasional shower, though only twice did we actually need rain gear. That number would have been three if after 7 miles on stone paths we hadn't come to the Beech Tree Inn and taken the opportunity for a welcome pint. I tried a couple of beers, Loch Lomond's West Highland Way seemed apt, and rather tasty, then Jaw Brew Drop, which was likewise a fine beer, so I had another one. The rain had turned to hail by this point, so we sat under the shelters in the garden watching the clouds, chatting with other hikers and just waiting for the rain to pass on by.


With the rain easing and the clouds parting to reveal patches of blue we headed on to Drymen, and being a little early for checking into our B&B for that night, we wandered on the Ptarmigan Bar in the Winnock Hotel. We were the only people in the pub, so we dropped our packs and sat at the bar, where the hand pull had Leeds Brewing Vienna Lager on, naturally I ordered a pint, and it had gone to vinegar. On pointing this out to the barman the cask was pulled and an interim pint of Belhaven Best ordered, no questions asked, no attempts at telling me it was supposed to taste like that, no attempts at insinuating that I didn't understand what I was drinking, just simple, efficient, service. Bravo to the Ptarmigan, they will be held in high esteem in my world for that very reason. The replacement cask that eventually appeared was an absolutely smashing pale ale from the Home Counties that I can't remember the name of, or the brewery, oops.

Having successfully checked in to our bed and breakfast and enjoyed an afternoon tea with fresh scones and homemade jam, we set out to the Clachan Inn for dinner. I was looking forward to the Clachan, it had a good reputation online, is mentioned in the stand up of one of my favourite comedians, and is apparently the oldest licensed premises in Scotland. Maybe we caught them on a bad night, but the beer was flaccid, not bad per se, but in poor condition, again I don't recall what I was drinking, but I was starting to get into something of a funk because of the seemingly half arsed lamb burger I was eating. Now, I am perfectly willing to accept that I have been spoilt here in Virginia, but a burger in a dry bun with a single lettuce leaf and slice of tomato was something of a let down, especially for £15, that and lukewarm chips. Thank goodness the stunningly good pale ale was still on at the Ptarmigan Bar for a night cap.

Day two of the hike was our shortest day, but also our first decent climb, about 6 miles from Drymen to Balmaha, climbing Conic Hill on the way. Balmaha, it would seem, has a single boozer, the Oak Tree Inn, which was also where we were staying the night - rather handy as you can imagine. Again arriving before check in time, and this time getting slammed by a hail storm that blew in off Loch Lomond, pints were ordered and taken to an outside table to watch a married couple worry and faff over a finch hopping around near them. Again I was looking forward to Oak Tree Inn, but this time because they are part of the same concern as the Balmaha Brewing Company, again I was disappointed. The only Balmaha beer available was called Kiltwalker as they are in the process of building a bigger brewery. To be blunt, if Kiltwalker is representative of their beer, they should save their money, it was dire, with a distinct taste of cigarettes. Thankfully though the Dragonfly American Amber from Fallen Brewing was very good and in good nick from the handpull, and Belhaven Best was quickly becoming a reliable back up.


While I was not impressed by the Balmaha Brewing Company's beer, everything else about the Oak Tree Inn was excellent. The food, the service, the bedroom, absolutely top notch in my book, especially the bar staff, lead by a Polish guy called Marcin. A quick side note, but the number of times the service was superb and said service was provided by Eastern Europeans was astounding, it would seem the life blood of the hospitality industry at home is Czech, Polish, Slovak, or similar. I spent a good couple of hours at the bar that evening, enjoying a couple of shots of 12 year old Balvenie Doublewood and more of the Dragonfly.

Having breakfasted on a full Scottish fry up, with the added bonus of haggis, Mrs V and I set out towards Inversnaid, picking up a Danish hiker called Søren on the way who had got a bit confused with the route. Much of this section of the hike follows the shore of Loch Lomond, with all the midges that implies, by now I had the beginnings of my first blister of the trip. As the morning came to a close we arrived at Rowardennan, and decided to stop in the Clansman Bar, which is part of the Rowardennan Hotel. Having removed wet boots and dumped packs in the corridor the three of us snagged a table and I limped a tad to the bar and the sight of a WEST Brewing tap pouring St Mungo Lager brought much cheer to my heart as it was the first time I had the opportunity to try anything from a brewery I have heard much about. What a lovely lager it is too, I may have had three pints while Mrs V did the sensible thing of eating lunch.

Leaving Soren behind in Rowardennan we continued along the banks of Loch Lomond until we reached Inversnaid, where we would spend the night in a self catering apartment and go to the Inversnaid Bunkhouse and Bistro for a feed and a bevvy. My eldest brother, who did the Way last summer, recommended the Bunkhouse to us, and we would pass on that recommendation to all and sundry, the food was superb, the hospitality magnificent, and they have a very good bottled beer selection. As the evening was coming to a close I spied a bottle of Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted, which played the perfect foil to more Balvenie before bed.

That's where we'll leave it for now....more pints, pubs, and people to come.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Top Ten Virginian Beers - 2016

It's that time of year again, the first round judging for the Virginia Craft Brewers Cup is this Saturday. Once again I'll be driving up to Northern Virginia to take part, and as with last year missing out of the festival itself as I will again be accompanying Mrs V to fiddle camp in West Virginia.

Given the impending judging session then, I present to you my annual top ten Virginian beers that I have drunk since the last time I did this list, so without further ado.....
  1. Devils Backbone Brewing - Meadow Bier (5.0%). I know for some, a rather obnoxious and overly vocal some at that, Devils Backbone are off limits since they are now part owned by a much larger brewery rather than those upright honorable folks at investment banks or private equity firms, but that's their problem not mine. After a day of hiking the AT we swung by Devils Backbone and I saw those magical words 'German-style Pilsner' and immediately ordered a pint. Clean, crisp, absurdly refreshing, and delightfully moreish, so I had 5 more and asked Mrs V to drive us home (she really is a wonderful woman). While Meadow Bier is not the most regular beer I drink, Devils Backbone being something of a trek for a pint, it is the best example of the style I have had in ages and one that I will be making a bee line for this weekend if I drag the wife down that way.
  2. South Street Brewery - My Personal Helles (5.2%). This actually is the beer I drink most of at the moment. An unfiltered Munich helles which is beautifully balanced, firmly bitter, with a pillowy soft mouthfeel, and ideal whatever time of day. It has got to the point now that the folks behind the bar at South Street know what I want the minute I put my backside on the chair, it can only be a matter of time before they see me walking in and have a pint waiting for me as a get to the bar.
  3. Three Notch'd Brewing - Ghost of the 43rd (5.1%). Last year's number 1 beer, and always a welcome sight on the taps of the pubs and restaurants of Virginia. Still one of the most eminently drinkable beers available in the Virginia market, and now that it is canned, a fairly regular visitor to my fridge. While this pale ale has a massive hop presence, there is enough malt to stand up to it and actually make it interesting to drink rather than being a one-dimensional hop bomb.
  4. Champion Brewing - Shower Beer (4.5%). Get the feeling that I am very much a lager boy yet? Though this time the pilsner is in the Czech rather than German mould. A veritable medley of Saaz hops and pilsner malt. Simple but with the complexity needed to keep it interesting and expertly crafted, so much so that were I served this in the pubs of Prague I would be more than happy.
  5. Lickinghole Creek Brewing - 'Til Sunset (4.7%). Another returnee from last year's list, though up a place, 'Til Sunset is perhaps the best Session IPA I have had in the US (I'll ignore the 0.2% overage on the session status). As I said last year, the interplay of toffee malts and graprefruity hops just works perfectly on a late summers day sat on the deck wondering how many more days you can avoid mowing the lawn.
  6. Mad Fox Brewing - Altbier (5.5%). When my parents came to visit last November Mrs V and I drove up to Northern Virginia to meet them, so naturally a trip to Mad Fox was on the cards, my parents love the place almost as much as I do. Normally I go for one of their cask ales, either the mild or the bitter, but this time I saw the word 'altbier' and went German. Altbier is one of my favourite beer styles, and one that many American breweries do wrong by getting the sweetness from caramel malts rather than Munich malt. mad Fox got it emphatically right, add to the mix the woodiness of Spalt hops and you may as well be drinking in Düsseldorf.
  7. Three Notch'd Brewing - Oats McGoats (5.5%). Oats McGoats is pretty much the Ronseal of stouts, it does exactly what it says on the tin, it's a straight up oatmeal stout with all the silky mouthfeel that comes with it. Layer that with chocolate and roasty notes and a firm hop bite that cleans the palette but doesn't intrude on the classic stout flavours and you have the quintessential beer for the cooler days and nights, and a cracking pint to sit next to the fire with.
  8. Hardywood Park Craft Brewing - Pils (5.2%). Yes, yes, yes, another pilsner. First time I had this one it reminded me distinctly of Budvar 12°, a resemblance that continues to this day. A solid malt backbone with a clean, firm hop bite, and a touch of sweetness in the finish. I would love to try it unfiltered and krausened, but as is it is one of those beers that you simply can't go wrong with.
  9. Alewerks Brewing - Tavern Ale (5.5%). It had been a while since I had indulged in this wonderful brown ale from Williamsburg, and I was kicking myself for not bothering with it for so long. Rich and dark, sweet without being cloying, lots of complex malt fun going on. Superbly balanced and great to drink or use as an ingredient in cooking - especially for soaking dried fruit to go in a cake.
  10. Blue Mountain Brewing - Lights Out (7.0%). This Old Ale has become something of a winter tradition. Once it is released I get myself a case and leave it in a nice cool spot in my house rather than the fridge as the excessive chill ruins the beer. The wonderful blend of EKG and Fuggles hops makes this beer deeply earthy, backed up with a rich malt body, it is the ideal winter night cap, and is also well suited to a day's drinking when you have nothing to do but enjoy the coziness of home. Delish.
As ever this is purely subjective, based on what I have enjoyed drinking in the past 12 months, but each and every beer on this list I would recommend you try it if you see it.

Happy drinking!