Sunday, May 20, 2012

Oban, Beer and Breweries

We decided last-minute to hit Scotland in our travels, and semi-randomly picked Oban as a destination since I knew there was a distillery there and it was the last stop on a branch of the scenic West Highland Railway.

I hadn't really thought much about beer in Scotland, other than the fact I could finally try a lighter Scottish ale on tap (which I did at the bar below our room: a McEwan's 70/-).

Then during one of my regular trips to Tesco, I discovered some interesting Scottish craft beer.  Who knew?  I suppose I should have.

Now what goes best with the neeps and tatties?

OK, the Caledonian might not be "craft", but it was good, a classic.  That is, until I tried the Black Isle Organic Red Kite Ale - slightly hoppier, but a definite step up in flavour and balance; it was the standout.  The Dark Island - from the Orkney Islands - was also a winner, with a nice smokiness from barrel aging.  The Island of Arran Sunset was the most local, being brewed on Arran Island a wee bit south of Oban - it was pecuiliarly sweet for a light pale ale, but it worked well & was refreshing.  (Arran Island is in Scotland - not to be confused with the Aran Islands in Ireland.)

And for those of you wishing more craft brewers in the Cascadia/Pacific Northwest region made lower-alcohol beers, this area would be right up your alley - most craft beers are well below 5%, and a Scottish Light (60/-) is one of the lowest-alcohol beers around.  If that still isn't good enough, Tesco can up the ante for you with something like this:

Yep, 2.8% alcohol.  No, I didn't purchase a Mighty Atom.  (Sounds like the name of a 1950s "better living through science" home nuclear reactor kit.)

On a day trip to Ellenbaich (tiny, TINY village near Oban), we ran across this sweet-looking little brewpub, which was unfortunately closed for the exact period of time we were in town.  Drat.

Some locals told us there was actually a brewpub in Oban, that was even bottling its beer and selling it locally.  Oban Bay Brewing is situated in the back room of the Cuan Mor restaurant and bar, which is right around the corner from the distillery in the middle of "downtown" Oban.  We grabbed dinner there on our last night in town & had a few samples.  All were low-alcohol thirst-quenchers, and passable if not mind-blowing.  I thought the 3.9% ABV Kilt Lifter was a zesty summer thirst quencher, though the light touch of hops and the almost complete absence of malt flavours, body and alcohol make calling it an "IPA Ale"[sic] questionable.

The next morning, the head waitress was nice enough to give us a tour as the brewmaster (one of the restaurant owners, self-taught since the last brewmaster left) wasn't in.  This is probably the smallest commercial-production brewery I've seen, apart from the (unbelievably good) Hess nanobrewery in San Diego.  Everything was in one room (except bottling equipment) - wood-covered vessels, malt storage, hop fridge, etc.

The whole brewery

The hot tub... whoops, I mean mash tun

We had aborted our plans for a day trip to the Isle of Mull, which we regretted when we later discovered it is home to Isle of Mull beer.  But it turns out that Oban Bay and Isle of Mull are owned by the same company (Argyll Brewing or some such thing), so we didn't feel too disappointed.

We ran out of time to see another craft brewer in the area, whose bottles appeared in several pubs - Fyne Ales.  They are situated roughly 30 minutes from Oban on a working farm and produce shop that is open to the public, and tours are available.  Apparently they feed their spent grain to their cattle, whose beef you can purchase on-site!

If there's any lesson here, it's that some advanced planning/research is pretty essential if you want to find and gain access to non-mainstream beers/breweries when travelling.  I'm sure I'll return to Scotland (because it's fun and the people are wonderful), and I will have a better knowledge of my craft beer travel options before the next trip.

If you're visiting Oban, I would target Fyne Ales and Arran Island Brewing for local tour/sampling destinations, based on what I've heard/tasted.

1 comment:

  1. While in Scotland last fall I tried a bunch of very mediocre cask ale, some reasonably decent bottles, and then Fyne Ales which was in a league of its own. Luckily we've had bottles show up back at home over the past 6 months, so I'm hopefully we'll see them reasonably consistently.

    If you're debating taking a ferry over to Islay for a night by the way, don't hesitate. It was a fantastic experience, one I'd like to repeat in the future. (But avoid their island brewery, Islay Ales. Especially on cask.)