Part Two: The North Is Coming
“The North is coming!” cry the beer nerds of Scotland and Northern England, in shameless reference to those bold, glory-seeking fictional beer nerds from Beyond the Wall. In the North, I learned, a brewing renaissance is underway. The dominance of CAMRA-established uniformity I talked about in part one cracks steadily under the small but building onslaught of US-influenced, globally inspired nano- and microbreweries. Edinburgh is full of tiny, endlessly cross-pollinating knots of brewing brilliance, a beer microculture not entirely unlike those I’ve found surrounding Boston and Detroit.
Below I review a lot of bars in no particular order, though I did save some of the best for last. One week, fourteen pubs (plus repeats), miles and miles of walking over hill and under dale, too many pints to count, and thanks in great part to all that low ABV I raved about in part one, only one hangover! The fish and chips and bangers and mash blurred together; the beers and the bartenders did not. I prepared an insufficiently researched beer tour map ahead of time; it got thrown to the wind. What I found instead was better. I have updated the map—open it in another window and follow along.
Nicky Tams – The farthest we got from Edinburgh, to visit Scotland’s historic royal seat on a rainy afternoon that turned out to be the Queen’s diamond jubilee (her 90th birthday, 21-gun salute echoing back from cloud-mottled pastures). We were herded into this local dive by a girl distributing coupons along the route back from the castle hill. Excellent venison burger, decent fish and chips, comparatively generic taps: Belhaven’s Best, Guinness, Deuchars IPA (sort of the Sam Lager of Edinburgh—which is not a dig), Strongbow. But a relief from rain and tired feet. Alone with the cook on the second floor beside an empty one-mic stage and an 80s tube TV playing some 80s Mel Gibson film, we complimented his work, he got to chatting and revealed a trend in “authentic” country pubs we’d experience later firsthand: a couple of national companies have been buying them up, preserving the atmosphere (and, to our relief, the beer), but elbowing out the kitchen staff and replacing the menu with the mass-produced. Downstairs, I had to work to avoid drunken argument with the bartender, who despite showing me up with actual knowledge of my country’s politics compared to my nigh-nil of his, for some reason thought Mitt Romney was the shit. Two pints, then back out into the rain.
The Bow Bar – Bow is one of the winding side streets curving steeply down off the Royal Mile. We used it often heading home to bed. Across the street from the Bow Bar: a gourmet cured pork establishment and a boutique t-shirt shop featuring Snow White in bandolier and balaclava. Inside, worn, lacquered wood, framed period news clippings, maybe eight tables total and a long bar without so much as a stool. All cask, all great, local stuff. We walked by once at lunchtime, found the place full of old guys (CAMRA dons?) and were deterred, but came back later to find the old guard replaced with the more familiar bepladded, tattooed hipsters. Here we figured out nobody bats an eye if you ask for a half-pint, or even six half-pints over two hours. Thus allowing us to taste a good portion of what was offered without spilling off our non-existent stools. Anyway, we needed a break after the previous day’s hangover. Can’t remember it all, but there was a fine dry stout and several varieties of Stewart’s, an excellent Scot brewery of which we tried all we could get our hands on.
The White Hart – On Grassmarket, a cobbled square in the castle’s shadow. A tourist bar, but claiming to be the oldest in the city (14th century, though heavily and repeatedly renovated since then), and named after the majestic fairytale creature that roams the forests in the west reaches of Narnia (and also appears associated with the royal line in Scottish legend), so how could I resist? Low ceilings, mirrors, bags of crisps on sale behind the bar for hungry drunks after the kitchen’s closed (a touristy bar warning sign if I ever saw one). Mostly mass-produced draft (with those giant branded glowing tap towers seemingly more interested in selling you on the excessive coldness of the beverage than its quality), one or two casks and some satisfying comfort food. Erin chatted with some American college girls, I thanked my stars I’d grown out of that sort of vacation, and on we went.
The Hawes Inn – A big white cottage inn overlooking the Firth of Forth, between a motorcycle shop/kilt dispensary and the enormous pilings of the Forth Bridge, off which a crowd of Rotary Club youths spent the entire duration of our visit rappelling for charity. Or something. The dining room was sprawling, mazelike and crowded for Father’s Day; we looked rather out of place. I had some delicious fried haddock, bitter, Yet Another perfectly delicious cask Deuchars, and a too-sweet blackcurrant cider. With rare exception, the cider on draft in pubs here is like what we get back home, uniformly sweet, lightly carbonated, low alcohol with reasonable to middling apple flavor, not much tannin or oak or acid. The room we sat in had amazing door lintels, big old slabs of oak, been there for centuries. I would have liked to shave some off and age my cider in it for a year.
Hunter’s Tryst – In the suburbs, ten minutes walk from the Pentland Hills, to which our steps were pretty much fated to lead as soon as I saw its name on the map. Though I never killed a mammal on purpose, I have long harbored a slightly insane romantic nostalgia for the hunter of old. Spent much of my college years listening to Jethro Tull’s Songs from the Wood on repeat, that kind of thing. This was a wee bit of a let down, particularly coming off the high of a seven-mile trek over gorgeous hills. It’s one of those pubs that’s been bought out and corporatized, and subdivisions have grown up around it long since any frost-bearded hunters propped their muskets in the umbrella stand. In its favor, though, the bartender there will now replace in my imagination every archetypal bartender I’ve ever read about: snappily dressed, knowledgeable, treated us like we’d been regulars since we were born. I wanted to climb over the bar and give him a hug. They also had one of my favorite ciders of the trip, Old Rosie: seven percent alcohol and nicely oaked, though I still wished for more bittersharps in the blend.
The Sheep Heid Inn – On the far side of Holyrood Park, another quite long, exhausting, beautiful hike with glorious reward. Hidden at the end of a narrow old lane that fetches up against the tumbled, rocky cliffs of Dunsapie Crag, the Sheep Heid makes reasonable claim to being the oldest continuously operated pub in Edinburgh nee Scotland, and has done a way better job not selling out than others making similar claims. Six or so varieties of standard but decent cask in addition to the mass-produced, lovely inviting room practically empty at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, stereo playing some very enjoyable Zeppelin &c hard rock, loud. The retired couple at the next table gave us odd looks and (I gather?) grumped about us in Gaelic. I consider this a plus. I drank, among other things, Great Grey Owl—billed as an American Pale Ale but very obviously an English Pale Ale, low ABV, biscuity, brewed with slightly more and more aggressive American hops. Worth trying just to experience the culture-shift, but not strictly what I was there for. I guessed how many jelly beans were in a big jar in hopes of winning a free bowl I could never cash in on at the historic alley in the basement. Then we walked all the way back around the hill to collapse at our B&B.
Bennets Bar – Two minutes walk from our B&B (and thus our local!), a very traditional, not remotely touristy pub full of (actual) locals, with an absolutely beautiful bar. Food somewhat terrible (canned beans!), beer solid, about half microbrewed cask half mass-produced draft (which ratio seemed about standard for a decent pub). More Deuchars, more bitter, more cider (Aspall if I recall). Scotch too, but if I got into that we’d be here all night. I got a glimpse through a trapdoor to the catacombs when the bartender had to go down to put on a new cask. Wished I could go down and explore.
The Athletic Arms – A serendipitous stop on our way to the Caley Sample Room. Great building, on an acute-angle corner. Formerly known as The Diggers—located directly across from Dalry Cemetery, it was originally a pub for gravediggers! Now a nice sports pub, lots of creamy cherry wood, central bar, football on the tele. Again we had half-pints, trying not to wear ourselves down. I tried an elderflower pale ale: straw-colored, dry, slightly floral, with a very interesting bitter character and mouthfeel that made me glad I only had a half. And still more Stewarts—quite liked their scotch ale, still low ABV but with more noticeable maltiness, which I had begun to crave after all those easy-drinking cask bitters. One of Edinburgh’s football teams, Hearts, were suffering some financial woes with an uncertain future. A newslady came in with her cameraman and asked everybody’s opinion. “We’re Americans,” we said apologetically, and she walked on.
Caley Sample Room – Now we’re getting to the cream. A gastro-pub in the best sense by which we know it in the US, with locally sourced produce, fancy dishes, obscure beers you’ve never heard of that change every week, all hand-pulled. Walls adorned with posters for obscure American and Belgian beers. Here I drank the hoppiest IPA I had all week, decidedly unamerican in body and mouthfeel but with an impact as murderously bitter as the most murderous of the West Coast vanguard. Which is not my favorite thing in the world, but once in awhile worth having for the reminder you’re alive. We waddled out of there drunk and stuffed to the gills.
BrewDog Edinburgh – BrewDog is a successful regional microbrewery chain, poster boys, I daresay, for that whole “The North is Coming!” thing. The one in Edinburgh is on Cowgate, a long, steep-walled alley lined with seedy bars, so deep it’s almost subterranean. It was the only place we went that had bouncers. Inside, post-industrial hipster chic: high, cool granite bar, stools, board games, laughing young women in thrift store couture. Quite a change from all these other 500 year old establishments, and again putting me in mind of Detroit. If I recall correctly, it was all taps, no cask, but made up for by the fact that they brewed it all themselves. I sampled several interesting IPAs with varying alcohol level and hop profiles (lots of aroma hops and dry-hopping, all very deftly done including even the current US brewing fad of the month, the Black IPA. Also a gigantic 15% alcohol imperial stout, earthy and aged to deceptive smoothness.
Holyrood 9A – An upscale restaurant and bar at the end of Cowgate, less than a mile from the seedy environs of BrewDog. Lots of glass and chrome, with many taps running all down the length of the very long bar. They had the unbelievably oaky Innis and Gunn on cask, the only place I saw it other than in bottles (I didn’t drink a single beer out of a bottle the whole visit). It’s a fairly light-bodied red ale nigh overpowered by mouth-filling tannins, quite enjoyable, but I did not need a second pint. Then I asked the bartender for the weirdest thing they had. She poured me a Belgian grand cru, molasses-colored, peppery, raisiny and sour like veined cheese. Delicious with a cheese and charcuterie plate!
An aside: Five or six miles into that seven-mile trek over the Pentland Hills, at the cliff-top site of a ruinous iron age fort, I ran into some locals with the bone-thin, sinewy builds of long-distance hikers and backpacks clinking with bottles of Innis and Gunn. Maybe it’s maltier when warm, less like sucking oak chips? Or maybe they were just that badass.
The Hanging Bat – A recommendation from our brewery promoter friend Claudia (without whose nagging I would likely never have finished part 2), on Lothian Road oh half a mile north of Bennets. I suspect we spent more time here than anywhere besides bed, and not just because of the convenient location. Another post-industrial space eerily familiar after the beer bars of Detroit and Western Mass, with old timey lightbulbs hanging bare and dim, artfully jigsawed bits of waste wood, vintage armchairs and a dozen pump handles carved like hanging bats. In the back near the toilets, a tiny wee ten gallon brewing setup—high-end homebrew, basically—toiled away behind green-tinted glass. Here we lucked into a meet-the-brewer tasting night for the Italian microbrewery Toccalmatto, wherein Bruno Carilli, a dedicated gentleman with a lovely accent, led us through six beers not quite like anything I’d tasted: all very crisp, dry and floral, using unfamiliar hop strains from Australia, the Czech Republic, and, yes, the US. He announced his distaste for maltiness early—at which I nearly wrote him off as insane—but won me back with variations on saison, black IPA and tripel with earthy, mineral and savory notes. How cosmopolitan and cultured we felt, drinking Italian craft beer with Englishmen and Germans in the crowded basement of a pub in Edinburgh! Every beer nerd should be so lucky.
The Takeaway – What a small cross-section this is in retrospect! Googling around to refresh my memory I realize I need to go back for another week or three. Cider—I drank cider at practically every bar I went to, yet without once encountering “real cider”. But there’s only so much a person can drink in a week, and this was about my limit. Maybe if I’d taken more buses….