The Caledonian Brewery squats sulkily below Slateford Road in western Edinburgh. It's a mid-Victorian redbrick, now the property of Heineken UK and probably best known for its Deuchars IPA. Tradition looms large here, and they're fiercely proud of their copper kettles, open square fermenters and whole-leaf hops. The hops aren't even kept refrigerated, with a storeroom on the brewhouse roof deemed to do just as good a job. Quite a bit of this year's three-day EBCU autumn session was held there, affording the opportunity to drink freely at both of its hospitality bars. For a brewery famous for just a couple of beers, there's actually a sizeable range produced there. If you've ever encountered the Newcastle special editions in the US, this is where they came from, and it appears also to be the source of Britain and America's supply of Murphy's "Irish" Stout.
The beer that really caught my eye when I spotted it in the cellar bar fridge was Deuchars Imperial, a 5.5% ABV golden ale with a similar sort of buttery kick as standard Deuchars but with an added hop spice to it that makes it much more drinkable. Certainly much more drinkable than the brewery's other icon Caledonian 80/-. This dark red-brown beer came from the cask tasting like a kind of warm chocolate soup: a particularly heavy heavy and, as the brewery's guest, I'm glad I didn't have to put away more than a third of it.
Seasonal of the moment is Vienna Red, a dark amber lager, again from the cask. This has a much lighter touch than the 80/-, with lovely smooth and sweet caramel notes. It's far from complex but pretty decent for what it is. Just on its way out of the brewery, meanwhile, was San Diego Session IPA, a 4.5% ABV beer brought to life by Mike Richmond of Stone Brewing as another commission from JD Wetherspoon. There's more of that trademark butterscotch in here and lots of husky grain. The hops contribute no more than a light fruity tang and the whole is a lot less exciting than the Californian gargoyle might suggest.
Gold seems to be where Caledonian is hanging its hopes, so even though their Flying Scotsman is supposed to be a London Pride competitor it's definitely on the yellow side of the colour spectrum and very lagery with it, providing lots of biscuit sweetness and a smooth effervescence in lieu of full-on fizz. Another unchallenging and approachable beer, though very open to accusations of being boring. Golden XPA is sweeter again, laying on thick golden syrup for a sticky texture and a flavour that starts out a little cloying when freshly poured and just gets more sickly as it warms. The house keg lager is called Three Hop and there's more of the mineral soda effervescence found in the Flying Scotsman -- definitely not a keg beer that can be accused of over gassiness. Unfortunately there's not much else to it: the three German hop varieties which provide the name do little to enhance the taste.
To the south of the city sits the other brewery that offered to show us around and let us try their beers, and Stewart couldn't be more different. This largeish micro is on a major upswing at the moment and the brand new German brewkit is all shiny stainless and flashing lights. We arrived late on a Friday and the day's brewing was over, but a makeshift tasting bar had been set up in the corner.
Stewart's 80/- is far lighter than Caledonian's, and paler too: a clear dark garnet. There's a dusting of strawberries overlying the chewy caramel, and while it is sweet and full-bodied, it's also clean and cool, enhancing the drinkability. The other cask was pouring Stewart's Pumpkin Ale: the final cask of the 2013 vintage as Halloween was some days behind us. A deep orange colour, I found this to be quite lagery, but in a good way: the hops impart a grassy kind of bitterness and there's quite an assertive sparkle. Some light fruitiness, which may or may not be actual pumpkin flavour, hovers in the background and the inevitable spicing is very subtle, refreshingly so.
At the edge of the bar were two minikegs of Edinburgh Gold, a rather lumpy golden ale with disturbing clumps of yeast bobbling about in my glass. It's big on artificial fruit flavours -- Refresher chews and Lucozade -- and the whole is just a bit too sweet for my liking. Back in town later I encountered Stewart's Black IPA in a pub. More red than black, this, and liquorice is the main feature. The hops bring a pleasant sprinkling of bitterness, but not at the levels I'd expect for something calling itself a black IPA.
More Edinburgh pub action coming up as we round off the trip in the next post. I'll leave this one with the observation that Edinburgh's craft brewery is the one with the ultra-modern fully-automated brewkit, while the multinational industrial macro makes its beers on old-fashioned equipment entirely by hand. If you're hanging on to a definition of craft beer based on its method of production, here's a comparison to give you pause.
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