Welcome to the Scottish Beer and Real Ale edition of Around the World in 80 Drinks, a series that takes us on a drunken whirlwind of adventure around our planet. We’ve had fun drinking Scotch, vodka, tequila, mulled Glögg wine, Belgian beer, and Canada’s greatest invention, the Caesar while traveling the world, and today are tackling Scottish beer, or real ale. Please let us know what you think in the comments, or say hello on Facebook and Twitter.
Neither Geoff nor I pretend to have the most sophisticated palate. When it comes to food and drink, Geoff likes simplicity. I’m more adventurous, but have been cursed with a poor sense of smell, a genetic affliction that effects at least three generations of my family and results in me being in a consistent state of stuffed upedness, unable to smell much of anything. While I enjoy food and drinks, I find it difficult to detect notes and subtleties, especially when it comes to beverages.
That said, we still enjoy at least trying to learn about different flavours around the world. And we’re both fans of beer, having had a lot of fun in beer destinations like Portland and Belgium. Interestingly, we never expected the UK to be a beer destination, having never heard of real ale before, and not knowing much about Scottish beer or British beer. We imagined Scotland in particular to be more of a whisky and spirits kind of country. How wrong we were!
The British Isles seem to be exploding with interesting breweries; breweries large and small are coming out with enough British beers to keep beer lovers busy for years. Edinburgh seems to be wonderfully positioned for beer lovers because of its proximity to all the breweries, but also because of the sheer number of pubs across the city (okay…also there is the weather; whiling the day away inside a pub seems much more acceptable when you’re avoiding gale-force winds and rain outside). There are also really unique breweries, such as the Orkney Brewery on Scotland’s Orkney Islands, producing interesting, seemingly-distinctive, and highly-drinkable Scottish beers, too.
After having a lot of fun meeting with Mikhail at the Last Drop Tavern to learn about whisky, we decided to call around to do the same with beer. James, the cask master at Deacon Brodie’s Pub, graciously agreed to spend some time with us, and Geoff put together a video about our chat, which includes a great introduction to real ale and the cask ale movement in Britain.
We sampled six beers in total; some were Scottish beers, and others were English. All were what they call here in the UK real ales, which is similar to the live beer I tried in Estonia a few years ago. Real ales are unpasteurized and have live yeast; the carbonation is a natural byproduct of the fermentation reaction, meaning it tastes a bit flatter than a keg beer, although it is not, nor does it taste, totally flat.
Nicholson’s Pale Ale, brewed in Cornwall by St. Austell, was the first cask ale, or real ale beer we tried. This is the house cask ale at the Nicholson’s Pubs, a chain that runs across the UK and includes Deacon Brodie’s and the Last Drop Tavern in Edinburgh, among others. I think it would be easy to turn your nose up at a house-brand beer, but we both enjoyed this one: it wasn’t too bitter, and was clean and easily drinkable. It had a nice balance of citrus, malt, and bitterness, and we were both pleasantly surprised.
The Charge Golden Pale Ale is an interesting bitter, partially because of the story attached to it. Brewed by Marston’s, the UK’s largest cask beer brewer, it was commissioned by the band Elbow to promote their new album, The Take Off and Landing of Everything*. We found it quite an easy-drinking beer (it was Geoff’s favourite), and while a few connoisseurs out there have called it dull, we’d bet the average beer-drinker would enjoy its simplicity and drinkability.
The 80 Shilling by Stewart Brewing Co. is a classic Scottish beer: it’s a heavy. It comes out of the cask as a beautiful, dark red colour, and is light on hops to complement its creamy taste and texture. This wasn’t my first time trying the 80 Shilling Scottish beer in Edinburgh – it has actually become one of my go to beers here because it’s not complicated and doesn’t require much thought or work to enjoy. Plus, it is widely available.
Adnams Southwold’s Jack Brand Mosaic Pale Ale is tangy and fruity and floralry and bitter all at the same time. This was probably one of my favourites, because it has so much going on. However, subtle is not a word I’d use to describe this beer: it knows who it is, and is loud and proud and not afraid to be itself. Mango, floral, citrus: the Mosaic has it all, and somehow it all works quite brilliantly together. Again, I really liked this one.
The Dark Island ale from Orkney Brewery was another one of my favourites, although it was a bit dark for Geoff’s tastes. It is a beautiful dark colour, with notes of chocolate and molasses that even I and my handicapped nose could detect. It was smooth, with no bitterness at the end, which surprised me. Overall, it was creamy and nice and quite enjoyable to drink. A beautiful Scottish ale.
Lastly, we tried out the White by Portobello London, the only wheat beer of the tasting. I am a huge fan of wheat beers, and the White was one of the more interesting wheat beers I’ve tasted – it has a very subtle taste when compared to more typical wheat beers. It’s very low on the bitterness scale, and has light citrus notes and low carbonation. Again, I really liked it.
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Here is where I realize I’m not cut out to be a beer critic; they’re all nice probably wouldn’t cut it in the
high stakes world of beer criticism, but I really did like them all. Geoff: not so much. He’s a man who knows what he likes, and simple lagers — which none of these were — tend to top the list. That said, he didn’t hate any of them either, and found most to be quite drinkable, which is actually saying quite a lot.
If you want to learn more about English and Scottish beer, and real ale / cask ale, there are a few specialist blogs out there that you should definitely check out. My three favourites are:
- I Might Have a Glass of Beer is probably a good place to start if you’re interested in Scottish beer, as it focuses mostly on Glasgow’s beer scene.
- I like Pete Brown, too. He is a former ad man turned beer writer, and the author of a couple of quite funny books (I got hooked on Pete from his book Three Sheets to the Wind, a travelogue-beer-history book)
- Boak and Bailey’s Beer Blog has been around since 2007. I like the aesthetic on their blog, and they have some good posts, like whether craft beer is over (hello: post-craft!) and the meaning of clear beer.
If beer isn’t your thing, and you’re more interested in caffeinated beverages, check out this guide to spending a cozy day in some of Edinburgh’s best cafés, written by fellow bloggers at Two Drifters!
I hope you enjoyed this Scotch Beer and Real Ale edition of Around the World in 80 Drinks. Don’t forget to let us know what you think in the comments, say thanks by sharing, or say hello on Facebook and Twitter. And please don’t forget to subscribe to our Youtube channel by clicking on the one-click subscribe button below.