"Beer in Colorado" is dedicated to that divine elixir born of the marriage of water, malt, hops, and yeast as interpreted
by those living in Colorado. Follow the author as he visits every brewery in the state, creates experimental homebrews,
attends beer festivals, tries interesting beers from around the world, and spreads the good word of beer. Prost!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Newlyweds in the Old World: Edinburgh

To read about the previous leg of our honeymoon, Glasgow, click here.


Finally, after a week and a half of boozing across the Emerald Isle and Caledonia, Nicole and I hopped our last train, careened across the countryside to our honeymoon’s final destination: Edinburgh.

Edinburgh Castle from the foot of Arthur's Seat
In Scotland’s capital city, we visited nary a brewery but an ample number of beer bars and pubs.  The first of which was Malt & Hops, a miniscule real ale pub on the banks of the Water of Leith near Edinburgh’s northern coastline.  A “watering-hole-in-the-wall,” Malt & Hops is dark, cramped, and timeworn—exactly what I want in a traditional pub!  Enough spaciousness, bright lighting, and newfangled décor!  A pub reminiscent of a refugee camp is best because, in a way, that’s what pubs are, a refuge from the weather, from work, from life in general.  Leave your worries at the door, frein, they’re not going anywhere. 

Having polished off our pints at Malt & Hops , we headed to the adjacent Leith Beer Co., another beer bar (albeit more modern than the previous one), this one hosting a pub quiz.  Longtime readers know Nicole and I are semi-avid Geeks Who Drink attendees and, not to pat ourselves on the back, we’re pretty good at it.  Pretty good at American pub quiz, at least; at Leith Beer Co., where the questions skewed towards a U.K. audience, we floundered like a three-legged dog in a vat of Jell-O.  What are the ten top-ranked high schools in Edinburgh?  Name the British soap opera character based on the picture?  Och!  I don’t even know soap opera characters from the U.S.!  Needless to say, we blew it.  However, the night wasn’t a total loss.  We did enjoy one particularly astonishing beer from Williams Bros. Brewing Co.: Fraoch Heather Ale.

Name one of these characters off the top of your head and I'll give you a dollar
Oh, sweet nectar of the Celtic gods!  In past posts, I decried the lack of true, original Scottish ales on our honeymoon.  German lagers?  American IPAs?  Pshaw!  Certainly, I had a few Scottish/Scotch ales up until this point but this, this gruit ale, this style predating Christ by at least 2,000 years, this is real Scottish beer!  Okay, fine, Williams Bros. unquestionably took creative and contemporary liberties with their take on this ancient ale but the soul of Fraoch still lies in tribal Scotland.  Full of natural, local ingredients such as heather flowers, sweet gale, and little (if any) hops, Fraoch is sweet like honey, grassy like a fresh-cut lawn, and peaty like a fine Scotch whisky.  It’s a beautiful and enduring beer.  The flavor is uncommon to the American palate and that’s what makes it a true Scottish original.  An equivalent to Fraoch isn’t easy to come by stateside.  It was my favorite beer of the trip—until I tried Alba from the same brewery.

Additional information on Fraoch
But I’m ahead of myself.  Before I talk about Alba, allow me to speak on the venue in which I imbibed it.  Wildest Drams, on the famous Royal Mile, is an underground establishment devoted to local game meat, artisan whisky, and craft beer.  The ambiance is stark but the employees are friendly, knowledgeable, and, if it’s not too busy, eager to talk beer.  We actually went to Wildest Drams on two separate occasions we were so impressed with the place and, on the second day, our server took a seat at our table and chatted us up.  In one humorous exchange, Nicole mentioned her affinity for darker ales to which our server replied (and I paraphrase),”I got the perfect beer for you!  It’s called Cutthroat Porter from a place called Odell in Colorado.”  Nicole and I smirked, gave each other a knowing glance.  Indeed, Cutthroat is a phenomenal beer but it’s also available at every bar within a 50 mile radius of our house; we’d prefer a local favorite and, telling our server as much, he substituted his first suggestion with Orkney Porter from Highland Brewing Co., which turned out to be my third favorite beer of the entire honeymoon.  It’s rich, chocolate-y, earthy, oily black, and the ABV is so high it burns the back of the throat.  It’s quite the robust porter, bordering on Russian imperial stout territory. 

But Alba stole the show.  We told our server we wanted an inimitably Scottish beer and, after dismissing everything we’d already tried, we eventually came to Alba Scots Pine Ale from Williams Bros.  Oh, mama!

This is good beer
Spiked with spruce shoots and bog myrtle (another name for sweet gale), the pine beer was initially brought to Scotland’s shores via Viking marauders.  If you’ve ever gnawed on a spruce tip or, if camping, ever made pine needle tea, you probably think you know what Alba tastes like: bitter, resinous, dank, astringent.  You’d be wrong.  I can’t explain it but, far from being harsh, Alba is mellow, herbal, and—believe it or not—fruity.  I couldn’t help but taste blueberries when I drank this beer.  As far as I know, not a single berry made its way into the brew but, nonetheless, that flavor pops up.  It’s a wonderful, wacky beer, something not readily available in the U.S. and something not easily replicated.  Should you find yourself in Scotland, don’t leave before ordering an Alba.

This is great beer
Although it didn’t produce any “Holy cow; that’s amazing!” beers for me, The Hanging Bat beer bar is also an advisable stop while in Edinburgh.  A tri-level taproom, the bar’s at street level, there’s an elevated seating area a half-flight up and, below the elevated section, the “cave” of the Hanging Bat a half-flight down.  There are windows between the upper and lower levels so people can look down/up on other customers as they enjoy their respective ales.  At the very back, one can stumble upon cutest damn biergarten in the world: about the same area as a large closet, blanketed with AstroTurf, and whimsically-painted kegs as seats.  The Hanging Bat proffers a healthy dose of both cask and kegged beers so traditionalists and modernists alike have many quaffables from which to choose.

We also had a pint or two at The Sheep Heid Inn, Edinburgh’s oldest pub (so they claim), and The Bow Bar, a premier cask ale pub serving old-fashioned, hand-pulled beer in a quaint and comfy Old World setting.
General musings on Edinburgh

·         Of the four major metropolitans we visited on our honeymoon (Dublin, Belfast, Glasgow, and Edinburgh), Auld Reekie was my favorite.  There’re several reasons but I’ll concentrate on the big one.

The Hanging Bat's biergarten
Every city was saturated in history, medieval architecture, and world-famous sites so, in that regard, all four were comparable.  Likewise, each lied near the coast and, while neither Ireland nor Scotland boasts an avid beach culture, the ocean spray and sea-faring lifestyle were a component of each municipality.  Where Edinburgh pulls ahead is in the terrain.  Dublin’s flatter than Oklahoma.  Belfast, like Denver, enjoys mountain views on the outskirts of town but not much topography downtown.  Glasgow is home to a few steeply sloped streets but it’s all rolling hills—nothing juts up in any dramatic fashion. 

Hermitage on Arthur's Seat
Edinburgh, on the other hand, is home to Edinburgh Castle which sits precariously atop a 260’ cliff-face, Calton Hill, a monument-specked rise affording awe-inspiring views of Old Town, New Town, and the Firth of Forth, and, most impressive of all, a towering 822’ extinct volcano known as Arthur’s Seat surrounded by suburbs and neighboring Holyrood Palace, The Queen’s home away from home.
·         It’s a bit unhip to partake in a guided excursion whilst visiting a foreign city—it’s such a tourist thing to do.  Still, I can’t speak highly enough of Sandemans New Europe tours.  The basic tour is free but they also offer specialty tours at a cost (usually, it’s a pub crawl but Nicole and I opted for “The Dark Side” tour which covered murders, folklore, and other spooky stuff) and the information they dole out is a smidgen more interesting than what’s in a high school history textbook.  I can’t remember everything I learned on the tour but here’s a smattering of the most fascinating:
o   In the city’s medieval buildings, one might notice stairways with one off-kilter step—an ancient alarm system.  Welcomed guests would be warned of the tricky riser and tread upon it accordingly.  Thieves and home invaders, however, oblivious to the trap, would misstep and take a tumble which, at the very least, would make enough noise to warn the homeowner (at the most, the intruder would break their neck).

After the white step, the heights of the risers change
o   J.K. Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter book in an Edinburgh coffeehouse.  That coffeehouse was owned by her brother-in-law thus she’d sit all day, drink free java, and write her eventual best-seller.  Apparently, Rowling drank her helpful relative out of business because that coffeehouse closed shop prior to Potter hitting it big.  But, even today, that doesn’t stop every coffeehouse in Edinburgh from claiming, “J.K. Rowling wrote here!”
At least one coffeehouse is tired of the B.S.
o   Have you seen the Disney movie Greyfriars Bobby?  Well, that actually happened and a life-sized statue of the loyal Skye terrier sits outside the graveyard walls where his beloved master’s interred.  Amongst the castles and soaring spires of Edinburgh, this diminutive dog effigy remains the most photographed object in town.
 Greyfriars Bobby
·         Haggis: chopped sheep liver, heart, and lungs mixed with onion, oatmeal, suet, and spices.  It’s the national dish of Scotland and, along with kilts and bagpipes, the international stereotype.  It’s also really good.  Not tolerable, good, tender, and juicy.  I indulged in haggis on three separate occasions, once in Glasgow and twice in Edinburgh (it was a hot dog topping at The Hanging Bat).  Granted, I never had it served in the customary fashion i.e. encased in a sheep’s stomach but, regardless, I ate haggis and I’d do it again in a minced-meat heartbeat.

Haggis dog!
Musings on Edinburgh’s beer scene
·         According to our Wildest Drams server, Scottish beer geeks are none too fond of BrewDog.  They take umbrage to the fact that, as BrewDog grew from a homegrown operation to a multinational brewing giant, they lost their high standards of quality and abandoned their most loyal supporters.  Apparently, the BrewDog flagship line-up once tasted much better in the days before they started getting weird and putting beer in dead squirrels.  I have nothing with which to compare this opinion; I’ve only had recent incarnations of BrewDog beer, never the supposedly superior versions from times long past.  It’s a viewpoint most American beer geeks can understand, though; we all know at least one craft brewery that’s grown a little too big for their britches. 
Arthur's Seat from Calton Hill
·         Somebody once asked me how real Scottish ales compare to American interpretations.  The simple, honest, and cop-out answer is it’s impossible to tell, I drank mostly cask ale in Scotland and, since U.S. breweries/bars usually serve from kegs only (with exceptions, of course), to compare cask to keg is a fool’s errand.  They’re too dissimilar to make any worthwhile appraisal.  Tweaking temperature and carbonation makes a single beer completely different from even itself.  However, I can comment briefly on the reverse: how well does Scotland imitate American beer styles?  I downed a few American-style IPAs and, since such beer isn’t native to Scotland, it wasn’t served in the usual Scottish way, cask.  Ergo, a more exact side-by-side comparison can be made.  In short, the best Scottish-made American-style IPA equates to a pretty good American-made American-style IPA; I felt most of them were either too stingy on the hops or, on the opposite end, showcased more hop bitterness than hop flavor.  Close, but lungs shan’t be marred by cigar smoke.           
Favorite beers from Edinburgh
Punk IPA infusion tower
·         The aforementioned Fraoch, Orkney Porter, and Alba.
·         Schiehallion by Harviestoun Brewery.  A spiced and herbed beer.  Very pleasant and easy to drink.  Enjoyed at the Leith Beer Co.
·         Scot-oberfest by Luckie Ales.  I just like the idea of a Scottish-made German lager served on cask.  Enjoyed at The Hanging Bat.
·         Punk IPA infused with shortbread, whisky-soaked oats, and toffee by BrewDog.  I appreciate infusion towers; they’re a fun means of altering familiar beers without having to completely re-brew it.  Enjoyed at BrewDog: Edingurgh.
·         Kelpie Seaweed Ale by Williams Bros.  I was expecting a more briny flavor but, actually, it’s just a rich, dark ale.  Its name has a double meaning, too.  To the American reader, the connection between “kelp” and “seaweed” is obvious but, to the Scottish mind, the word “kelpie” conjures more fantastical imagery such as a malevolent, shape-shifting, water horse, faery thingy.  Enjoyed at Wildest Drams.

Róisin was also very good.
Alas, the honeymoon is over.  Nicole and I have settled into our regular, old married life.  The adventure behind us, the ordinary day-to-day drudgery awaits.  We trekked the wilds of The Highlands, we biked the coastal beauty of Northern Ireland, we walked the hallowed aisles of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and we explored the authentic pubs of Ireland and Scotland.  But now?  Now we’re back home.  Back home in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  Back home where the sun shines as often the rain falls in Dublin.  Back home where rustic escapes can be had after but a few minutes’ drive from my front door.  Back home where the beer flows more abundantly than the great river from which our state derives its name.  Back home again in Colorado. 

Yeah, I think we can keep the good times rolling.         



Chris covered the beer part of the trip pretty well so I’ll share with you what else we did in Edinburgh such as our hike on Arthur’s seat.  The peak offered gorgeous views of Edinburgh including Edinburgh Castle in the distance and Holyrood Palace at the base of the mountain.  It was a fairly easy hike, it could only be made more difficult by navigating the hills on a unicycle, something one man happened to be doing.  During our entire hike there was a guy flying by on his one-wheeled contraption and I was plenty amazed—it takes a lot talent to keep balance on a bumpy dirt trail.

Away he goes!
Just as I have a passion for beer, I also have a passion for yarn.  On every trip I find locally produced yarn to use in future projects.  As we wandered the city, I found Kathy’s Knits which had a great selection of yarn from Scotland and other parts of the U.K.  I found a few skeins (which nicely cushioned the bottles of whisky we were bringing home) and we went on our way.

Lastly, once, when we were out and about one afternoon, I found a shop peddling some cute clothes.  I decided to leaf through their selection but, as I was looking at the shirts hanging on a rack, a giant spider ran across the shirt at lightning speed.  Without saying anything, I turned and speed-walked right out of the store.  I tried to explain to Chris that the spider gave me a dirty look as he ran by, but he didn’t buy it [ I tried to explain to her that, without spiders, there wouldn’t even be a Scotland; it’s true, read about it here ~ Chris].


The Heart of Midlothian, the entryway to a now-nonexistent prison/execution site.  It is customary to spit on the heart for good luck or to show disdain for the former place of incarceration.  It is the only place in Edinburgh where it is legal to spit on the streets.  
This crap is Scotland's "Second National Drink" after whisky.  It tastes like bubble gum, it has more sugar than Coca-Cola and, in Scotland, it outsells Coca-Cola.  And it's terrible.

Edinburgh is the birthplace of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the world's most famous detective.  References to his work can be found all over town including a pub called Moriarty that's next door to The Hanging Bat.  This statue stands somewhere near where the author was born but nobody is exactly sure of the true location (not even Sherlock Holmes).
The Queen's Edinburgh getaway, Holyrood Palace. She was actually staying there at the time of our visit.

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