Beer Tinted Spectacles was originally posted to Posterous, which closed suddenly and made life irritating for a while. Some of the blogs were lost, recently found and are republished here.
For fear of painting the world with broad Impressionist brush strokes, my regard for Scottish beer a few years back wasn’t high. It all started with my first business trip north of the border, working for the then leading brewer in Scotland and the heady excitement of sampling some of the country’s leading beers. A pint of Tennent’s is what you would expect of a 4% session pale beer to be, only with better than average marketing and an inharmonic aroma somewhere between corn on the cob and a malodorous whiff of Marigold gloves. A pint of Tennent’s Special (a 70/- ale) was an unpleasant, soapy experience, which I pledged never to repeat. There was a more malty but equally bland 80/- too, and then there were the competitor beers, like McEwan’s Export which, let’s just say, won’t be featuring in any good beer guide. Hence my first evening saw me swing from naïve excitement to disillusionment, a mood not enhanced by lodgings in a rather ‘tired’ Toby Inn on Corstorphine Road. Not that much different from England and Wales at the time then, except for the blocking tactics of a powerful duopoly stymieing choice to a greater degree than down south.
In future months and years it was interesting to learn more about the Scottish market and despite that first experience, good times were had, including being part of launching beers like Tennent’s Gold Bier – in fact, generally there was a more pro-lager, pro-American leaning (brands like Bud, Miller had higher shares north of the border and North American brewers saw Scotland as prime real estate for their brands – Coors Extra Gold, Molson Dry and even Schlitz all had a crack). There was also virtually no infrastructure for cask beer.
Hop, skip and jump twenty years on and look at the transformation. What started as a trickle of dissatisfaction with the restrictive duopoly led to interesting start ups – Traquair House, Caledonian and William Bros (with their excellent Heather Ale, Fraoch) exemplified the emergent undercurrent. Brew Dog or Innes & Gunn followed as brands not just cutting through in the Scottish brewing scene but across the UK and beyond….and there are many, many others besides (see http://thebeercast.com – for a good round up of Scottish brewing with an Edinburgh orientation).
Which leads to the Archerfield estate, just outside Edinburgh, on the beautiful southern Firth of Forth shore – the ‘Golf Coast’ as it’s colloquially known for the number of international links courses with pot bunkers that swallow small children whole. It is also the home of Knops’ Beer Company. Bob Knops was, not so long ago, an operations manager for a big brewer north of the border. Always professional, reliable, committed… but his heart was never in it. He was a trained brewer, and he wasn’t brewing. Now he is and after initially contract brewing, he now is running a gleaming new-build brewery in the Walled Garden at the Archerfield estate. Like the Lost Gardens of Heligan but with more spas and fewer ‘losts.’ There’s a broad spectrum amongst craft brewers – at one end, those inspired by past styles, or past companies – bringing them up to date, or just plain bringing them back. At the other, there are those actively shaking off the legacies of the past and trying something new. Knops’ beers lean towards the former but with a generous smack of contemporary rule-breaking. The beers themselves have a story at their heart; in some, the plot is Scottish – like ‘Musselburgh Broke’, ‘Black Cork’ or the IPA with its roots firmly in the Edinburgh tradition of IPA. Others feature international characters like ‘Californian Common’ – a Knops’ take on west coast U.S. steam beer. The twist is the presentation – LNER or GWR railway posters from the 1920s and 1930s spring out, with bright, striking labels and engaging pack copy.
And picking up on a recent Tinted theme, Knops’ beer show the diversity that exists within ale. Of course there is an IPA – and this one is well structured with a punchy, cleansing bitterness and an appealing brightness & presentation. But the California Common is less common on these shores. Even in San Francisco, they’re not sure how the name arose, but it seems to be to do with the ‘steam’ that arose off the shallow fermentation vessels as they cooled the beer in the colder air blowing in from the Pacific. I’m not sure Bob has mounted fermenters on the greenhouse roof, but the beer has that Anchor Steam quality – something that you can’t quite put your finger on. A bitterness, yes, but also a Czech lager-like cleanness on the palate and then back to a pale ale maltiness. Black Cork is even less clear – a beer whose origins and taste are now shrouded by time. Using as much historical information as they can, Bob and his team have recreated a 6.5% ABV whopper – you sense ingredients measured in ‘good handfuls’ feature on the recipe, with a full malt backbone, but an intriguing cut of citrus that must come from generous hopping. And then finally, Musselburgh Broke, which reminds me of classic Scottish 80/- beers, executed well. There’s lots of malt in here and it shines through: it’s full and coating as you roll it around your mouth but the brewing is adept enough to ensure the hopping regime encourages drinkability.
The disillusionment from that dreek October evening in Edinburgh is finally beginning to lift.
For further info and stockists on Bob’s brews, check out the website: www.knopsbeer.co.uk
©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013