Friday, January 11, 2008

Drinking in the UK, Part Three

Although it is true I fell desperately in love with Real Ale while drinking on this trip, I can’t pretend that finding it didn’t require some effort (even if it only meant tagging around with the Native Guide) and that Brits in general aren’t capable of drinking awful shite, even when in the presence of beautifully-conditioned ale. Without even referencing those getting their little glass of voddy, or whatever audience justified the presence of Southern Comfort optics in every pub I visited, there were all the people ordering revolting bottled sweet Irish cider (poured over ice in a pint glass) and the profusion of “smooth” beers. Worst of all were the digital displays in the Wetherspoon’s that dynamically advertised the temperature of the beers being pushed out at nearly 0°C. I initially assumed people ordered this swill because it was cheaper than the carefully-handled ales, but in most cases it appeared to be just the opposite; they were paying a premium to drink frozen lager! Criminal.

Peter and I got an early start on my second day, catching a train south across the River Clyde to a neighborhood called Mount Florida, apparently quite close to a famous football stadium (sorry, I have no idea). We found our way on foot to the Clockwork Beer Co., which turned out to be a very pleasant and attractive brewpub. After trying a couple of their house beers, necessarily including their Oregon Ale, I switched over to their admirable guest beers (see photo of taps in Part One), sampling the Kelburn Goldihops and Lia Fail, from Inveralmond Brewery, Perth (excellent beers). I enjoyed the unusual sight of Peter with half pints as he did his best to sample the entire house list. For lunch, I finally had my obligatory haggis, in this case stuffed in a chicken breast. Interesting stuff, haggis, not bad but definitely plenty of organ meats. Peter ordered the “nachos” which struck me, coming from the States, as a weird thing to do in a Scottish pub and he muttered his way through the entire plate of badly-scorched chips. Somewhere near the end of the plate, he wondered whether he shouldn’t have sent the lunch back.

Having stuffed ourselves with food and drink, we grabbed a bus back into the city and once again found ourselves on the Clockwork Orange. Emerging from the subway, I followed Peter along the Dumbarton Road, dodging construction along the sidewalk, with the Native Guide confidently telling me that “it’s just up here”, “must be the next block” until, eventually, he was right. There it was, the Three Judges, and just across the street was a subway stop, which we’d passed up on the outbound trip. This turned out to be a great old boozer, with a very decent list of beers, lots of room and, best of all, great seats by the big windows looking out on Dumbarton and Byres roads. (The photo at the head of Part Two is Peter and his pint by the window.) A wonderful spot to enjoy a great beer and people watch, and plenty of great people to watch (or ogle). No idea what Peter is drinking there, but I had another mild (which I loved), Tring Mansion out of Hertfordshire (although I confess that I couldn't point to Hertfordshire on a map to save my life). American brewers should figure this style out and brew milds! 3.7 abv. I could drink it all afternoon, with pleasure.

The original plan called for a visit to the Aragon, another entry in the GBG up the road on the way to Tennents, but I was footsore and it wasn’t difficult to convince Peter that it made more sense to grab the subway (hey, we’d already paid for all-day tickets) up to the Hillhead Station, and my second visit to Tennents to close out the evening. Peter made an astonishing error, ordering a London beer (Fuller's?), while I had a wonderful Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted, from Alva, Scotland (3.8% and full of wonderful hop flavor).

As it happened, my trip coincided with the 2007 Cricket World Cup, which was being broadcast from the Caribbean to every pub television set in Great Britain. Peter took a good stab at explaining to me a sport that in some faint manner resembles baseball, and in most ways is completely unfathomable to anyone not raised on it. On a visit to Kentucky, I’d learned that the locals were so utterly enslaved to the sport of basketball that an entire network broadcasts nothing else, including high school games. I gather that a similar obsession exists with American football down in Texas. But the Brits appear to be obsessed with the very notion of sport. It doesn’t matter what is being broadcast, they’re glued to the telly (as Peter above). It could be cricket, could be football, it could even be (and was) the soporific boat race between Cambridge and Oxford; they’ll stare fixedly at the screen until the commercials come on and they can sprint to the bar. Having watched this behavior, it’s hard for me to understand how they haven’t simply died out as a race. Surely there must be something else to do after work, no? Something involving the opposite sex, maybe?

That was the close of the day for me, as I faced a series of challenges the following morning. I had to get myself back out to Glasgow Airport and pick up my hire car (which somehow morphed into a Mercedes) and learn to drive on the left while racing for the ferry at Kennacraig that would take me to spend three days on Islay. While there was drinking on Islay (how could there not be, with all the distilleries?), it was such a special place and such a special time that it deserves more attention than I can give it now. I will say that there is no likely a better place on the planet for dinner (fresh seafood or beef), real ale (Black Sheep Best Bitter), whisky (118 malts, every single one from Islay or Jura) and conversation than the bar at the Port Charlotte Hotel. I understand the dining room may have even better food, but getting a seat in there was beyond me, especially on Easter weekend.


Armin said...

So can we expect a special entry on Islay then? Looking forward to more detail...

Jeff Frane said...

Definitely, but I need to work my way up to it. I want to do my best to give Islay justice.