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.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Random Photo of the Day

My paternal grandfather with his 1932 Chevy roadster packed for a camping trip. Both of my grandparents emigrated to the US from England after the Great War. The little guy just visible over my Pop's hand is my dad. This is what my dad has to say about the car:

I'm pretty sure it is a 1932 Chevy roadster, complete with rumble seat. That's Pop at the wheel. He drove us from Nova Scotia to Miami in it. On the trip to Halifax the corduroy dirt roads shook the luggage rack on the rear so badly we had to stop and get it welded. The camping gear was in another rack on the running board. The car had isinglass curtains as needed for weather. I can remember coming home at night snugged down in the closed up rumble seat.

Remember we bought this car during the Depression when few had cars and even fewer had roadsters with spare tires in the fender wells. We didn't have a garage, living in an apartment, but rented one from a toff who was finding it difficult to meet the monthly bills.

My mother managed the finances and how she saved the dough, as Pop paid cash for the Chevy, I'll never know. That Chevy was the most impractical model sold, but Mom knew what put the neighbors off.

In my own time, about 25 years later, my dad would end up packing my mom, sister and I into a 1950 Ford sedan and driving from upstate New York to our new home in Oregon, taking time to visit Mt Rushmore, Yellowstone Park and every other interesting location along the way. Entertainment consisted of punching my sister, playing the alphabet game (I'm sure she cheated most of the way across country) and reading Burma Shave signs. Five years after that, we reversed the trip (in a station wagon, I'm pretty sure) but swung through the Southwest, Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee. It's too bad I never tried this stunt with my kids, but I probably would have strangled us all halfway through the trip.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Drinking in the UK, Part Two

Not enough credit can be given to breakfast and specifically to the UK emphasis on breakfast, especially to a Yank planning on drinking. With the pitiful showing of the US dollar against the pound, travel in the UK is brutally expensive. Having essentially wiped out my savings to take this vacation, I found the bed & breakfast to be the one economic bright spot. Fortified by a "full Scottish (or English) breakfast", I rarely needed a real lunch and was generally well-grounded for an afternoon and evening of beer. At my b&b in Glasgow, a "full Scottish breakfast" consisted of eggs, bacon (not streaky bacon), sausage, freshly cooked mushrooms and tomatoes, odd little "hash browns", juice and tea. (It's apparently the one meal of the day not requiring chips, which is another positive note.) And the Scots have apparently avoided the vile addition of canned baked beans to the plate, yet another reason to applaud them.

On my first morning, well-stuffed with breakfast, I made several false starts along the Byres Road looking for the subway into central Glasgow. Known to locals as the Clockwork Orange, this tiny rail line runs on two concentric ovals between downtown and the westside, providing a cheap and quick service. They're not keen on photographs, though, or at least that seemed to be the gist of the warning I heard over the PA. I should have told them I was in the business and not bent on terrorism; much more interested in the displays of real-time arrivals than blowing things up.

After puttering around for a few hours along Buchanan Street with all its shops and shoppers (kilt and all the basics, starting at £500, thank you very much), I met my trusty native guide at the Central Rail Station (where I had to pay 20P for a pee). In short order we were around the corner at the Horseshoe Bar, billed as possessing the longest bar in the UK, and dating back to 1870. I had my first mild, Moorhouse Black Cat. As a Yank, milds have been the most mysterious of British styles for me and I've yet to meet anyone, including the native guide, who could offer a precise definition of the term. I found my pint quite delicious, by Peter proclaimed the beers "too warm". And then, in true Peter Alexander fashion, we were out the door and off to another pub.

Next on the list was the Pot Still, for a pint of Mordue (damn notes written after the fact fail to mention which, but probably a bitter). I'd been intrigued by the Good Beer Guide reference to the Pot Still's list of whiskies, but we discovered the supply badly depleted. Probably just as well, so that I stuck to ale. Peter and the bartender launched into a discussion about our next destination, a new brewpub, and how best to get there by bus. After about 10 minutes of this, Peter turned to me and grinned, "You probably didn't get any of that, did you?" and, indeed, I was lost entirely as the Glaswegian rolled over me.

We did manage to catch a bus well over to the other side of the city, near Glasgow Green, as seen here. Peter was relying on his instincts, and soon found West Brewing, located in new construction attached to a gorgeous Victorian carpet factory. The pub itself looked like every American brewpub I'd ever visited, complete with exposed ducting and chilly ambiance (some of which can be observed in this previously- unreleased video below). The beers, intended as faithful versions of German styles, were adequate at best. More to the point, they simply weren't Real Ales, which was all I was craving. I had something called a festbier, which was a boring amber lager. Peter tried a couple of other beers and, as I recall, proclaimed the weissbier as reasonable. Still, no point in hanging about here, is there? Off we go then, back to central Glasgow.

Next stop on the tour was my first Wetherspoons, the Counting House, a huge pub in a converted bank just off George Square. At the time, I had no idea what "Wetherspoons" meant, or the sort of emotions the name could generate in the hearts of real ale lovers. We stood up at the bar for some well-served beers, and I had my first Timothy Taylor's Landlord, which the brewery calls a Pale Ale. It was delicious, I remember that. The pub was cavernous and loud, as we were somewhere around the end of the workday. From there, we shuffled off to the State Bar, also listed in the GBG, which was something of a disappointment. Somewhat shabby and dark, but the beer (Kelburn Goldihops?) was in good shape. In search of dinner, we stumbled across the street to another Wetherspoons, which had none of the character or charm of the Counting House. The "special" was a burger and a pint at a reasonable price, with the catch being a limited offering for the pint. Mine was a fairly ghastly Green King Abbot, washed down later with a much more satisfying Caledonia Champions Ale, which was a seasonal offering.

After which, I tottered off to my bed, and Peter off to his mum's for the night.