Rebus Drinking In Scotland and England

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Something very odd has happened to me over these last two months, August and September. I am reading novels. Rebus novels. I haven’t read novels for years. Decades. For some reason, I was driven off fiction by being an usher at a playhouse in undergrad. Perhaps watching plays repeatedly had the same effect as watching sausages getting made. Don’t know. Then a career in reading and writing masses of pages every week put me off pleasure reading of any sort for a long time. I’d browse through histories, graze upon articles and essays and write plenty. Hunting for clues in newspapers of the Georgians to Edwardians took a big part of my time. But undisrupted cover to cover novel reading? Never.

Then we traveled to Scotland twice in a year, spending time with family, looking out the windows of pubs. I’ve since added BBC Scotland to the regular radio playing in the background as life goes on around the house. Followed the news. And then one of the Rebus books came as a gift. Detective fiction set near to the Firth of Forth. I was little worried about it when I unwrapped it. I work with police so I was thinking it wouldn’t be much of a break from working life so it sat from spring to summer. I am now on my sixth novel in seven weeks. Consider this:

In a large pub near the tube station, a barn of a place with walls painted torrid red, Rebus remembered that he had not tried the local brews since coming south. He’d gone for a drink with George Flight, but had stuck to whisky. He looked at the row of pumps, while the barman watched him, a proprietorial hand resting on one pump. Rebus nodded towards this resting hand.
‘Is it any good.’
The man snorted. ‘It’s bloody Fuller’s, mate, of course it’s good.’
‘A pint of that then, please.’
The stuff turned out to have a watery look, like cold tea, but tasted smooth and malty. The barman was still watching him, so Rebus nodded approval, then took his glass to a distant corner where the public telephone stood.

That passage up there is from an early novel, 1992’s Tooth and Nail. Even though it’s from the one book in England, it’s typical of the tone. Plain. Observational. Often a dark corner. Always menace. Always drink. My cousins kept telling me to get to the Oxford Bar when I was in Edinburgh, the favourite of the stories’ main character. Haven’t made it there yet. Plenty of other good pubs saw me crossing the doorstep. Plenty that show up in the Rebus stories, too, both high and low. Well written recognizable realistic descriptions of unadorned pub life. Not always pretty.

It’s the sort of writing that gives you hope. So much that is written about the ordinary course of things – and especially about beer and pubs – is either pumped and puffed up or made stark to attract an audience. And certainly the Rebus stories do the latter through their narrative and pace. But not the setting. The fresh baked baps glow warm in the hands of the officer returning home after a night shift. The pubs have smells. The streets chatter. One hint. I’ve spent reasonable lengths of time in Edinburgh on five or six occasions so far in life so I have a sense of some of its parts. But not others. Bob Steel’s Edinburgh Pub Walks – with its photos, maps and pub descriptions – places a lot of the action in the Rebus novels directly into context. As good a companion guide as I might want even if unintentional.

David Shrigley’s “My Beer”

I heard this yesterday on BBC 6 at about 3:30 in the afternoon. On Iggy Pop‘s show. Afternoon off. Snoozing on a summer day. Or was it folding laundry. Catching up with chores or closed eyelids. David Shrigley is a Glaswegian, five years younger than me. He works in various media including short animated movies. He’s done one about laundry. I’ve worked in short film myself. And astronaut art.

I love it. While “beer communicators” are off being told what to write by brewery publicists who can’t believe their luck, “My Beer” an expression about beer. It’s about what the one drinker thinks – or perhaps might think – if he or she thought about beer. The film is an animation of Shrigley’s piece by the same name from his 2004 book Let’s Wrestle.

Your Saturday Morning News Not From Boak And Bailey

Six thirty Ay Hem. That’s what you get when you go to bed early on a Friday. After having a nap around supper time. That’s how I think of myself on this sort of Saturday. Okocimiski.

Three elections in a row this week plus, you know, the life of a desk jockey did me in. The first election last Monday in my former tiny jurisdiction of PEI saw my old law school prof get in as Premier. The next on Tuesday in the western Canadian home of the conservative puritans saw a landslide by the socialist hoard. And in the Old Country Thursday the nationalist lefties beat out the unionist pinkos to send the aysmetrical quasi-federation into a dither. The combined effect of many split votes in the last one caused the astounding “great victory of no more votes” – quite an accomplishment. What’s this got to do with beer? Not that much. But I work in governance so am aware that some things do actually matter. What else has been going on?

=> Jim Koch is cashing in some of his shares. Note that his balance of equity seems to be worth around 63.4 million. Sure, it’s a small brewery. Sure it is.

=> In one post, Ron has explained the point of Asheville NC far more clearly than the output of 1,000 subsidized junkets. That he got there via a milk run back country bus was a deft bit of contextualization even if he had to sit on his luggage… no, his actual luggage.

=> It’s been three weeks since beer retailing in Ontario was reformed and absolutely not one thing has actually changed. Classic boondoggling. And no one is complaining. Classic Ontario. Perhaps by 2028 we’ll be allowed to hold our beer bottles with our left hands in public. After all, what really matters is the posing. Like calling something “a game changer”, Toronto has a wee problem calling itself “world class” like the needy kid back in kindergarten who told you his uncle went to space. The phenomenon is described by the term world classy.

=> Go read BB. And then do it again. Where don’t their tentacles reach? It’s like they are becoming a vast industrial complex. [Thankfully, we can trust they did not write “here’s how to unearth the ‘ultimate’ session beer” in that header.] Note: their post on May Day celebrations at Padstow in North Cornwall is one of their best ever.

=> This is funny. In far western British Columbia:

The final report of the B.C. Liquor Policy Review recommends the government consider establishing a quality assurance program for craft beer and artisan-distilled spirits, similar to the VQA, or Vintners Quality Alliance, program — which currently guarantees wines are made in B.C., with 100 per cent B.C. ingredients.

Trouble is no one checked that “local” and “craft” in beer bear scant relationship to wine so… they are left with the same sort of fibs and platitudes we always see – which led to the refreshingly honest admission: “that’s kind of thrown a wrench into the ability to focus on what the next level would be.

=> Just realized that if I started my own periodical I could name it “Al About Beer.” I would have to work on my ra-ra superlatives so maybe not.

=> Might I suggest unless one is extreeeeemely certain that a surprise beer and brunch pairing for Mother’s Day is only one thing: a quick route to the dog house. Don’t be stupid. Just because the love of your life puts up with your dependency / “hobby” it does not mean she likes it. Not at all.

Saturday. And maybe a stinking hot one as well. It was +25C¹ after deep into dusk last night. That means gardening. Letting more lettuce seed buried. Or drinks in the yard. Might get a bit Okocimiski. Jest Sobota Okocimiska? Może. Or I could just go get a growler. You have to remember that they sell lettuce at the grocery store in July, too, you know. Enjoy your Saturday. 7:45 am. People are starting to get up. Better make coffee.

¹ Disclosure: in Canada in spring there are a few days when you have to still make clear you are talking about +25C and not -25C.

Looking Out The Window Of A Pub

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It’s one of my favorite things to do, sitting looking out the window of a pub. This was last Monday afternoon. The Bow Bar in Edinburgh. I was just getting used to the time zone and would fly out the next day. Two guys standing at the bar in the small one room space were providing the background track to the seat with a view. Apparently, the Bow Bar is packed on weekends but who sits in bar staring out the window on weekends? It’s something to do when your colleagues are at work. When you could be writing a report. Making plans. Paying bills.

Back From That Trip To Scotland That I Mentioned…


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I was away for a week on a business trip to Scotland. A whole week? Well, as I am the son of two of those Scots who took to the four corners of the world, I did add a couple of days of vacation but, much to my surprise, it also took 33 hours of travel to get from where I am to where I was going and then, for unknown reasons, well over 20 hours to get back. Evil ocean. Where are the supersonic subs I was promised in comic books as a kid? So while the jet lag isn’t as bad when traveling west, I still need to put things in order. A bit of a photo travelogue, then, tonight. A slide show.

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I had not sought out the Bow Bar in Edinburgh before but if there was a ticking habit in my life I feel my one pint in the corner was one big check mark on page one. image247I was not actually hunting it out and had it in entirely the wrong place in my mind, over at the west end of Rose Street. Probably something else wonderful that I am unaware of is over there. We found ourselves standing next to it when I was hunting out a shop to buy things made of wool. I had a pint of their 3.8% house Bowhemian Ale brewed for them by Alechemy Brewing. It was testimony to the pointlessness of beer over a certain strength. Lots of body. Refreshing in the middle of a march around the town. Interesting with plenty to think about.

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The day before the goal was well understood. We headed directly to the door of the Cafe Royal near Waverley Railway Station where we had stood in the summer only to be told the kids could not come in. The laws on kids and bars in Scotland can get quite frustrating but do allow one to consider leaving them behind on another continent with the in-laws. The place is magnificent. The opposite of the study in plainness that is the Bow Bar.

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That was good, having the night before been at an event at Glasgow City Chambers where I sat down to dinner with – I kid you not – a Sir, a Lord, a Lady, a High Commissioner, two Right Honourables, a Baillee and… a Baroness. Got piped in and everything. image261The Cafe Royal is second only to the rooms in that municipal palace for grandeur. Not a word I use often. Grandeur. Back at the Cafe Royal, I had cullen skink as well as some smoked salmon along with a couple of pints, ROK IPA as well as an Edinburgh Pale Ale. The latter was a gem. Just 3.4% with a black tea malt lingering finish there was plenty of malt in the body. The tiled art on the southern wall of the bar is quite the thing. It appears to be a selection of great moments in science’s benefits to mankind. More on those tiles here.

The Piper Bar off George Square in Glasgow and into a weird flashback into pop metal of the 1980s and ’90s. I had a couple of pints of Bitter and Twisted as we head bobbed along with the crowd to Metallica, Iron Maiden and AC/DC. It was pretty refreshing after an evening at the high table. There were airport beers, too. A 4% Camden Pale Ale at Heathrow on the way home and an 8% Wellington Imperial Stout on the way there at Toronto Pearson. The CPA was more expensive. A lunch at The Beehive Inn on Grassmarket to the south of Edinburgh Castle featured whitebait. I want whitebait all the time now. It’s like smelt. But more like smelt-lettes. French fries made of the whole body of a tiny fish. A cheery 4.2% Crofters’ Pale Ale by An Teallach Ale Company of Camusnagaul, Dundonnell, Little Loch Broom went down with that. Just enough to get me out the door and, about an hour and a half later, into the Bow Bar.

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What to make of all this? Certainly that there is plenty of good beer to be found even when you are not hunting it out if you are in the right sort of community and know what to look for. No sessions. Just one here. Another there. And certainly there is plenty of good beer well under the 5% lower limit that is so common in much of North America. Think I am going to head over to my local brewery and propose a collaboration. Which is code for pushy beer writer who wants a beer he can’t get. That’s it, right? Anyway, home again. Where the houses are larger and warmer. Where the grass is not a lovely shade of green in January. Where you don’t have to tip the help because it’s your teenager.

So That’s Us Back From Scotland. Did I Learn Anything?

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The Golfer’s Rest in North Berwick, East Lothian. When we sat down on the bay window sofa cushions, I said to the kids “now, this is a pub” by which I meant a space that had the feel of a shared public rec room combined with a well managed courteous corner store. With beer. There are analogies to North American spaces but they don’t always have strong drink. The nearest comparison in Canada is more the Tim Horton’s coffee shop in a small town than a bar. Places where all sorts of people meet. The guys at the bar were discussing their latest golf games as well as great golf moments. No different than a bunch of rec leaguers anywhere. I wish I had a pub like this in my life.

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A bit of a photo essay. To help me think about the things I liked on the trip as well as the things I thought about. This being a family vacation centered on visiting more family, there was not all that much bouncing around my brain about beer, frankly, but there was a bit. I can’t get over how good it is to have flavorful reasonably bodied hop-shy beers of under 4% readily available. For me, the only measure of strength is milliliters of pure alcohol in the glass or bottle in front of me. Having the option of a 500 ml or pint of roughly 20 ml strength beer is a treat. Deuchars IPA at 3.8% kept my attention a couple of times as did the lowly rated EPA I had with my Balmoral chicken at a pub on Rose Street in Edinburgh called 1780. It was great to have a glass of beer then continue with the unending march that was the holiday. Made me wonder if the current US trend towards low alcohol high hop beers is a last ditch effort to avoid the difficulty of making the lighter UK style beers that more people would likely find attractive.

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I am not sure that I like sparkers all that much but it was not a strong impression for me. I have come to think that I don’t really yearn for more Wetherspoon experience. The rules were too much for me. The numbered tables. Maybe my brief experience was not representative so consider that should you actually ever make the mistake of relying on my view. I did learn I like Timothy Taylor. I had three pints over the time I was there. I passed up a very good glass of Côtes du Rhône Villages to have another pint with my lamb chops. Yet, I also had a very good pint of Carling. I was so surprised I had another and confirmed my impression. Was it the company of my cousin-in-law Jim and the chat with his pal the owner at the Ye Olde Anchor, built in 1707 in my mother’s hometown? Who knows? It was a rich experience walking around the streets, seeing pubs like the one grandfather barred my cousin from taking my brother to in 1977. And the one that was the start and finishing place of a majestic 14 hour bender with another cousin in 1986. Or was it just the fact that in all these settings the beer was not the primary function of what was going on. I did, after all, see BrewDog in Edinburgh and passed it by – not out of disinterest as the fact that, as was often the case, there was likely another better thing to do. In that case, The Holyrood 9A was the better thing.

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scot2014sIf you like the sort of holiday that gets you familiar with a small patch with lots to do – like, say, Montreal – I can’t recommend Edinburgh and the Lothian area more highly. Even for almost two weeks. It’s not just about the golf, either. We spent three hours in the Scottish National Museum in the early section and had to explain to the kids that in all that time we had not really seen anything related to the clan given that we only came to Scotland in 1250 AD. The city during the Fringe Festival was as animated as I have seen in a community. One real treat was the trip out to Bass Rock on the boat run by the Scottish Seabird Centre. And, as you can see, there was beer, Puffin Best Bitter. A good low strength tasty pint that in no way interfered with the rest of the day’s to do list. A beer that functioned exactly like a cup of tea. It refreshed and set one up for whatever was next. Who knew? It made me realize how little I like the idea of “session beer” with all due respect as I wanted one of these when I was not having a session. It’s not like there’s a need to label something session tea.

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What did I learn? I learned that I might want to change a few things but that I come from people from a great place and also that I am lucky that my parents decided to make the jump across the ocean, too. I also learned that it’s only twelve hours door to door. A taxi, a plane, another plane, a bus, a train, a bus and a half a block’s walk in fact. Thinking already about a repeat soon.

If This Is Monday Is That Longniddry?

 

scot2014kBy the second week, I’ve given up on most places listed in the guides like The Malt Shovel as there are rules against kids even in their mid-teens coming into some pubs that have me befuddled. I never inquired so I might be entirely wrong about the place. Some pubs like The Ship Inn in North Berwick are good for families until 8 pm. Others like The Abbotsford on Rose Street in Edinburgh are fine with the family upstairs in the restaurant but not downstairs in the bar. One Wetherspoons had so many rules (give the man your table number and your pint may arrive in twenty minutes… but only if you are in that room with the 14 year old) that I thanked them and left. Fortunately common sense reigns at the Old Clubhouse in Gullane where Timothy Taylor flows even if through a sparkler. Up there with The Holyrood 9A as best stops so far.

The Ship Inn was all sparklers, too. The pub sat in a dark red sandstone building on corner a few blocks back from the shore, tenament style, apartments upstairs, established 1895. Big windows and a few picnic tables out front under shady tree… well, shady when it’s not raining. Inside, dark wood and comfortable leather benches and arm chairs. Friendly service but they appeared to have never conceived of hot chocolate and Baileys. It was, you know, raining. It was remarked upon a few times by the staff. Said they would add it to the drinks list. Being Canadian seems a natural thing, having eight months of winter and all. Three hand pulls of local beers along with ten or so taps, mainly from larger breweries. Large selection of bottles, mirrored shelves. Open central space by bar. Tip jar. Tipping is interesting. Neither encouraged or refused. Asked in a few places and consensus is 10% is appreciated but not expected or demanded. Uncle and I both agreed upon the Broughton IPA – which came in at 5.5% even if on sparkler. Creamy mouthfeel, pronounced chewy hops.

That’s all for now. The train is approaching the sunny Clyde the noo.

Scotland: The Holyrood 9A, Edinburgh

image224Made it. Fourteen hours door to door to Uncle and Auntie’s. Next day? Children down to the pub. Well, a pub. The Holyrood 9A in Edinburgh’s Old Town. It’s warm. The warmest room so far. Williams Caesar Augustus is a tasty pint. Very full for what would be a light beer at home. Tropical hops, sure, but a good malt backbone balancing them out… well, almost. A venison burger is coming. Half the tables, like ours, have happy kids.

Great Grannie’s Favorite Pub Was A Boat

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Great-grannie passed away in 1946. Tales have been told about her ways. If you click on the thumbnail you will see the house above the car where she lived on the second floor, stepping out on the second floor ledge to wash the windows in her 80s without tying on. Sending her grandson down to the pub for a half-pint of whisky after being barred – again – for life. Plenty of slack is given, however, seeing as she lived across the road from the shipyard before, during and after the blitzing.

2mack12She had issues, sure, but she also had a certain sense of style. Her favorite pub “The Suez Canal” was actually in a village down the Clyde. I had always been told she loved the portholes for windows. Classy. I recall seeing a few portholes still still up a back alley when lost while wandering around town in the 80s looking for cousins with beer. Found one at “The George” who called out “Ets ma cuzn frae Ganeeder!” Twelve hours later…

The picture above was posted today by the local newspaper on Facebook. The smiling barman in the picture in the wee boat is local lad and former world flyweignt boxing champ, Jackie Paterson. Worth the bus trip apparently.