I was in Scotland last week and as always I try and observe the beer scene there, remote though I am from it. I usually pop into three pubs for a half or two on the way to or back from Dumbarton. I've written about the Drum and Monkey (part of the Nicolson's chain) before and it does a good job of presenting interesting beer in good nick, though a glance around the pub shows as many, if not more supping Tennent's Lager. When I called last week they had a "Beer Festival" on and the approach of a few well chosen beers isn't a bad one at all.
Nearby on the way to Queen Street Station are two Wetherspoons. The Counting House is a huge and impressive ex banking hall and is interesting for that and while the range of beers is expansive, I have never really found it that good quality wise, though it has improved. My CAMRA colleagues from Glasgow say it is on the up, but it is in and out of the Good Beer Guide(currently in) indicating an ambivalence at best. Nearby - across the road in fact - the smaller Camperdown Place has a smaller, but probably better chosen range and the beer is always good. I do tend though to spend a fair bit of time in both watching what people drink in there and gratifyingly, there is a fair bit of real ale sold. You simply can't deny that without JDW there would be a lot less cask beer drunk in what remains a lager stronghold. Then again, the West of Scotland always has been a lager stronghold, so perhaps that is all the more remarkable.
My home town has no real ale outlets. Yet. I was reminded forcibly of this when out with my old mother. Tennent's Lager which is ubiquitous, has no discernible taste other than carbonic acid, but is everywhere. Smooth beer (Belhaven usually) and Stella complete the range. Bottles? Yes. Becks or Corona. The thriving real ale scene in Scotland is actually very small and is hard to find, other than in its key strongholds such as Edinburgh. So where is this going? I was in Helensburgh meeting an old friend. Helensburgh is a posher and slightly less depressed place than my home town, with a fair sprinkling of people from rUK. Well, England really. Some are Royal Navy from the huge Faslane base and many just live there for reasons of business or perhaps a liking for wind and rain. The local JDW, theHenry Bell, was selling a lot of real ale. I chatted to the manager who was worried they'd run out of festival beers. Quality was good and she said that there was no problem selling cask, though of course, she still sold more Tennents. Oh well, but the point is that where there is a constant availability and choice of real ale, it not only turns over, but it sells.
Back in Dumbarton I looked at the new JDW being built. It is the old Woolies I remember so well from my childhood and of course it will sell real ale. Now Dumbarton is a lot harder a nut to crack. I remember the Cutty Sark trying it years ago and the many pints of vinegar I was offered, but if I'm right, real ale will gradually gain a toe hold here. Even in depressed Clyde Coast Towns, beer isn't cheap and I have no doubt that in the Henry Bell, many will have gone for cask on price, but they wouldn't stick with it if they didn't like it. So keen pricing in the new Captain James Lang will be a key factor, but it will be the constant availability and commitment that will slowly raise sales.
I'll be back in Dumbarton in July about a month after the new JDW opens. I await it with great interest as it will bring cask beer back to a real ale desert. That to me is a good thing.
Of course JDW haters will think that a lot of bollocks, but they have a choice usually. It will mean that there will be food available until ten at night. That's good too. Pubs in the town are already complaining. They'll really have to up their game.
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer writer, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival from 2013 to date. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink. He also judges beer at both the International Beer Challenge and the World Beer Awards.
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