It must be hard being a real ale campaigner in Scotland and I take my hat off to those that do it. This is a rocky and uphill road and it has much ability to give disappointment and duff pints in equal measure. Though there must be compensating pleasures, I'm glad I do my bit for CAMRA in the relatively green, sunny and real ale rich pastures of Rochdale, Oldham and Bury.
But the campaign is about quality as well as choice, so how does Balloch measure up? Firstly, why Balloch? Well simple really. It was the only handy place I could get a train to. Balloch is at the bottom of Loch Lomond, though in shivering cold, its banks and braes were anything but bonny. The road wasn't that bonny either, being around two feet of slushy snow. It has three real ale outlets - I say outlets rather than pubs - as none is a pub in the accepted English sense, two being hotel bars and one, just a typical Scottish one room bar*. It has one other advantage as a small real ale crawl - all the boozers are within a three minute walk of the station and consequently of each other.
*The Dog House is a typical one roomed bar - or so I thought - but seemingly there is another bar within. Nonetheless I was in the one with the real ale, though as might be expected, everyone was drinking Tennents or cider, which may well explain the slightly stale and oxidised pint of the local brew, Southern Summit from Loch Lomond Brewery, carefully served in a Belhaven Best glass. The room was roughly rectangular with some bench seating and a small row of tables and chairs placed strategically in front of one of the dominating TVs. It was friendly enough in that nobody stabbed me, but it was clearly a locals bar, with banter flying freely about as the denizens battered back the TL and walloped down the vodka. I stayed for one only and was gratified that another recalcitrant ordered the cask before I left. Maybe it would be better than mine?
Just 50 yards away on the other side of the road was a place, Balloch House, I'd been to before without having a particularly good time. I wrote about that here. Hoping for improvement, I went in. Firstly it was busy. Two guys were playing traditional (not Scottish) music and a few stood at the bar though like me they held their coats awkwardly under their arms, as there was nowhere apparent to hang them. The handpump selection was, one (empty), one (Doom Bar - off,) one (Bitter and Twisted) and the other Deuchars IPA. There might even have been another, but I can't remember. I selected Bitter and Twisted which was unsparkled and definitely uninspiring - average at best. Looking around the pub had been furnished with various useless tat by modern pub central and although plenty people were in, it strikes me as the kind of place that couldn't generate atmosphere if you sealed all the doors and windows and pumped laughing gas in. (Your mileage may vary.) I was additionally annoyed by the free Wi-Fi which required - and didn't get - a huge amount of intrusive information as a matter of course. Having failed to enjoy this place on two visits, I must bravely face the fact that I like nothing at all about this Mitchells and Butler's outpost. Sorry.
Lastly the Tullie Inn. This is a bit of a barn and was clearly redeveloped some years ago from its former more traditional look to aim for the summer trade. In winter, it just looked, big, soulless, cold and empty. I was greeted at the door by an A board where "George and Mildred" - or whoever - assured me of a warm welcome. I find though that if you have to write the welcome down, it is sure to be wholly absent within. And so it came to pass. Funnily though my Cask Marque accredited pint from Fallen Brewery of Stirling was pretty good, even though the beer, Grapevine, fell several hurdles short of its description of "New World Pale" and was a mighty £4 a pint. Time was against me and that one would have to do. My train and, unknown to me, a very disturbed night ahead, awaited me.
Balloch is probably best experienced for its views of Loch Lomond and the Ben. Stick to them and you'll be quite happy. Expect a lot from the local pubs and sadly, you may well be disappointed.
I don't recall any keg craft as such in any of the pubs, so that avenue was pretty well closed.
The rail line to Helensburgh is now restored and with luck I can nip down there later for a decent pint. I might even get home tomorrow.
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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