Our trip to Helensburgh started well. The journey was pleasant, even allowing for the fact that at Gretna Services, nobody could supply coffee due to water pressure problems. Not that Costa, Burger King or KFC bothered telling anyone. They just let you queue, no doubt in the hope you'd buy something else. One shop though had one of these self serve machines, which did the job. But th'Alfa was in fine form, and we arrived in decent time at our digs.
First time we've used Airbnb, but this was a new architect designed build in a decent location, and it turned out to be just fine. Triple glazed against the Clyde's icy blasts and very well heated and modern, we were snug as bugs in rugs. We unpacked, checked it all out and decided a pint was in order. We weren't eating until seven, and it was just before five, so why not? Only one place to go, the Ashton, which was a former local CAMRA Pub of the Year, and which I used to have the odd pint in nearly 50 years ago. Mind you, I have been back plenty of times since.
Three cask beers on offer in this Belhaven outlet. Fyne Ales Jarl, Taylor's Landlord and something else which I have forgotten. Possibly even from Scotland? Not taking notes can be a disadvantage - but I don't look like a dork at least. We had to sign in and wear masks, this being Wee Nic's bailiwick, and we soon got used to it again. The beer was good, I was inadvertently short-changed, which gave rise to a bit of banter when I mentioned it. "She's been doin' it for years Son" and the like. A great start and the subsequent meal was fab, so all was well so far.
Next day after a wander round, we tried a pint in the JDW Henry Bell. I wasn't confident, but after a couple of duff tasters, I had a pint of The Headstock, a somewhat sweet and insipid pale ale from Redcastle Brewery in
Carmyle, which is in the East End of Glasgow. Carmyllie which is apparently in Tayside. I suspect that it might have been just about better -though likely not by much - if it was turning over. By the time I struggled through it, my pal arrived and she, being a gin monster, it would have been rude not to join her in her preferred potion. E was a willing accomplice and after a swift one - or was it two? - we went to our booked table at La Jupe where a couple of pints of keg Jarl before too much wine, was the order of the day. No cask there.
A freezing cold Scotrail Class 334 took us to Oban the next day. The chillness of the train was somewhat abated by the views and good weather. But so cold had I become, that our first stop was Mountain Warehouse for an additional layer. Wisely E had more layers than Scott of the Antarctic. No real ale at our fishy restaurant lunch stop, or at Aulays Bar, where my first pint of Tennents was from a pub that was a finalist in the best pint of Tennents in Scotland. There at least, was a fine traditional Scottish bar and the beer wasn't too bad either, in a tallest dwarf sort of way. Seeking that elusive frog to kiss, after we had been shopping, we tried the Oban Inn. No real ale there and hence to the Lorne Bar, where a lonely handpump looked as though it hadn't pulled a pint since the summer. At least. A friendly welcome though, and a nice complete island bar with peculiar colour changing lights was enjoyable. A sort of subdued Highland disco perhaps? Tennents again for us.
Our last port of call was next to the station. The very impressive Corryvwrekan, a JDW house had plenty of real ale at least. Frog snog it was. I rejected the Orkney Dark Island after a taste and settled on their Northern Light Blonde Ale, which was neither refreshing nor citrusy, as promised on the clip but was - well - knackered - and a complete diacetyl bomb to boot. Back in a wet Helensburgh after another cold journey we nipped into the Ashton, where again, Jarl restored my faith as we watched Rangers win and some local drunks being pretty obnoxious.
Not much to drink at all the next day as it was curry night with my teetotal sister and brother-in-law. We did manage a walk to the Belhaven operated Ardencaple Hotel, which we reached after a freezing walk in a howling gale, but a nice chat to locals and decent lager from West sufficed. I did note two handpumps, which while certainly not defunct, were not offering cask at that time.
Saturday took us to Glasgow and the Old Tenement House for a bit of culture. Fab place and well worth a visit and handy for the State Bar, a real ale bastion, where cask drinking is not a strange thing to be doing. Not too busy at one in the afternoon, but it was more than gratifying to see the pumps being used at a rate of knots. Stewart Brewing Citra Blonde was two pints good and if we hadn't been meeting our pal again, would have required more. I paid in cash and I doubt if it was giveaway. It isn't price, folks - it is turnover.
And so a final trip to JDW where I gave up on cask for the week. Redcastle again and I disliked the taste of both the IPA and the Red Ale. Bottles of Brookyn Lager - which was surprisingly good - is it still imported? - filled the gap until our evening meal at the fab and packed Sugar Boat.
Normally speaking, real ale drinking can be a bit of a kissing frogs exercise. Especially in strange territory, it takes a long time to find your prince/princess. Here you had to find your frog first and in what is effectively a real ale desert, this is even more difficult than usual. Turnover is very difficult where you are in a drinking environment where, if you don't sell Tennents Lager, just don't bother opening.
So what do I conclude? This neck of the woods isn't really cask territory at the best of times, so buyer beware. Be very suspicious of a lone wicket and try before you buy. Recommended Good Beer Guide places are usually a reasonable bet, but even there, turnover can be a problem and as I always say, cask needs turnover above all.
Sad to see that Belhaven signage is being relegated to second place by its Greene King owners wherever you go. Greene King is being pushed instead on almost everything printed. If it wasn't for Belhaven Best, there would be nothing at all, really.
It was also clear that the English influence in real ale turnover within Helensburgh was diminished by a lack of winter tourists, and there wasn't too big a Royal Navy presence on our visit. They mop up a fair bit, though there were four English lads getting stuck into the TT Landlord in the Ashton.
In my next blog I'll tell you about somewhere where cask is King and the difference that makes.