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Edinburgh’s Bi-Polar Beer Scene

You Humble Narrator Pulling a Pint at the Halfway House

You Humble Narrator About to Pull a Pint at the Halfway House

Vue Weekly last week ran the latest in my series of columns produced from my summer travels, this time on the few days I spent tramping around historic Edinburgh (you can read the piece here).

What struck me about Edinburgh – aside from the inescapable presence of Edinburgh Castle towering over the city – is how it seems to have two completely separate beer scenes. Just like the city’s architectural layout, the beer seems to reflect a bi-polar character of old and new. Those familiar with Edinburgh will know that the historic part of the city is divided into two distinct “towns”. Old Town is the original site built down the steep slopes surrounding the castle. Chaotic and crowded, Old Town today holds on to is majestic, historic charm. In the late 1700s, in response to over-crowding and appalling santitation, city leaders designed and built a completely second town across what was then a lake (and is now the main train station). New Town is straight, orderly, organized and a bit prim – the exact opposite of Old Town.

Scottish beer seems to take on this contrast. While there I sampled many a fine cask ale in traditional pubs. Caledonian, whom I profiled here, embodies the commitment to tradition. Plus there are no shortage of traditional British pubs in which to down a pint and eat a meat pie. If you want a glimpse of Scottish beer in the 1800s, try the Cafe Royal, Abbotsford Bar or Oxford Bar,all of whom are unchanged since their openings. My personal favourite was a small, family-run pub called Halfway House – so-called because it was half way up a steep hill heading to the Royal Mile.

And then there is the new. Of course, we all know about BrewDog and their punk-infused edginess. But there are a raft of small Scottish brewers, most of whom produce mostly bottles and thus eschew the traditional pub scene. I had some beer that would be right at home at the Great American Beer Festival. Of particular note are Natural Selection, Alechemy and Cromarty – all of whom produce creative, interesting, American-inspired beer. They and other could be found at the Hanging Bat, a bar which feels much more like a North America craft beer bar than a British pub.

As a symbol of how beer in Scotland appears as two solitudes, had I relied only on the CAMRA Good Beer Guide as my beer bible I would have never heard of Hanging Bat. Despite the wide range of delicious craft beer, it does not rate CAMRA’s attention. Neither does BrewDog’s pub. The main reason, of course, is neither serves cask ale – opting for more modern dispensing. Still, it is telling that one could spend an entire lifetime in Edinburgh and only experience one or the other of what it has to offer, beer-wise.

It was intriguing and fascinating. And, as a final note, I can safely say beer tastes better when you are sitting in a good pub overlooking one of the most attractive historical cities in the world.

6 comments to Edinburgh’s Bi-Polar Beer Scene

  • Yvan

    “The main reason, of course, is neither serves cask ale”

    True of BrewDog, but the Hanging Bat *does* serve cask ale. I don’t know the local CAMRA branch, but some would probably be stupidly affronted by the mere presence of British micro brews in keg form… sucks to be them.

  • SteveP

    Yes – sadly for this long-time CAMRA member, the rise of craft beer in the UK (and thank God for that) pushes the CAMRA purists further into irrelevance. One might draw a parallel with how France slipped in its domination of the wine market – while the products (French “name” wines, cask ales) remained honest, the old guard refused to believe that the upstarts (New World varietal wines, craft beer) had anything worthwhile to offer. Consumers voted with their wallets, and the result is history.

  • Chris

    I’ve never visited the UK (shame on me), but on a recent trip to Seattle, a great craft beer city, we stopped at a pub that always has a rotating local cask beer on tap. While cask nights are great, as far as I know, there is no establishment in Edmonton with a cask beer in regular rotation.
    In your opinion Jason, is there enough buy in from both Alberta breweries and customers to support an Edmonton bar maintaining a cask beer in rotation?

    • beerguy

      Hi Chris,

      Seattle is a great beer city. To answer your question, I honestly don’t think there is the awareness yet to support a regular cask ale offering. I believe one or more of the local breweries would be up to making sure a cask was always available – although those kind of things work best when there are multiple options available in terms of breweries.

      The problem is that the public has not yet figured cask out. The growing number of events is encouraging. I am particularly pleased that Beer Revolution is now doing a weekly cask ale on Fridays. But a daily offering? I just don’t think it will sell. People will buy a pint if they are there during a cask event, just to try it. I just don’t think they would go for it as a regular offering. Not yet. I am hopeful that I will see it in my lifetime. But not yet.

      Thanks for asking.

      Jason

  • Chris

    Thanks for the reply Jason. I didn’t know about Friday Nights at Beer Revolution. Once a week is a step forward from once a month.

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