I’m feeling guilty.
But not too guilty.
Les Strachan, AKA Beer Buddy, and I have been in Scotland four days. We’ve been conscientious about trying local beers—or at least ales brewed in the home country.
We started with Skye Red from the Isle of Skye Brewing Company.
This seemed appropriate since we were nearly on the Isle of Skye. Arisaig, to be exact, which is a lovely little fishing village with a wicked little golf course that beat us up so badly that we did indeed need a beer. Several, in fact, factoring in that we were under the influence of jet lag after flying out of Dulles International Airport the day before.
Skye Red came to us in a bottle while we savored the waning sunlight of a rare blue sky in early September. At 4.2 percent alcohol by volume, it leaned more toward the sessionable side—typical of many British ales—than the beefy profile of some American craft counterparts. The brewery’s website says Skye Red is brewed with three kinds of malts (pale ale, crystal and roasted) milled on site, which is not atypical for many breweries. Challenger, Fuggle and Pioneer hops provide 15 IBUs and a modicum of hop aroma, more earthy than citrus or piney as with American styles. The Red was clean and highly drinkable, but in the end it left us wanting a bit more substance.
That’s when Les and I started realizing we were spoiled by American craft brewing. More specifically, we had become hop heads of the most addicted sort. We should be attending support groups—Hop Heads Anonmyous. Hop-Anon. On the 12-step program, the first step of which is to acknowledge being powerless over the seductive magic of hops.
That explains why I’m feeling guilty at the moment. Here in the Scottish town of Peebles, a few leagues south of Edinburgh, I discovered a pub that carries American craft beers. Not just any craft beers, but West Coast IPAs pumped with mouth-puckering IBUs.
It’s not that brewers in the UK are clueless about IPAs. After all, the Brits originated the style, renowned for its high-gravity, high-hop intensity that made it suitable for sea voyages from Liverpool or Burton to Calcutta or New Delhi. But let’s keep in mind that IPAs had disappeared from the face of the earth until American brewers—Fritz Maytag at Anchor and Bert Grant with Grant Ales—revived them and sent them on the path to becoming the predominant style in the United States.
In fact, British brewers are making some rewarding versions, including the Punk IPA from BrewDog that was my second beer of the trip. At 5.6 percent ABV and 45 IBUs (IBUs stands for International Bitterness Units), this Scottish brew uses six varieties of hops—Chinook, Ahtanum, Amarillo, Cascade, Simcoe and Nelson Sauvin—to create “our tribute to the classic IPAs of yesteryear.” I doubt if Nelson Sauvin, a New Zealand hop, was available when Hodgson and Burton breweries made the style popular in the 1800s, but BrewDog calls it “post modern,” which gives it a Clockwork Orange twist. Punk IPA was among the finalists this year in the first Scottish Beer Awards, as was another IPA I sampled—Pale Keith from Keith Brewery Ltd. I would have given Keith an award for the clever wording in its marketing. Example: “This strong and refreshing hop beer has American hops added at every stage of the brewing process. This makes it anything but bland—a bit like America in fact. But smaller.” It also should be noted that English IPAs are not the same beasts as American IPAs; the stylistic guidelines differ, according to the Beer Judge Certification Program. English versions generally are more moderate with hop profiles emphasizing earthy, grassy and/or floral characteristics.
Anyway, Les and I enjoyed several evenings of sampling cask ales—Caledonia, Belhaven, Strathaven, An Teallach, Glenfinnan and even a pale ale brewed on a nano-system at the Old Inn in Gairloch. All were in the sessionable category, meaning they were relatively low in alcohol to allow the imbiber to have a drinking “session” with minimal hangover and liver damage. Creamy, quaffable, satisfying but not challenging, these beers left us trembling for a hop fix.
Here in Peebles, I did some Googling and discovered that the Cross Keys pub offers Lagunitas IPA from sunny California. Plus the online beer menu sports Resin, a double IPA from Six Point Craft Ales in Brooklyn, N.Y.
I boogied through the evening mists to Cross Keys, a bustling bar in the town center, and ordered a bottle of Lagunitas IPA (Point of clarity–Lagunitas is now 50 percent owned by Heinekin, which puts it outside the craft brewery category as defined by the Brewers Association). At 51.5 IBUs and 6.2 ABV, it was a definite step in the right direction for my spoiled taste buds. It was the perfect accompaniment to a conversation that I struck up with a fellow at the next table, a gent who had spent 30 years in London before returning to his beloved Scotland, where he was intent on indulging his passion for fly fishing. Judging from the copper-hued brew in his pint glass, he was drinking one of the “real ales” that dominated the Cross Keys beer menu.
It wasn’t until I ordered Resin that I achieved true beer enlightenment. Named for the resins in the lupulin glands in hop plants that provide the acids and oils that give bitterness, flavor and aroma to beer, this brew rocked the casbah with 103 IBUs. That sounds off the charts—and to some palates, it probably is—but Six Point pushes the grain bill to balance the hop howitzer with malty sweetness. My accompanying meal was a smoked salmon, cream cheese and “rocket” bagel (“rocket” is an leafy vegetable with a slight bitter taste similar to arugula).
Hurl all the “American beer snob” invectives at me that you can muster. I deflect them by saying Les and I have not had a bad beer while in the U.K. Every one has been well made and well served, particularly those from the cask engines that require special attention. The Strathaven 80-shilling Scottish ale we drank at the Bankfoot Inn was particularly delicious. And you’d be hard pressed to find American breweries offering the same variety of milds that are common in many British pubs.
But when it comes to appreciating the skill of American brewers in certain styles—well, color me guilty.