Each year, Stone and Scottish craft brewery BrewDog participate in a brewer exchange program, where one of their brewers gets to escape the cold, gloomy Scotland winter and work on his or her tan (or burn) in Southern California. Meanwhile, a member of our Brew Crew goes across the pond to trudge through the rain and discover all of the insufficiencies of the winter clothes we have stashed in the back of our closet (and maybe pull out once every other year for a trip to the mountains). I was lucky enough to get to go this past November, and I took notes (and lots of pictures)! First, look at where BrewDog’s brewery is:
I traveled to Ellon, home of the BrewDog brewery. Near the end of November in Scotland, you only get six-and-a-half hours of sunlight per day. It’s likely you go both to work in and return home in the dark. And don’t worry about missing the sun because when it’s out you’re working. You probably wouldn’t have seen it anyways, as rain clouds coat the sky almost all day. The BrewDog brewer traveling to San Diego definitely comes out on top, weather-wise. So, I wouldn’t recommend Scotland in the winter if you’re looking for a tropical vacation, but, if seeing a rad, fast-growing brewery making awesome beers, experiencing international sporting events, seeing the heart of Whisky Country, checking out London’s brewing scene, and getting around to BrewDog Bars constitutes paradise in your book, then I highly recommend this travel package. Almost every person I met who knew I was from San Diego asked “what the hell did you come out here for?” But, hey, the weather in San Diego can get boring. I grew up near San Francisco, so I’m all for bundling up every once in a while. Anyways, to give a good illustration of the weather over there, here’s a picture I took the first day I was there:
This is a color picture. I did not edit it in any way. Just snapped it with my phone. This was also about the “best” weather I saw while there.
I arrived on a Wednesday night and met up with a crew from BrewDog for dinner at a restaurant called the Cock and Bull. When I asked for a quintessential Scottish dishes they ordered me a Scotch egg followed by fish and chips. Now, fish and chips I’ve had, and they are great, but I hadn’t encountered a Scotch egg. The one I had was a slightly fancied-up restaurant version with black pudding encasing the egg. But from what I came to understand, it’s a hard-boiled egg with a layer of sausage around that’s then breaded and deep-fried. They’re eaten hot or cold. Some restaurants serve them halved, but more casual locations serve them whole as a handful of sausagey-egg goodness to bite right into. I’m really glad I had it! If you’re not familiar with black pudding it’s blood sausage, another item not commonly found in the U.S., but it’s damn tasty. Later in the trip I even tried some haggis (a type of pudding made from sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, mixed with spices and boiled in the sheep’s stomach ‘til done) with breakfast and it was awesome as well, though it kind of feels like cheating to have it served like sausage patties. Thumbs up from me on Scotland’s national dishes. After dinner, I got set up at the Buchan. I’ve only recently been exposed to hotels in Europe and I’ve come to observe they are far smaller than their American counterparts. It’s a bit of a shock when you’re used to a room with a full bed, plenty of extra space, and a couch. Their set-up makes a lot more sense for a single traveler. What do you need all the other space for when you’re barely in the room, anyways?
Thursday morning it was off to BrewDog’s brewery, where I got to nerd out on all their equipment and generally figure out how all of their processes go. It’s a pretty cool exchange, the sort of “How do you do this thing? Because this is how we do it” conversation that is beneficial to both sides. You really get to see what works well, and in our case, make some recommendations so that some of the formidable growth they’re seeing has less stumbling blocks (that, being older, we already stumbled over previously). One unique thing about the brewery that you’ll notice in the pictures below is the artwork. They have a sort of in-house graffiti artist with a very particular style, definitely breaks up the monotony of plain empty walls!
BrewDog’s similar to Stone in a lot of ways, over the top, flavorful beers, a hard-working crew and tons of growth! One area they’re different in, however, is that their crew is very international. I imagine this as being the case in a lot of industries in Europe, but their crew consists of people from Scotland, Ireland, England, Spain, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Greece, and who knows how many I inadvertently omitted. It’s like the United Nations of brewing there, unlike here in, ironically, the world’s famous melting pot. In a way this is awesome – bringing together so many cultures – the ideas must just be burst forth all the time (even though, communication-wise, it can bring some challenges)! Almost no one has the same native language and there are about four different versions of English being spoken at any point as well. I think it’s awesome to see such diversity. The next week I had a chance to brew an IPA with jasmine and coconut on BrewDog’s pilot system. The grist bill was pretty simple just some two-row barley malt and a pinch of caramel malt, simply hopped so as not to take away from the coconut and jasmine, with those ingredients added in the whirlpool to maximize their aroma. Hope it turned out well!
That Friday afternoon, we headed out to Glasgow. What Google Maps tells you should be a three-hour drive took about six with traffic because of rain, it being Friday and insert any one of a dozen other factors here. There was also the fact that we were en route to the Scotland vs. Ireland soccer game pretty much every citizen of both nations was headed to. Attending a match like this was crazy. The first thing I saw that was different from any sporting event I’d ever been to was that they do not serve alcohol at the game. I suppose it makes sense to, you know, prevent riots and all. But what this means is no one arrives at the stadium until about 10 minutes before the game starts. In Glasgow, the stadium is a 10-block walk from the downtown area where all the bars are, so there was a crazy throng of people emptying out of taverns and heading to the stadium right before the game. There were more men in kilts than I had ever seen, and if the cops hadn’t turned a blind eye regarding public urination, half the country would have been in jail. (The shot below is actually people leaving the rugby game I later went to, but you get the point.) The game had an amazing atmosphere, very tense and serious in many ways, but lots of excitement, good-natured ribbing and chants. You could see why the alcohol restriction’s a good idea, as an entire section of green-clad Ireland fans was completely surrounded by police for their protection. It was a great game and Scotland came away with a late goal for the win, so the nation (and my chaperones) was happy.
The next day we split up and a couple of us made our way to Edinburgh by train for the Scotland vs. New Zealand rugby match. We arrived, had a nice walk through town and got to see a few sights before we ended up at a BrewDog bar. After some pizza and pints, we grabbed a ride to the stadium. Now, I don’t know if I held this opinion uniquely, but I would have thought rugby would draw a more raucous and unruly crowd than soccer. Soccer is the “people’s game” and rugby is a classier affair. There are bits on the video boards during the game touting “the rugby way” (sportsmanship and honor) and they do serve alcohol at the game, as I guess the atmosphere lends itself a bit more to crowd control. Very interesting considering the smash-mouth play of the actual sport, but cool to discover all the same. It was great to have a few beers with my sports this time around, and I can’t believe I was lucky enough to see the All-Blacks play as well. Seeing the Haka in person was very cool, and the game was good too! If anyone’s unfamiliar with rugby, New Zealand is perennially ranked number one, and the Haka (seen below) is a war dance of the Maori people who originally populated the island nation. So for Scotland to play them close and get them to insert some big-name starters for the second half was something of a moral victory.
After the game we set out in Edinburgh to hit a couple beer bars. The first was the Hanging Bat, and that ended up being the only bar we made it to. We happened upon the end of a beer dinner featuring Weird Beard, sat down with them and well, talked beer for the rest of the night. We had many good beers from Weird Beard’s tap take-over, and enjoyed the company of some folks who were stoked on beer in general. The UK beer scene is definitely interesting from an American perspective, especially someone living in San Diego. There are a lot of craft breweries, but they are all still very small (with the exception of BrewDog). I’d imagine it’s what the early ‘90s were like in San Diego, with breweries like Sierra Nevada and Deschutes playing the sort of BrewDog role at that point. But the main difference, as I perceived it, is that in the US in the ‘90s there wasn’t as much traditionbehind beer before craft breweries came about. US consumers just saw beer as beer and grabbed whatever was on the shelf because all of the beers were essentially the same. In the UK, it seems to me people have more pride in and like to follow the traditions of established beer culture. In a way it’s admirable, as it seems a bit less like blindly getting beer off the shelf, but also leads to some people being closed off to new beers and ways of experiencing them. I like the idea of incorporating excellent new things while not forgetting what made the old desirable in the first place, and appreciating a beer for what it is. I think the UK is headed in the right direction and will usher in a new era in craft beer. There are awesome things about craft beer culture which should definitely be widely adopted, but don’t forget the historically awesome things that tradition brings to the table too! The next day we had a look at some castles and whatnot. You know, buildings standing from medieval times. It was totally typical and completely uninteresting…yeah, right. Seeing castles hundreds of years old and being able to feel that kind of history around you is something unfamiliar to someone who’s lived in California their entire life. With the jam-packed schedule we kept during my time there, I actually didn’t venture into any castles (I know, I’m terrible) but saw many from the outside, which was just as amazing for me. The couple that stick out are Edinburgh Castle (pictured below) and the Tower of London. Something about seeing a building with a moat is just fascinating, even though the Tower’s moat is dry. I guess the fact that I’d only seen a moat in cartoons, movies and history books made seeing one in person a real trip!
From Edinburgh, it was back to Ellon and the Buchan, ready for a week at the brewery. For the NFL fans out there, it’s an interesting experience having American football games start at 6 p.m., 9:25 p.m. and 1:15 a.m. Makes for a fun, but long Sunday night! And what would a trip to Scotland be without Scotch? Before leaving, I made it up north to distillery country where I met up with Charlotte, one of BrewDog’s brewers who is familiar with the area. She was kind enough to show me around to Glenfiddich, where we got a glimpse of the entire process. Speyside Cooperage gave me a crash course in barrel construction, as well as a view of the men making barrels for Scotch aging. This was followed by a tasting at Gordon & McPhail’s, purveyors of fine whisky. I can now say I’m slightly educated in Scotch. But (luckily for all for whim a trip to Scotland isn’t in the cards) the true education comes through tasting for yourself.
Of course, there was beer up north as well. A visit to Windswept Brewing in Lossiemouth, where Al (pictured below, the gentleman on the left – Head Brewer at Windswept) was kind enough to show us around and share some awesome beers. I felt lucky enough to get a taste of the Wolf of Glen Moray, which is their dark Scottish strong ale, Wolf, aged in Glen Moray whisky casks, and it is awesome!
Excellent beer, scotch, sporting events, castles...I probably could repeat this journey 10 times over before anything got to the point of being “ordinary” (along the way, I’d find a million more things to experience). If you get the chance to head to Scotland, seeing BrewDog and all their brewpubs is highly recommended, as well as taking in all the culture and history there is on offer at every turn. Just be sure to bring plenty of sturdy winter apparel!
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