The international reputation of Scotland’s drinking culture rests with the malt whisky industry, but within Scotland another contender is growing in popularity: craft cask ales. My love for the smooth character and rich flavors of cask ales has grown to the point where I prefer them more than the heavily carbonated lagers and kegged beers available in the States. Recent visits to the Stewart Brewery and CAMRA meetings have only made this love all the more clear. A day in Scotland feels incomplete without a trusty pint.
After a long day of sightseeing in Scotland’s castle country, few things could have rejuvenated me like the newly-christened Deeside Beer Festival (previously MacBethfest). It was serendipity that the festival was on while Sarah and I were also in the region, and I learned long ago that you don’t turn a cold shoulder on these opportunities. Just 15 minutes east of Ballater on the way to Aberdeen sleeps the little village of Aboyne. There, hidden among pastoral woodland and rolling hills, is the Deeside Activity Park, home of the Deeside Beer Festival and Deeside Brewery.
I had a moment of confusion upon arriving to the activity park as I could count the number of cars on two hands. Was I in the right place? I’m accustomed to sprawling beer festivals with hundreds of tents and thousands of people. As I walked toward the sound of revelry, I thought this looked more like a modest family reunion. People sat around barrels and stood chatting, all of them holding massive 16oz. glasses specially made for the festival. Slabs of Angus beef sizzled on a grill before being stuffed into rolls and slathered with horseradish. It all felt very communal and cozy; it was right up my alley.
After paying for the glass and a few beer tokens, we drifted into a large warehouse decorated for a ceilidh. This was the first night of the beer festival and the ceilidh would close it out on the following night. Patrons traded wooden tokens for glasses of local cask ales, and more people sat around tables, wisely choosing to be closer to the brewers and their mini casks. In addition to the ales of the Deeside Brewery, Angus Ales and the Olde Burnside Brewing Company were also present and pouring their products.
I started with a delicious, dark (and strong!) stout from Deeside called Talorcan. This area of Scotland was known to be home to the Pictish people, and the flavor of the Deeside Brewery’s slogan, “Brewed in Pictland,” carries through to the naming of their beers. Talorcan, for instance, was the name of many Pictish kings. It’s the kind of creative twist that always gets me, and it makes me want to drink more of their beer. It doesn’t hurt that it’s quite excellent brew.
All three of these breweries are very small shops with limited distribution, and I’m always curious to hear the start-up business histories. When I sauntered up for my second drink, I couldn’t contain my curiosity. I struck up a conversation with a nice guy in a gray Deeside Brewery shirt named Rob James. Minutes later, Sarah and I are next door with Rob in the Deeside Brewery. In fact, Rob is the Deeside Brewery.
We walked among his equipment and talked about the evolution of Deeside Brewery, how it used to be named Hillside Brewery when he brewed in his house. After some negotiation, Rob moved the brewery to the Deeside Activity Park in 2008 and started brewing under a new name in early 2009. It’s the story of a man following his passion and finding success. It’s a good place to be: the Scottish craft beer scene is about a decade behind the States, where craft brewing has exploded and started to cut into the profits of major breweries.
Rob and the Deeside Brewery could be in for some exciting times, especially if he keeps making beer this tasty.