Beer-grimages to the Cairngorms and Black Isle

by Keith Savage · 8 comments

Black Isle Brewery, Black Isle, Scotland

Here’s a factoid about Traveling Savage you might not know: I actually drink more of Scotland’s beer than whisky when I’m traveling abroad. You know, that room-temperature, largely-uncarbonated, rich, delicious brew the UK is known for? Real ale, that’s what I’m talking about.

It’s difficult to understand the beer preference. Perhaps it’s due to my German heritage, upbringing in the USA’s best beer state (…Wisconsin), and graduation from the USA’s most infamous beer-drinking university (…UW-Madison). It’s not cost: a pint of beer and your average dram of whisky are roughly the same price (£2-4). Actually, the pieces are coming together and I think it’s pretty simple: sometimes I feel like having a beer, sometimes I feel like having a whisky, and sometimes I feel like having several beers. I’ve yet to find a “session whisky,” and my liver is panicking at the mere thought of such an invention.

A nice pint at the pub is a worthy addition to any day ramble around Scotland, though bellying up to the bar can be confusing for the average visitor. Other than, perhaps, Tennent’s, is there another Scottish brewery you would recognize? Scotland’s whisky industry has overshadowed its brewing counterpart on the international stage to this point, but the disparity between the two might be decreasing. Many brewers and bartenders I’ve spoken to in Scotland compare the current state of their craft brewing scene to America’s in the 90s. In other words, it’s just now exploding.

I’ve written about Stewart Brewery and Deeside Brewery in the past, and last spring I had the opportunity to make a couple more beer-grimages to Black Isle Brewery and the Cairngorm Brewery Company. Thirsty yet?

Black Isle Brewery

Just 20 minutes north of Inverness, the aptly-named Black Isle Brewery holes up in the fertile farmlands of the Black Isle. Sarah and I dropped in to their old brewery after an uncertain drive down some very empty farm roads. I say “old” because they were in the process of building a new brewery when I visited (I believe it’s now complete). What I knew about Black Isle Brewery was that I liked their approach to making beer: Fresh, local, organic ingredients, small batches, environmentally friendly, and progressive. That and their thistle logo is pretty sweet.

We arrived under a gray sky and appeared to be the only visitors. I admit, I was concerned this would turn out like my immense jaunt across Shetland, Yell, and Unst – including two car ferries – to visit Valhalla Brewery only to find it was just a sign on a ramshackle barn. In the shop we found kindly Christine with her white hair and young soul, and my fears were allayed. Sarah and I browsed around as Christine fretted about her missing dog. After a few minutes of animated dog drubbing, Christine took us next door into the barn/brewery…leaving the shop unattended. Hey this is rural Scotland and a small business.

The old brewery is a small-scale affair using a five barrel (36 gallon) brewkit, and it’s the same setup they used for 11 years despite the business growing by 50% each year. The entire system fit in this one small area. Aspiring brewers take heart – you don’t need a multi-million dollar brewery to make excellent beer and get it in front of thirsty enthusiasts.

Christine mentioned the new brewery’s modern configuration (1,300 sq. m, 30 barrel system with all the stainless steel accoutrements beer geeks go crazy about) and insisted it wouldn’t change their approach to making organic beers. We popped back into the shop and sampled a few of their wares, like the rich and malty Scotch Ale and Heather Honey “breakfast beer.” You know we couldn’t leave without taking some bottles with us. We were just following Black Isle Brewery’s motto: Save the Planet, Drink Organic.

Cairngorm Brewery Company

The Cairngorm Brewery Company is located in Aviemore, the most popular town in the scenic Cairngorms National Park. Unlike many of Scotland’s craft breweries, you can usually find one of Cairngorm’s beers on tap at pubs around Scotland, and I’ve enjoyed their Trade Winds and Black Gold brews on many occasions. The brewery occupies an unassuming industrial building, but this is pretty typical of breweries and I learned not to judge the beer by the building long ago.

This visit turned out to be less about education and more about drinking. We visited after stopping at Dalwhinnie and got in just before they closed, so no tours were available. Instead, we tasted a full slate of Cairngorm’s offerings.

Cairngorm’s beer range covers the spectrum from rich and malty to light and hoppy. Sarah and I have pretty different tastes. She likes the lighter, blonde beers (go figure) so she chose the Cairngorm Gold and Trade Winds for the gift pack we decided to pick up. I went with the Wildcat (a red ale) and the Black Gold (a stout), though Nessie’s Monster Mash and Stag were also quite good. All of the beers have big bodies and tons of flavor, and these are characteristics shared by many of Scotland’s craft beers. They probably aren’t short on calories, either, which is why it took me seven months to lose the weight I picked up on this trip.

Take it from me: There’s a lot of excellent craft beer in Scotland and I haven’t even gotten to visit Inveralmond Brewery or Tempest Brewery yet. The problem is that distribution is on such a small scale, so localized to the brewery, that it can be hard or impossible to find a particular brewery’s beer even in other parts of Scotland. Hoping to find these brews in the States? Forget it. Guess you’ll just have to make a beer-grimage of your own.

CHIPNo Gravatar February 16, 2012 at 4:32 PM

Have you been to Philadelphia? The craft brewing capital of the USA. It seems that many of these brew pubs have decided to have their beers, and maybe some “guest beers” and also some single malts. Just your style…try Earth, Bread, & Brewery in Mt. Airy (NW Phila.)

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 16, 2012 at 6:50 PM

Hey Chip, I can only claim to have visited Philadelphia’s airport so no, not really. Thanks for the recommendation – it does sound like my kind of place.

garyNo Gravatar February 16, 2012 at 8:24 AM

Have you visited Islay Ales? Worth a visit.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 16, 2012 at 9:08 AM

Hi Gary, indeed I have. I visited Islay Ales on my last trip to Scotland (and Islay, obviously). I had a chance to speak with the brewer, a guy from England, and take a look at his very small (!) operation. He’s doing some good things, and his beer was my first taste of Islay as I crossed the sea on the ferry.

KenNo Gravatar February 15, 2012 at 11:17 AM

Mmm. Scottish beer is one of the things to thinking of with anticipation. Scottish breakfasts, too. That’s why I’m on my own pre-trip weight loss program.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 15, 2012 at 11:39 AM

The key is to cut calories elsewhere while traveling, like food.

Tom MooreNo Gravatar February 15, 2012 at 11:07 AM

HMMM a beer-grimage. Sounds like a great idea! I love doing real ale while “across the pond!” My fave so far is Black Sheep in Yorkshire.


Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 15, 2012 at 11:35 AM

Ooh, I had my first pint of Black Sheep at the Isles Inn in Portree, Isle of Skye last year and absolutely LOVED IT! Truly a fantastic pint.

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