Sunday, July 1, 2012

Brewer on tour - from Blair Atholl to Athol, Massachusetts.

As you'll have noticed the blogs have been a wee bit thin on the ground recently. Mea culpa, as I've been overseas to the United States of America. Athol in Massachusetts to be precise, helping the town celebrate its 250th anniversary, in my humble capacity as an Atholl Highlander, the Duke of Atholl's personal bodyguard and army, based at Blair Castle, Blair Atholl, Perthshire. We were away for two weeks, ten days in Athol staying with host families, then one night in Boston, finishing up with 4 days in Bermuda, opening the first ever Bermuda Highland Games, being billeted in the Royal Bermudan Regiment's Warwick Camp. I'll start off with some high points of our stay in Athol.

The very fine Derek and the late great Will Sellars - who were tasked with looking after Niall and me in Athol. We think we won the jackpot with the host pairings - the best people who could not do enough for us. Will, on the right, passed away unexpectedly a week after our return. A tragic loss to all who knew him, as he was an upstanding gentleman - a Virginian and a Scot of ancient descent - immensely proud of his heritage and very knowledgeable of Scottish and American History. We only knew him for 6 days, but I felt he was like an elder brother. A caring, fun and kind man, ever ready to stand up for those in need. A good storyteller and a fine singer too. We'll all miss him.

The bar in our host's house - being a good 25 minute drive away from the centre of Athol, it was a very pleasant room to spend some relaxation time. The fridge was full of lovely beers - Wachusett and Berkshire Brewing, to name but a few. As one sipped at the fine ales, through the window (seen from the garden in the first picture of this piece above, to the left of the flags) could be seen a bird feeder - not for sparrows or chaffinches, but for hummingbirds. Amazing tiny birds - stunningly irridescent and beautiful - a real treat for us.
One of the Athol hosts, Jerome, in his garage beside his pride and joys - his classic XJS Jaguar and his three barrel self-built brewery. He had a 'kegerator' in the kitchen which contained 4 kegs of his homebrews on tap - excellent beer and very tasty indeed. A good brewer for sure. I suspect there a quite a few microbrewers in this country who could learn a thing or two from Jerome. One of our Atholl Highlanders did very well staying with Jerome and his wife Liz! Four beers on tap in the kitchen - Wow! Super people who certainly know how to put on a cracking party.

'Hey, let's go and visit another brewery...'
'Ok, if you insist...'
And what a brewery it was. Berkshire Brewing Company, in South Deerfield, in Western Massachusetts, has been going 19 years. Founded by homebrewers Chris and Gary, it's a really friendly homely brewery that brews fantastic beer. I felt so much at home there on our tour with my fellow Highlanders Ross and Kevin and their host Don. Here we are, below, in the Dick Schatz taproom inside the brewery. The late Dick Schatz was one of the band of helpers in the Berkshire Brewing Co. (BBC)'s early days, when friends would come down and pitch in unpaid with hand bottling or scrubbing out tanks. He left his huge collection of American Breweriana to BBC and they honoured his memory with this lovely bar.

Out in the fermenting cellars. Like us, they pretty much brew ale, with one or two bottom-fermenting styles. BBC brews about four times as much as we do at Inveralmond, but there is still the same attention to detail and passion for the beer.

Ssshhh... Beer sleeping quietly in the lagering cellars.

The growler cleaning team and a real jolly pair. A growler is the standard term for the brown half-gallon flagon used by most new breweries in the US, seen coming out of the washer.

A sneaky shot from the men's restroom - complete with the super homebrewing magazine, Zymurgy. If you're serious about homebrewing, get a subscription - just google it. It comes from Boulder in Colorado, but it's high quality homebrewing information with good articles and plenty of practical knowledge.
Back in the taproom with a shot of the full beer range on draught. If you get the chance to pop in, do. You'll not be disappointed. Great beer, great people with a great attitude. As the BBC t-shirts say, 'Things are looking up!'

Next brewery - ok, we were there as the Atholl Highlanders doing gigs here there and everywhere, but we did in fact do a show at this next brewery. In Merrimack in New Hampshire (state motto on every number plate - 'Live Free or Die!') is the Anheuser-Busch Budweiser Brewery. The smallest of their 16 breweries in the US, it was still the size of a small city.

Real live brewing heritage, folks, Bud-style. Not our great piper Ross - he's just there to give the brewery behind some scale - but the plastic horse, Big Scott, who was one of the renowned Budweiser Dray Clydesdales. There is a huge stable block here, where they keep one of the Clydesdale teams. The horses seem to be a bigger attraction than the beer, so much was made of them during our tour.

The famous Budweiser USA beechwood chip lagering tanks. There were seemingly  hundreds of them.  The tour took in the major points of brewing Bud, from the malt and rice rail wagons, through the brewhouse with its rice cookers, mash tuns, lauter tuns and hop kettles and on to the fermentation cellars. One of the interesting things about Bud is that these lagering tanks, laid inside up to a foot deep with beechwood chips to allow the yeast to continue to mature the beer for 21 days by remaining in contact with the beer rather than flocculating and settling on to the vessel floor, are krausened, or primed, with a percentage of freshly fermenting beer. A traditional German practice, but not unsurprising, as most of the older US brewing techniques came from Germany. Quite a labour-intensive operation - adding the chips and then taking them out afterwards all by hand to clean and so on. Nice to see it still continued by a Very Large Brewery.  

An Inveralmond T-shirt smuggled inside the sanctum sanctorum of the brewery tasting room. I was expecting the security heavies to hustle me out double-quick!

The famous New England Clambake, put on for us by the Athol 250 Committee, as seen in the musical 'Carousel', although there may be more lobster visible than clam. Truly sensational. A big fire within the stone cicle is started, then plenty of seaweed laid on top, then buckets of fresh clams and lobster, then covered with more seaweed and finally a tarpaulin. This allows the steam from the wet seaweed cook the seafood to perfection. Delicious.

The Blind Pig, Athol. One of the Great Pubs of the World. I cannot recommend the Pig enough - great staff, great customers and great pub grub, topped off with a superb selection of crafty brews on draught. A beer festival in itself. The beer fridge at the end of the bar holds a cornucopia of first-rate New England micros - go visit and enjoy. Summer opening hours 11am - late M-F, closed Sat/Sun.

Friendly folk beside the flowers - always like a bar that has fresh flowers in a vase on the bar. The locals kept buying us beer and we felt this was a wonderful and honourable tradition that we should indulge ourselves in. Thanks everyone! The hospitality was overwhelming and humbling, but we did give as good as we got. One of the pipers Ross, already seen in these notes, got up his pipes and stood up on the bar cranking out a few good tunes for us to sing along to, then he would go into what became known as 'the Death March' - he would step off the bar on to a bar stool in time with the beat and then off into mid-air without looking, expecting us to scrabble madly about placing bar stools under his feet as he marched around the bar on to the hastily-placed bar stools! Incredibly, each time this happened, his foot would land on to a stool just in time. Nerve-wracking for us rushing around with the stools, but hilarious to watch!

The Pig in all her glory - kitted out in fine Scottish style, wearing her own Athol 250th Anniversary Medal (on the purple ribbon) which we were all presented with in the Town Hall at a grand ceremony after a march through the town with colours flying and fixed bayonets. In the soaking rain, I might add, but it didn't detract from the occasion, merely add to the heightened emotions.

Young Niall and I flanking Carol and Deb, who was also looking after us in excellent fashion, from the Athol Town Library, proudly showing us the bold extension plans for the venerable building. Ah yes, Culture - I remember it well...

Get on the bus, get off the bus. Where's the next gig? What are playing? Who are we playing for?
Some  post-gig lite refreshment

To be continued...Slàinte, Ken