Thankfully there are a number of dedicated real ale free houses in the city, one of which, The Bow Bar, was 60 seconds from my hotel room, though I didn't know this at the time of booking. A nice treat and one I took advantage of because there were eight casks on tap, and I wasn't strictly in Edinburgh on a beer holiday, but managed to nip out to this wonderful bar with ease. An interesting aspect of this bar was the compressed air powered Aitken dispense system. I was very curious about this system because when I ordered my own beer and watched others being served, I noted that a pint glass was filled very rapidly, and vast amounts of beer were splashed from the glass into the spill tray. It appeared terribly wasteful to me until I got a quiet moment to query the land lady and discovered that the dispense is a traditionally Scottish one, where the beer that spills to the tray can be re-dispensed from a storage vessel with a capacity of around half a litre. Upon pouring, the bar staff flick a switch under the bar to activate the pumps and then turn the lever to release the beer. The lever position allows the bar staff to determine how much beer stems from the cask and how much from the return tray. I was informed that the optimal combination is 70% cask and 30% tray return, with the last switch of the lever introducing a degree of turbulence to bring a head to the beer. I imagine the the need for the return tray dispense system is required because of the aggressive initial pour from the tap rather than the reported Scottish tendency for thrift.
There were eight ales on offer in The Bow Bar, but the highlight for me was Timothy Taylor's Landlord, a beer I had heard a great deal about and wondered if it could possibly live up to expectation. The short answer is yes it did. It proved to be have the juiciest malt of any ale I have tried which was balanced perfectly with fruity hops and bitterness. I was tempted to sample a great many more Landlord but moved on to some of the other offerings. Hydes 1863 Classic Bitter 3.4% couldn't have been more different to Landlord being rather bland and unsatisfying. Guzzler 3.6% from the York Brewery and William's Joker 5% offered more, both having a punchy hop character and much more satisfying than most of the golden ales available. White Boar Bitter provided a far drier and more satisfying finish than the other bitter on offer, all of which can be rounded off by the only dark ale on offer, the porterish Blackcat 3.4% from the Moorehouse Brewery.
The next pub of interest was The Blue Blazer, situated uncomfortably close to a trio of seedy looking strip clubs which I have been told is locally referred to the 'pubic triangle' or 'triangle of sin', but the clientèle within were a far cry from the punters associated with the aforementioned type of establishment. Quiets games of Scrabble were a feature of this place, which suited me down to the ground while I supped upon a pint of Pivo Estivo 3.9% from the Kelburn Brewery. This was an example of another assertively hopped golden ale, with plenty of citrus hops but its thin body made me grow tired of it and I moved on to the Lord Kelvin Centennial of the Strathaven Brewery, a coffeeish malty brew, but very sweet after the hoppy ale beforehand. In keeping with all the pubs we visited on this trip, the bar staff we chatty and enthusiastic about the beer they served. The woman serving at the Blue Blazer guided me through the beers on offer and engaged with me in some debate on the sparkler issue. It seems that the predilection for sparkler dispensed cask ale traverses the border with Northern England and has firmly established itself in Scotland. Almost all pubs use them, and the landlady at the Blue Blazer was evangelical, sharing with me her disappointment at being served a flat headless pint when she visits London. Sadly, I couldn't debate with her terribly well being starved of cask beer in Ireland, but I must admit that I am growing fond of sparkled cask ale for much the same reason this lady liked it; texture and mouthfeel.A short walk from The Blue Blazer will find you at Cloisters Bar, by far the busiest of the free houses, but we chanced upon a seat and settled in to sample some of the 9 real ales on offer. Chatting with the bar staff proved more difficult here, but advice was on offer as well as a taste before purchase, which all of the best free houses provide. My first beer, at the suggestion of the barman, was Tradewinds 4.3% of the Cairngorm Brewery, yet another straw pale ale with plenty of citrus hops which was initially satisfying, but once again the body was lacking and the beer just gave up on me half way through the glass. This seemed to be a common theme among golden ales and grew tiresome, resulting in a hankering for a pint of satisfying Landlord, which was also available in this bar. But I pressed on, grabbing a glass of Cosmic 4.2% from the Black Hole Brewery in Burton, dispensed from a tap sporting a novelty looking clip, and giving the familiar sulphurous nose of beers from the Burton region. It proved to be more satisfying than the golden ales, having more body and a good malt measure.
The beer available in Edinburgh's pubs seems to travel great distances to please the Scottish beer lover, and I strangely tasted my first Welsh beer while there. I knew I was asking for trouble when I ordered it, because an IPA at 3.8%, whatever the debate of style definitions, is going to be a dodgy pint. And so it proved with Welsh Mountain IPA from the Great Orne Brewery. There was little or no hop contribution and was generally insipid, though the worst criticism for this beer came from my fiancee who said, 'it's like beer watered down'. Coming from a dedicated Bud Lite drinker this is harsh criticism indeed. And so on to what seems to be common aspect of my travel articles; a green beer. My last trip out of the country to Prague turned up a green beer made with nettles and so too this trip presented one. There were no nettles in Edinburgh, but the beer was greener than the last one and it came from Wiltshire. Sign of Spring from the Stonehendge Brewery proved quite popular with the locals, which was understandable perhaps because it tasted of little and had a certain novelty appeal. I couldn't detect anything in it which would account for the green colour, and it was forgettable aside for its curious hue.
Along with cask ales, most of the free houses carried taps for other quality imported beers such as Pilsner Urquell and surprisingly, Budvar Dark. If you find the right pub there is a real appreciation for beer in all forms and much pleasure to be had chatting with the helpful and enthusiastic staff. Coupled with this are the off licenses which have reasonable selection of beer, but it seems to me that the real beer treats are to found in a chain of shops called The Whisky Store where I chanced upon numerous Scottish ales and, much to my excitement, some Brew Dog Paradox Stout which had been aged in Scotch whisky barrels before bottling. Overall, while a great many of the cask ales available proved to be a disappointment, there is enough to keep the average beer lover busy in Edinburgh and much can be learned from the helpful staff of the free houses around the city.