The train takes my wife and I from Glasgow to the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond: yes, that lake from the only Scottish song Americans know. And no, we never take the high road.
Kindly Tourist Office directions send us along the canal, which stretches like a green carpet into the cool grey lake. Boats, ducks, and day-trippers float along it. We reach the pedestrianized port bay. The sun glints off market tents curving along the bank.
Hungry (but secretly thirsty) we first sample eclectic cheeses, shortbreads, and toffees. We pretend to ignore the brewery tent. Now fed, and clearly not alcoholics, clearly, we join a man walking up to try beer.
A former wrestler, made entirely of haggis and brew greets us.
Loch Lomond Brewery is a family affair. Beefcake above runs the tastings, but we briefly saw Fiona McEachern, their Director and Brewster buzzing about. She carries on a grand Scottish tradition, where women brewed the beer, while men cooked the food. Edinburgh castle had a whole room about it.
McEachern has ten barrels fermenting only 360 gallons a year. She makes a respectable range with a Blond (lean, light, fruity), Bonnie n’ Bitter (bright, lively, hoppy florals, killer green grassy bitter streaked finish), Kessog Dark Ale (angling at Guinness but much bolder, richer, spicier). But her last two stood out.
The first bought was Loch Lomond’s The Ale of Leven: a pun of the Vale of Leven, where she brews. This beer is not as local as the label claims. Malts and hops come from all over. But that is the wide world of beer.
Nonetheless, as with Whisky, water is Lomond’s claim to difference. The Luss Hills feed the Glen Finlas, which feeds their beer. The minerals, pH, and other bits in the water are supposedly enough to separate Lomond from the pack.
The Ale of Leven was a clear, amber color, with miniscule fizz, and no head. Strong aromas of toffee, caramel apple, nutmeg, and slight soy sauce coddled me. The palate had enough acid, alcohol, and extra bitterness and body to match the hardy foods of the north. All that was mellowed with a barge-load of malted softness. Everything but the whole hops got the malt-treatment: from Marris Otter and Crystal malts, to the malted barley and malted wheat.
The resultant flavors were lovely. Caramel apple, raspberries, vanilla and wheat led, while a quite bitter and refreshing finish tidied up all that silken, creamy, tastiness. Luxury without the guilt. This is very good. Four out five, if you need a number.
Now for something a bit more Scottish:
Fiona McEachern makes a higher alcohol beer, then pops it in used Whisky barrels (which were once sherry or bourbon barrels in their own right). By now the barrel is used and mild enough not to kill the beer.
The result? Well, bottle 825 of 1320 had a clear but intense color reminiscent of oxidized iron, a super fine fizz, and minor head. Aromas were of intense toasted coconut, molasses, toasted vanilla, and candied orange. Acid was low. Bitterness high. Alcohol hitting high at 7.2% making the body bulkier. The texture remained creamy and frothy. Flavors of burnt toffee, tres leches and American coffee were ever-present and the long, long finish tasted of pure vanilla extract. This is exceptionally good stuff. Surprisingly balanced and silky. Have as its own meal or with dessert, think chocolate, cookies. Four or more out of five.
Drink Loch Lomond. You will find the usual suspects. They won’t disappoint expectations because they play to type. However, McEachern’s Ale of Leven and Whisky Ale impress because both tried to be greater, both in their parts and their sum. Welcome back to the Scottish Brewster!
After a beer-warmed walk on the forested bankside of Loch Lomond, sun still shinning it silver, we took the high road, I mean train, home.