Ale Drinking in Bicester

Easter is a fantastic time to travel, especially if you’re blessed with the kind of weather that we received this year.

Having spend much of the year hibernating inside, the promise of sunny weather and an opportunity to take the car down South arose, so I bundled the wife into the car and we headed down to a little town known as Bicester. Nestled in the Cherwell district of northeastern Oxfordshire, Bicester is a pleasant southern town that offers a slice of idyllic countryside charm alongside some truly civilised pubs to drink at.

During the days we took strolls out at some lovely places, including Rousham Gardens, Island Pond Wood and the Bure Park Nature Reserve. But when it came to the afternoons we both descended upon the local pubs in search of the best local ales that the area had to offer. Some nights we ate dinner, other nights we chose just to drink instead, thankfully our Airbnb wasn’t too far from the action!

These are our favourite pubs from the trip including our personal highlights:

The Sow & Pigs, Poundon

Known as ‘The Pigs’ by locals, this charming early 19th-Century pub is a perfect place to visit for any traditional pub lover. There’s everything that you’d expect from a pub here including excellently prepared classic grub and some lovely hand-pulled ales. Whilst we weren’t blown away by the range of ales on offer here, there was a lovely atmosphere accentuated by the lovely locals. Mike was a particular character who claimed to be Bicester’s expert oven cleaner – weren’t going to argue with him!

The Trigger Pond, Launton

This little gem was awarded Best Food Pub by the Best of the Best Awards in 2018, which ensured out expectations were suitably high before entering. Thankfully these expectations were met and then exceeded! Although we couldn’t describe this as a ‘classic pub‘, it’s a modern, well-presented place that provides a high standard of service throughout. We were only considering popping in for a pint, but the food looked and smelled so good that we couldn’t resist ordering some. We definitely recommend sharing some starters over a few pints here, the pot of sausages with honey mustard glaze was particularly good…

The Butcher’s Arms, Fringford

Licensed in 1735, The Butcher’s Arms has been keeping locals happy with their well-kept ales for centuries since. Obviously the place has changed hands a few times since then, but that has by no means led to a drop in quality.  The Butcher’s is just the kind of place that the wife and I love to visit. Woefully stricken with crawling ivy, it’s almost Gothic in its appearance and is notable for its disused red telephone box which is now home to copious amounts of vegetation. This is a superlatively homely pub, with some fantastic ales on offer, not to mention a good range of food on the menu.

Overall, we can’t recommend Bicester enough. It’s a lovely part of the town to visit and there are some fantastic pubs to get settled in at.

Drinking Odyssey in Crieff

It’s a typically cloudy morning in Kincardine when I set out on my bicycle to the nearby town of Crieff.

Since moving to Scotland in 2012, I’ve been trying to explore as much of this varied, gorgeous country as possible.

It’s estimated that bonny ol’ Scotland’s tourism is worth around £11bn, a number that’s unsurprising when you consider the amount of activities and sights there are to take in for both big budgets and small. For travellers on a budget there are thousands of miles of tracks to explore for free through some truly stunning scenery. If you’ve got a bit more cash to splash there are a litany of luxury hotels, spas and retreats just waiting to pamper you to silly.

Part of the joy of travelling is exploring new places and (of course) new beers – unfortunately, when you plan on sampling as much drink as I do, it’s kind of irresponsible to sit behind the wheel of a car. That’s why I opt for my two-wheeled friend. Although it’s still illegal to cycle over the limit, I feel more comfortable sipping half pints, eating food and then cycling off the booze in my blood, than woozily stepping in to my car and drifting off to the next venue.

‘Why Crieff?’

This is as good a question as any.

I chose Crieff as a destination because I knew that I could cycle there within a few hours and that there were a variety of low-high budget drinking options at my disposal.

There are a handful of affordably priced Highland lodges with hot tub facilities that you can rent, but few as peacefully serene as the site at Highland Heather Lodges. More of a collection of holiday homes than a proper holiday park, each lodge is fitted out with more than ample facilities, including a private hot tub – just the thing for a post-cycle drinking marathon.

Although I had the option of staying at most of the drinking destinations that I had in mind, I thought it would be wiser to stay on my bike and simply cycle my way around.

The first stop on my route was the Tower Gastro Pub. This family run establishment combines the elegance of city dining with the comfort of a simple country pub, offering some interesting twists on some pub classics as well as a wide selection of excellent beers.

I sit inside feeling a little weary from the forty or so miles that I’ve cycled so far to day – time for a drink! The first pint has travelled less miles than me. Look West is a ‘refreshing blond beer’ from very local brewers StrathBraan brewery. Produced in small batches, this is a smooth tasting, light beer that certainly delivers on flavour.

From there it was on to my next destination: Crieff Hydro. Opened as a hydropathic spa back in 1868, Crieff Hydro is now a modern holiday park without the cheap trappings that are usually associated with these kinds of places.

I cycle past families on segways and kids with painted faces, along a gravel drive up to The Hub, their dedicated bar. There’s a relaxed modern vibe here epitomised by their range of beers all of which are supplied by craft beer heroes, BrewDog. I order some snacks and spend an hour sipping on a pint of Dead Pony Club, a truly excellent American-style session ale.

Feeling a little lighter on my feet, I bid farewell to the expansive grounds of Crieff Hydro and head on to my final destination. The Meadow Inn is one of those down-to-earth places that you could easily spend a whole day in. The decent range of local and national beers on tap include Tribute, one of my favourite beers from Cornwall, which I greedily glug two pints of, before ordering a steak to celebrate my successes.

I’m a little wobbly on my feet as I return to my lodge and just thank my lucky stars that I was wearing a helmet…

Dave Reynolds has been a Forth Valley resident since 2012, after he moved up to Scotland from his life-long home of London. An avid beer and travel enthusiast, he is currently spending his retirement exploring his new adopted home. He writes about his travel experiences here and for select publications, both in print and online.

Summer Beer Festivals South of the Border

Thinking of drinking some brews down South?

Our pick of the Beer Festivals in England and Wales this Summer…

A while back we looked at all the great beer festivals that are taking place this year in Scotland, by now we’re sure you’ve made a few plans but it’s important not to forget about the host of exciting beer-based events that are taking place just south of the border in England and Wales. Whilst we know that many Scottish folk might turn their noses up at heading down south for a jaunt, especially when there are so many great beer festivals in our own Scotland, it would be silly to ignore the sheer variety of events that take place in England over the heady summer months.

There was a time when beer festivals were nothing more than a collection of kegs and a handful of old men getting slowly sozzled in the back room of a pub, but things have changed since then. Where once just a scattering of timber packing cases and barrels would have sufficed, a lot more is expected of organisers today. Beer festivals are now massive events that draw in more than just ale-lovers; they’re mainstream events that attract as many young hipsters and students as they do pub-goers and traditional drinkers.

With that in mind, we’ve carefully selected four events in England that best exemplify the traits of a modern beer festival:

Liverpool Craft Beer Expo

Six years in and this independently managed festival is returning bigger than ever and in a new location. Moving into the hip, cavernous surroundings of Liverpool’s Invisible Wind Factory, over 5000 people are expected to attend over the course of four days, with over 300 craft beers due to be in attendance. This is truly a modern festival and although the name might suggest a stiff upper lip convention that’s only for those in the industry, the reality is a 5-hour session filled with great beer, awesome food and a winning lineup of music acts.

When? 26th-29th July 2018 How much? £10.50-12.50 per session

Bristol Craft Beer Festival

Creativity, quality and independence are at the heart of the what this small, young beer festival tries to champion. Over 35 breweries will be bringing their beers to their new location at Bristol’s Harbourside and with the Summer sun sure to be blasting down, this will be an event well worth going to. Music in the past has been provided by big acts such as Bombay Bicycle Club, Metronomy and DJ Yoda so, although the lineup has yet to be announced, you can be sure there’ll be someone good on.

When? 14th-16th September 2018 How much? £35 per session

Great British Beer Festival

Probably one of the most prestigious festivals on this list, the Great British Beer Festival is the largest of its kind in the UK and a veritable mecca for beer lovers the world over. Held at the massive Olympia in London, there’ll be a staggering 900+ ales at this year’s event exhibiting the very best of beer from all over the world. Run by CAMRA, this is an event that has carefully sidelined the hip leanings of its competition and has remained true to its roots with plenty of pub games and entertainment to keep you busy.

When? 7th-11th August 2018 How much? £11 per session

Manchester Beer Week

What’s better than a day spent drinking beer? How about an entire week! Whilst we can’t recommend that you actually spend an entire week drinking beer, because of the obvious health implications, its worth visiting the buzzing city of Manchester at the start of July to soak up the good weather and discover more about beer. This city-wide festival is comprised of over a 100 separate events giving you the opportunity not just to drink beer but also learn about its provenance and future.

When? 29th June-8th July 2018 How much? Price varies depending on event.

Budding Beer Trends: 0% to Cannabis

Strange things are happening in the world of beer…

The drinks industry has always been a very fluid, fast moving world.

New fads rise and fall before brewers are given a chance to fully test their creations, making it seem like a risky endeavour to attempt any kind of groundbreaking exercise. That is often the case for large scale producers who tend to fear messing with any formulas at the risk of alienating their dedicated audience. Such a problem does not affect smaller scale brewers and ambitious start-ups who are able to build their brand on the basis of such trends.

Cannabis Beer that won’t get you drunk.

As more and more states in America move to legalise cannabis, drinks manufacturers are pouncing on the chance to be the first brand to popularise the incorporation of the drug into craft beer.

Keith Villa is a man to whom many will need no introduction. Spending 32-years with the drinks giant that is MolsonCoors, he is attributed as the creator of Blue Moon, the iconic Belgian style witbier that fooled the world, masquerading as a craft beer whilst spawning the industry at the same time. After stepping down from the Big Beer brand, Keith has gone into business with his wife Jodi to create a company that is dedicated to ‘the creation of custom and cannabis-infused non-alcoholic craft beer’. Put simply – the man who got the world drunk on ‘craft beer’ now wants to get you high instead.

The company is yet to release its first brew so we’ll have to wait and see what’s in store, but needless to say, it will shake the American drinks and cannabis market to its core. If you’re impatient to taste some cannabis-fuelled beer for yourself then you can always give High Flyer try. It’s the UK’s first cannabis beers, utilising the legal CBD (Cannabidiol) to create a 4.3% session-ale that reportedly grants some of the therapeutic benefits of the drug.

Alcohol-Free beer that actually tastes good.

It’s estimated that there has been a 20.5% rise in the sale of 0% or alcohol-free beer in the last year with total sales estimated at around £34.7m for the year.

There are a few reasons behind this shift in popularity – it’s important to remember, after all, that this kind of beverage has long been sneered down upon for it’s seemingly inferior taste. Thanks to ever advancing techniques in brewing methods and equipment, the quality of alcohol-free beers has risen and demand along with it, if the statistics are to be trusted. Additionally, with the advent of social movements such as ‘Dry January‘ and the decline in Millennial drinkers it has become apparent that consumers are more aware of the damaging effect that alcohol can have on the body and are now seeking for alternatives to their usual beverages.

In response to this dramatic increase in popularity, a number of brewers have stepped up to meet this demand including start-ups like Infinite Session and Big Drop Brew who cater specifically to the alcohol-free market, developing award winning beers that have been recognised for their excellence in flavour, despite containing no more than 0.5% volume alcohol. So how are these small craft companies capable of creating such flavoursome beverages where other bigger companies are still failing?

The trick is a complete restructuring of the brewing process. In the case of traditional low-alcohol beers, brewers will take a fully formed beer and strip the alcohol from it, a process that many claim also removes the flavour profile of the beer, resulting in a flat, dull tasting beverage. The brewers from these up and coming independent companies try a different tack. They develop their o.5% beers from the ground up, building the flavour profile in line with the beer’s alcohol-free nature thus retaining the kind of flavour that drinkers prefer.

Despite the consumer being on their side, they will have pro-Big Beer lobbyists and the multi-nationals behind them to contend with. Only time will tell if these pioneering start-ups succeed in their quest for producing these innovative beers.

Our Favourite Forth Valley Pubs

The Forth Valley is packed with fantastic pubs.

It will probably come as no surprise to you to hear that we’re fans of pubs here at the Forth Valley Ale Directory and our area has more than a handful to offer.

There are dozens upon dozens of pubs (both traditional and a little more modern) littering the Forth Valley, so we thought we’d help any would-be visitors out by picking our favourites.

A pub can be many things.

It can be an escape for old men looking to pass a few hours in the company of some like-mined souls. It can be a meeting place, perfect for bringing together disparate folks who are looking to share a common pleasure, such as reading or a card game. Speaking of games, Scottish pubs are often home to roaming teams of darts and skittles players, turning what might be a quiet evening’s pint into a raucous competitive display of skill. With that being said, most will relate the concept of a Scottish pub with the feeling of peace and relaxation.

More often than not these rural hideaways offer shelter and respite from the harsh extremities of our rugged climate, giving hikers, farmers and locals alike a chance to take a load off, sip on a good ale and enjoy a simple meal in the company of good folks

The following pubs have been chosen by our contributors, whilst they might not prove to be the fanciest of establishments, all of them serve a decent pint and give a warm welcome to strangers:

The Cross Keys

Although our metropolitan countrymen might argue that no trip to Scotland is complete without a visit to Edinburgh or Glasgow, we happen to think that you’d be better served by immersing yourself in one of our village communities. Whilst there are undoubtedly charms to the big cities of our country, just one visit to Kippen’s The Cross Keys will make you understand why the best pubs are always in the countryside.

The Corbie Inn

Winner of more than a handful of coveted awards from the some of the most recognised bodies, The Corbie Inn might not have hundreds of years of history or any AA Rosettes but that hasn’t stopped it becoming one of the regions most successful drinking houses. Stop in for a pint or two at this CAMRA-approved establishment and you’ll be able to sample a decent variety of well-kept beers, as well as the very local beers made by Kinneil Brew Hoose.

The Forth Inn

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a location more idyllic than Aberfoyle, which is what makes The Forth Inn a must-visit place for anyone planning on visiting the Forth Valley. Nestled in the lush surroundings of the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, this pub offers local and national brews all delivered in a straight-up traditional pub complete with a charming landlord. Take a long day’s walk out into the wilderness and then stop by for a pint or two once you’re done.

The Lade Inn

Hearty Scottish food collides with rural beauty at The Lade Inn – a traditional pub that comes complete with a bird feeding station, beer garden and a shop to take away your favourite ales with you. It would be a disservice to refer to The Lade as ‘just a pub’ as the owners have gone out of their way to make it so much more than this. There are weekly music events that you can drop in at, as well as beer tasting that are run throughout the summer to get involved with.

Drinking Ales in the Forest of Bowland

There are Pints Galore in Bowland!

A Stunning Landscape Full of Excellent Pubs…

Although the Forest of Bowland is pretty much 200 miles away from Forth Valley, this huge expanse of rugged fields and woods is home to some of the best pubs in England. Rugged 17th century inns rub shoulders with tidy modern establishments, making for a veritable odyssey of real ale fun.

The Inn At Whitewell

Credit: @Tessa

There are few public houses that can rival The Inn at Whitewell for its sheer grandeur and old world charm. Nestled in the tiny village of Whitewell, visiting this pub is akin to taking a step back in time. Although this 18th century inn has been restored more than a handful of times it is yet to lose its unique character, something that you could say is ingrained into the very fabric of the building. The food here is excellent and the beers (usually locally sourced) are very well kept.

Crowtrees Inn

Credit: @Tracy Roe

Even older still, the 17th century Crow Trees Inn now finds itself within the caravan holiday park Bowland Fell. Although overtly discerning ale drinkers might baulk at the idea of walking by park homes for sale in Yorkshire on the way to pick up their pint, the truth is that this is one of the hidden gems of the Forest of Bowland. Boasting a healthy lineup of local beers including brews from Settle Brewery, Lancaster The Brewery and Bowland Brewery – static homes or not, this is a great place to find a pint at.

Fenwick Arms

Credit: @The Fenwick

Conveniently places on the only main road running through the AONB, the Fenwick Arms has a truly unique selling point in its excellent selection of seafood. Less than 10 miles from the coast, this popular stopping point for travellers serves wonderfully fresh seafood in a well-presented historical setting. Although the Fenwick brands itself as a ‘Seafood and Steak Pub‘ this undersells the well poured lineup of beers that they frequently have on offer; well worth a stop-off on your road trip.

Bowland Beer Hall

Credit: @gemmawoodlondon

Owned by James’ Places, the firm behind Shireburn Arms and the grand Royal Hotel, the Bowland Beer Hall is one of the longest bars in the UK at a stonking 105ft 4″. This is less a pub and more of a permanent beer festival, as the bar is home to a minimum of 24 unique cask ales at any one time. You can track down the full range of Bowland Brewery beers here, as well as a whole host of other brews including lagers and ciders. This is a truly flexible venue, ideal for a few cosy pints or a full-on Bavarian style drinking marathon.

Parkers Arms

Credit: @Terry

One of the most celebrated pubs in the region, we’d be remiss not to mention Parkers Arms, a perfectly situated pub that continues to win numerous awards for both their hospitality and their food alike. Although you could be forgiven for losing your way to this charming pub (phone/GPS signal is known to drop out in this area) you’ll be glad once you’ve made your way there. The landscape in this are can be truly breathtaking, making the journey there all apart of the end experience.

Our Pick of 2018’s Scottish Beer Festivals

Scottish Beer Festivals to get stuck into.

Thinking about taking a trip up to see us? Then why not coincide it with one of these excellent Scottish Beer Festivals.

Beer festivals are a thing of rare beauty. Executed properly you have all the ingredients to create a truly magical weekend. Luckily for you, we’ve got the lowdown on the very best beer festivals that Scotland has to offer. The events that we’ve included might be a bit of a distance for any Forth Valley local to venture out to, but they all have one thing in common: truly excellent beer.

The common beer festival has had a long time to change over the years. Where once it would have been as simple as a single barrel of ale in a tent, it has now transformed into a self-sustaining industry. Although many consider the CAMRA curated beer festivals as the purest form of the event, many younger pretenders have come to challenge for this crown; our list cherry-picks the best of both worlds:

Edinburgh Craft Beer Festival

This relatively young festival is attempting to shake things up a little bit. Aimed at a younger, middle-class clientele; the Edinburgh Craft Beer Festival is designed to be a non-fussy beer event that gives you instant access to dozens of brewers from across the UK as well as all their lovely beer.

So what’s their hook? One ticket gives the eager drinker an opportunity to drink 6 pints of whichever beer they desire as well as access to street food and music acts.

How much? £35 per session. When? 25th-27th May 2018.

Perth Beer Festival

Over the last few years Perth Beer Festival has evolved from just a simple one-session event to a huge family event that has proven to be a huge success.

The town of Perth is a bright and lively one, with the festival itself taking place on the open stretch of land known as the North Inch. The beer list is typically excellent this year, with many exciting new brewers lining up to sell their wares to the thirsty punters. Stay for the weekend and you can enjoy the Comedy Night on the Friday, the Dog Show on the Saturday day session and then the live music in the evening!

How much? £20 for each event. When? 11th-12th May 2018.

Paisley Beer Festival

Organised and run by the Renfrewshire branch of CAMRA, this long-running beer festival has been held in Paisley Town Hall pretty much annually for over thirty years. In fact, 2018’s Paisley Beer Festival will be the 31st edition of the popular event and they’ve learnt a thing or two over the years. Expect an unmanageable wealth of beers on offer, as well as a generous side-serving of foreign beers, ciders and wines – for those who would rather taste something from further afield.

How much? £6 for non-CAMRA members. £4 for members. When? 25th-28th April 2018.

Fyne Fest

Founded in 2010, FyneFest is organised by well-established brewers Fyne Ales and whilst you’re obviously going to find their whole range of excellent beers on offer, you’ll also be able to grab fresh pints from some of the best up and coming British brewers. In addition to keeping the British ales flowing all day, the organisers also schedule timed tapping beers, providing discerning drinkers with the opportunity of trying out a rare European brew.

How much? From £47.50 for a Day Ticket with no camping. When? 1st-3rd June 2018.