To say the men and women of the Forth Valley branch of CAMRA like their ale is an understatement. They are intensely passionate about ale and are the people behind the Larbert Real Ale Festival.
Held in the Dobbie Hall last weekend, with real ‘beer tokens’ used to pay for samples from a choice of more than 60 ales, some of them brewed right here in Falkirk by Tryst Brewery.
The Dobbie Shuffle was one brew on tap Larbert locals might have identified with. Other Tryst ales included a new one called Highland Toffee, an obvious nod to the famous McCowans confection that used to be made just along the road.
I didn’t take much persuading when asked by the local Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) branch to be one of the judges for its ‘Golden Ale’ competition this year. It’s a tough gig, but someone has to do it.
Alongside me on the esteemed panel were Andrew Simpson of Tryst, Paul Fallen of Kippen’s Fallen Brewing Company, Gail Fairholm, the publican from the award-winning Corbie Inn in Bo’ness, Donald Balsillie, a CAMRA member and Clackmannanshire councillor, and CAMRA member Ian young, all of whom have a disciplined nose for a good ale.
Over the years I have developed a keen taste for ales rather than the more commercially produced lagers or beers. One of my favourite destinations is the Lade Inn Real Ale Shop in Kilmahog near Callander where I can reward myself after a day’s hillwalking in the southern Highlands.
Rita, the woman who runs the shop, is quite a character with a growing fan base. She informed us the last time we were in that international visitors all want their picture taken with her to post up on social media.
CAMRA is now a well established movement in the UK and has been campaigning for real ale, pubs and drinkers’ rights since 1971. Donald, who likes his ales strong and dark, is well versed in its aims.
He said: “Years ago micro breweries grew into industrial companies and we’re now getting a complete rejuvenation of that in Alloa and the same is happening in Falkirk through Tryst Brewery.
“That cycle of life has been started again and that breeds commerce and industry. When CAMRA started there were only about 50 breweries in the UK and the whole art was being lost. There are now over 1400 breweries. The Campaign for Real Ale has been an important motivator and advocate for real ale.
“The campaign promotes the production and the drinking of cask ale and works hard to save it as an art form.”
More recently CAMRA’s focus has been on supporting community pubs, many of which are being lost, and trying to drive down “excessive” taxes on the drink. It now supports cider brewers, too, resisting impending taxes on small producers to help the micro breweries which use local produce flourish and help their local economies.
Forth Valley branch – which covers an area from Linlithgow in the east, right over to Loch Lomond and up as far as Killin at the bottom of Loch Tay – has around 350 members, “a reasonable number” according to chairman Bill Purnell, a 63-year-old draughtsman, who has been a member for 10 years.
He spoke about the logistics involved in running the popular festival which attracts around 1000 drinkers over the course of the weekend.
“The festival has now been going seven years,” said Bill. “We used to have two festivals a year in Alloa but decided that we needed to get into another area in the Forth Valley and managed to find the Dobbie Hall. Finding a hall can be difficult.
“Quite a lot of work goes into the festival. Getting beers in can be a problem. In fact one of the breweries couldn’t get their beer here for the competition.
Thankfully, we get help from a few places, This year the Station Hotel has been really great and helped us a lot.
“Apart from sponsoring the festival they’ve allowed us use of their facilities, with the beer being delivered to the hotel before being brought up here.
“We moved into the hall onWednesday lunchtime and everything has to be set up from there. Prior to that we have a lot of meetings. We need to find sponsors, there’s beer ordering to do as you have to give brewers a reasonable amount of time and notice, and we like to bring some beers up from down south as well, usually delivered through a wholesaler.”
For the competition, the judging panel sits upstairs and is brought the drinks by two University of Stirling students who, like the other volunteer members who serve the festival visitors, are wearing their light blue CAMRA polo shirts.
We have seven ales to taste. We don’t know the names of any of them and set about our task in good humour and gravity in equal measure.
I smell and taste pine in one, lemon and citrus in another, while the other expert judges give their opinions, some of them not very flattering. I’m happy to say I wasn’t too far off their assessments and felt less out of my depth as each ale made its way to the table.
Once we scored them all for appearance, aroma, taste and aftertaste, the scores were counted and the top ones announced.
The ale winning the title of Golden Ale was Jarl by Fyne Ales, Jaguar by Kelburn was runner-up and Happy Chappy by Cromarty was third. The other four entries were Deuchars, Lite Ness, Hit The Lip, and Joker.
When we returned downstairs the hall was packed with drinkers and Mike Dickins (66), from Falkirk, summed things up for me saying: “I just like the taste of the ales.”
Larbert’s Tryst Brewery is owned by John McGarva who started the company in 2004 after taking redundancy from his previous job.
John is a Scottish Craft Brewers member and turned his hobby of real ale brewing into his profession.
The brewery is small and employs five people making around eight or nine ales with a dozen more in bottles.
The strongest one is its Carron Oat Stout at 6.1 per cent ABV.
Andrew Simpson, who look after sales and distribution, said: ““John was always interested in home brewing through his dad’s recipes for strong beers. He was getting a greater demand for his beers from people for parties. It was a bit of a risk for him but it has worked out for him.
“At the time, this kind of business was a very niche market so he’s been in there quite early on and is quite established now.
“Some of the names we use are also based on the heritage of the local area as well, like our Drovers 80 shilling.
“This area was one of the main areas in Scotland for droving.”