New beergeek.TV Episode – Ales of Wales

Merideth pulling a pint at Kilverts in Hay-on-Wye

“Ales of Wales” is the latest episode of One Pint at a Time.

We didn’t know what to expect from our journey to Wales. It was only a friend’s off-handed comment that brought us across the Irish Sea in the first place. With a little research, we learned several things about Wales; they have a strange language, there is a really tall mountain and, most importantly, there is a burgeoning craft beer movement brewing real ale.

So enjoy our Welsh adventures…

For all the episodes of One Pint at a Time go to beergeekTV.

Holy and Good

On a blustery and rainy Holy Thursday, we boarded the Stena Europe for our journey back to Ireland. We were sad to leave Wales, a country we thoroughly enjoyed, but were excited about the last leg of our trip.

We situated ourselves in the bar area for the three and a half hour journey to Rosslare. The bar area was filled with rugby players ready for some serious partying. Not wanting to feel like an outsider, I decided to have a beer too. Passing on the Stella, Carlsberg, etc., I decided to drink a couple of our Welsh beers. Procuring a half pint glass from the bar, I pulled out a bottle of Evan Evans Cwrw from bag.

Then the seasickness set in. It was quite a rough ride and between the feelings of queasiness, all I could think was how can a 25 ton ship could rock and roll this much. Halfway through the journey, I did get sick, though I give myself credit for being able to actually make it to the toilet. Not everyone could make that claim. Merideth didn’t have the greatest journey either but the ‘protector of the sea’, that is what Merideth means, never had to make the trip to the toilet.

After almost four hours at sea, we finally landed at Rosslare. Back on dry land but still feeling queasy, we climbed into a taxi to take us to our hotel in Wexford.

We wanted to find an off license in Wexford town to see the Holy Thursday phenomenon. Because Good Friday is dry, the Irish, apparently, go on a alcohol buying frenzy the day before. We wanted to see this for our own eyes and the video camera. But we couldn’t find an off license so our Holy Thursday ended with us sitting in the hotel bar enjoying a few Guinness and watching football on the TV.

Good Friday was the most anticipated day of our trip. If not the most anticipated, it was certainly the most talked about. What were we going to do on a dry day in Ireland? The answer was act like normal tourists.

Picking up a rental car, we headed down to Hook Head. On the southeast coast, Hook Head is home to the oldest working lighthouse in the world. Like normal tourists we took a tour of the 800 year old lighthouse which was the first non-brewery tour we have taken in a long time.

Then it was on to Cork.

There are ways to get around the Good Friday alcohol ban. Besides the obvious answer of drinking the stockpile of booze bought the previous day, there are a couple of other options. The taxi driver in Wexford told us that groups of friends will take the ferry over the to the UK and back; sort of a booze cruise. For us, another ferry ride was definitely not an option.

We also heard that some pubs are discretely open and a secret knock will get you in the back door. We never saw any evidence of this or rather, we were never invited.

Finally, hotels are allowed to serve alcohol to residents after 6pm with a meal.

So when the magical hour struck, we joined quite a large contingent of residents of our Cork city hotel in the bar. It felt all very secretive as our name and room number was checked by one of the hotel staff. To make the atmosphere complete, they drew down the shades so outsiders wouldn’t be drawn in by the sight of alcohol and merriment. Our very first dry Good Friday in Ireland ended for us in the hotel bar with our pints of Beamish Stout.


On the Wales Ale Trail

Our last two days in Wales we tried to reach our goal of adding 12 new breweries to the list. We had plenty of targets but craft beer traveling in Wales is not the easiest thing to do.

Geography was our first challenge. While Wales looks small on a map, due to the road system, distances take much longer to cover than what we are used to in the States.

The second issue – and I really don’t want this to sound too critical – is that Welsh breweries are just not used to people walking in to try their beer. Whereas in the States, many breweries created their following with an open door policy, this idea hasn’t caught on with some Welsh breweries. We were told outright by one brewery that they were too busy to have two people stop by. And then there was the Conwy experience where we were actually standing in the tasting room and couldn’t get anyone to come out front.

And lastly, some of the breweries are just plain hard to find.

Tuesday started with a short drive to the market town of Abergavenny, home of Tudor Brewing located in the Kings Arms. Abergavenny’s ‘retail’ market was going on and we couldn’t find any parking. We cruised two car parks for 30+ minutes when, as we were just about to give up, the miracle happened; a lady was pulling out. Not only did we get her spot, but she also gave us her parking ticket which still had a couple of hours on it.

Once we parked, the Kings Arms was pretty easy to find and we were soon trying their beers in their pleasant bar. They had two available, Sugarloaf, an amber beer and Skirrid, a dark beer. While the beers had potential, they seemed very green and probably could have used some more time in the cask to mature.

Next, we were off to Merthyr Tydfil (‘Myrtle Turtle’ in our version of Welsh) to find Rhymney Brewery. We never found it. We cruised around the industrial park a couple of times looking for signs of brewing activity. Seeing kegs is always a good sign, but we saw no indications of brewing. We found out later, the brewery is not sign posted and was located behind the tire place. I remember seeing the tire place.

Moving on, our next stop was Dare Valley Brewing at the Falcon Inn in Aberdare. Not only did we have a Google map printed out, Buster also gave us directions the night before.  Located in a valley next to a brook below the town, it still took us an hour to find.

We drove up a narrow city lane that we thought would get us to the inn. In reality, the road we intended to turn down only existed on our Google map. After seemingly endless searching, we finally turned down a road that had a dead end sign on it… the Falcon Inn was at the end of the street.

It was a good thing we persevered. A family operation, they were the nicest people. After a short brewery tour, Richard, the brewer, sat with us. He poured us his beers to try and we sat with the family for an hour or so talking beer.

We tried four beers, including the seasonal Spring Ahead on cask, and all were very nice. The highlight was a 3.8% Stout that was a stunner. The Stout was a beer brewed under contract for someone else, but Dare hopefully will have their own version some time soon.

Having spent most of the day trying to find breweries, it was time to close out Tuesday. We headed back to Brecon and stopped by Breconshire to have a few more beers with Buster.

Wednesday, we drove to the coast in preparation for sailing back to Ireland the next day. First stop was Black Mountain Brewery at the Telegraph Inn in Llangadog.

My best piece of advice for beer travel in Wales is to target the breweries that are located in inns. They will have normal hours and food. This advice served us well except for Black Mountain. We arrived at a bit before noon only to learn they opened at 3pm.

The next stop was up the road in Lladeilo, Wm. Evan Evans Brewery. Walking into the brewery yard, we met Simon, the owner, as he was leaving. Very personable, Simon was more than happy to get one of his brewers to show us around. After a short brewery tour, we were in their office kitchen trying their flagship beer Cwrw. Pronounced ‘curu’, it is the Welsh word for ‘ale’; what a great marketing idea. “I’ll have a cwrw, please”.

A premium bitter, Cwrw was one of my favorite beers of the trip. It had a very American-like hop presence, reminding me a lot of Galway Hooker IPA from Ireland.

We would have never found Ffos y Ffin Brewery in Capel Dewi if Buster hadn’t given us directions. Driving into the tiny village, we were told by Buster to take the first left up this country lane, then a right down another country lane. At a certain point we would see the brewery marked only by a cask out front. Lo and behold we found it!

Arriving right as one of the two owner/brewers, Glen was leaving to make a delivery, he was more than willing to delay his departure a few minutes to allow us to try the beer. We tried three and I have to admit I didn’t take any notes or snap any photos because I didn’t want to take too much of Glen’s time. The beers were nice and we got 4 bottles to try when we get home.

The last brewery of trip, Coles Family Brewery was located at the White Hart Inn in Llanddarog. In a country where we found it hard to find some breweries, White Hart Inn was the only brewery on our travels that was signposted from the main road. It was very easy to find.

Everything about White Hart Inn exuded Welsh countryside; thatched roof, a very cozy and comfortable dining area complete with roaring fire and large hearty meals.

They had two house-brewed beers available, an Ale and a Stout. Another Welsh Stout! If there was any surprise of the trip, it was the number and quality of Welsh Stouts I tried. Their Stout was another low ABV, high flavor brew on par with the other wonderful Stouts I had tried in the previous days.

That was it. Our Welsh beer adventure was over. We only added nine breweries to the list, three short of our goal. Despite the challenges, the quality of beer and the hospitality of its people has us already thinking about our next Welsh beer adventure.


From Moose to Hay

On Monday, we headed south to explore other parts of Wales. On the journey, we had a couple of breweries to visit before reaching our final destination and attending the opening of Cask Ale Week.

First stop was a short drive from our village to Porthmadog, or as we called it in our own version of Welsh ‘Port Mad Dog’. Porthmadog is home to the Purple Moose Brewery, one of the newest breweries on the Welsh scene. Our visit wasn’t the earliest recorded brewery visit but it might have been the shortest.

Purple Moose had two beers available to taste, Dark Side of the Moose, a dark Ale, and their Easter Ale. Served in little medicine cups, both were very nice. We gulped down our tastes, bought some Dark Side and departed. Five minutes of our day was thus completed.

Then it was time to head south in earnest. Already handicapped by being on the other side of the car on the other side of the road, I heard this deafening roar from behind that was approaching quickly. Within a half a second, a RAF fighter appeared in front of us doing high speed, low altitude maneuvers. Definitely something my nerves did not need. We learned later that the RAF uses Wales for flight training.

After being targeted by the RAF, I definitely needed a beer – a full beer – not something dispensed in a medicine cup.  Relief was provided by the Heart of Wales Brewery housed in the Neuadd Hotel in Llanwtryd Wells (We never translated the town name into version of Welsh).

Situating ourselves in their cozy lounge room, we enjoyed a nice fire and a couple of house brewed cask ales. Of note was Aur Cymru (Welsh Gold) a Golden Ale brewed with cascade hops and Welsh Black, a 4.4% Stout. We still get a kick out of the ABVs of the beers over here because things are kind of out of hand in the States. Both beers, despite being in the low 4s, had great flavor and depth.

Nerves calmed, it was on to our final destination of the day Brecon, home to Breconshire Brewery. I give kudos to myself for my beer networking. I contacted a few UK-based beer people and asked for Wales recommendations. One name I got was Buster Grant who is the brewer at Breconshire and the chairman of the budding Association of Welsh Independent Brewers.

Buster gave us a warm welcome to his brewery and we tried a number of his beers over a couple of visits. All his beers are made with UK ingredients and my highlight was Night Beacon, a 4.9% Stout brewed with some smoked malt.

The main event of the day was the opening of Cask Ale Week at Kilvert’s in Hay-on-Wye. Joining Buster, his missus and a friend on the bus, we headed over to the bookstore capital of the world. Hay boasts something like 40 bookstores with a population of 1,300.

Cask Ale Week, April 6-13,  was the brainchild of a number of people and is based, I think, on the successful (Insert City Name) Beer Week model from the States. The goal was to recruit a million new cask ale drinkers. As someone who recruited events for SF Beer Week, I applaud Kilvert’s for scheduling a number of events during Cask Ale Week.

It was a great evening of cask beer, chatting and meeting new friends. The local MP even bought us a beer. A politician has never bought us a beer before! Merideth got behind the bar and pulled her own pint of Kilvert’s Ale, a beer brewed for them by Breconshire. Kilvert’s was also presented with CAMRA’s Local Pub of the Year honors, an award well-deserved from what we could see.

With a full day put in, we retired to our comfy four poster bed at the Griffin for some much needed rest.


Our Ascent of Snowdon

Sunday was the day we climbed the highest peak in England or Wales, Mt Snowdon. It’s height, 3,560 feet, doesn’t sound that impressive, but Snowdon is where Sir Edmund Hillary trained for his climb of Everest. We were told it was ten miles and a six hour round trip.

There a number of trails to the top but we chose to go up the Llanberis trail, a trail the parallels the steam railway. Steffan, the owner of Pen Ceunant, let us park at his cafe. Not only did save the walk up a steep hill from the village but we also knew there was beer when we returned.

We were on the trail at half past ten joining a small crowd of hikers, runners and mountain bikers with the same aim in mind. Well, I am not sure about the beer part.

The weather was bearable, temperatures in the high 40s/low 50s with a mixture of clouds and sun. As we set off in the cool morning, I was reminded of what a hiker told us the day before at Cwellyn Arms; dress warmly because it is really cold and windy at the top. This then reminded me of the conversation Merideth and I had in the car on the way to the airport. Merideth said she forgot her gloves which I replied that I thought about bringing them but decided not to because it was going to be warm. Oops. I forgot to take the Snowdon climb into account.

The trail was very similar to Croagh Patrick. All rocky with smooth rocks towards the bottom and looser stone at the top. As the trail got steeper, which it dramatically did just past the Halfway Cafe, the number of hikers thinned out. The wind also picked up and the temperature dropped. We could have used the gloves right about now.

As we began the last great stretch uphill, we did meet an American woman who went to graduate school at Berkeley. She noticed my bear tattoo as she was passing us and we stopped and chatted for a few minutes. Besides being a much needed rest, she told us about a number of other hikes in the area including a 35 mile, 15 peak extravaganza that a hiker apparently does in one day. Judging by the speed in which she continued up Snowdon, the 35 miler didn’t seem to faze her as extraordinarily difficult. Only moderately so.

As we got a few hundred yards from the peak, our trail was joined by another and a traffic jam ensued. If our trail had been busy, the one that joined us, the Miners trail, looked like a single file line of hikers, one after another. Having so many people with the same goal wasn’t going to lessen our achievement, but we were dumbfounded by the number of people. If it was this crowded in April, granted it was a holiday weekend, what would it be like in high summer? We jostled our way up the last stretch pinballing off fellow hikers going both directions.

We reached the top, joining several hundred other hikers, first in resting and then checking out the pinnacle. Just like when we climbed Croagh Patrick, the cloud cover was thick. On a clear day, one can see Ireland from the Snowdon summit. We could barely see the next peak. The lack of gloves somewhat hampered our time on the summit as our hands were quite numb at this point. Plus, there was no beer so with pictures of our accomplishment taken, it was time to head back down the hill.

Four and a half hours after we started, we were back at Pen Ceunant enjoying Welsh hospitality; Homemade scones with jam and cream and Welsh craft beer. We were quite pleased with our accomplishment. All that is left is the highest peak in Scotland and we will have conquered the peaks of the British Isles.