Room at the Inn
Jemma Beedie shares a slice of rural life that shows the vigorously beating heart of Scottish food and drink
Saturday 15 January 2022
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Follow the road out of touristy Callander, right on the edge of the Trossachs, as it twists and turns for a mile towards the tiny hamlet of Kilmahog. There’s not much here: a woollen mill; old Roman ramparts; and Scotland’s largest real ale bottle shop.
The Scottish Real Ale Shop sits adjacent to the Lade Inn, both owned and run by the Parks. After taking over the business in 2005, the family has built a clientele of enthusiastic regulars and holidaymakers. Father Frank now takes a managerial role while son Stephen rules the kitchen as head chef, and daughter-in-law Laura takes responsibility for the bar and restaurant.
Though Kilmahog has few houses, its location within the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park ensures a steady stream of traffic. It has served holidaymakers, outdoor enthusiasts and those just in search of refreshment since its days as the Wayside Tearooms in 1935.
For those in the know, it is also the place to go to browse and buy craft beers. There are more than 200 products in stock, all Scottish. Many will pop in for a look, curiosity getting the better of them, only to stagger out under the weight of a full box of beer, bewildered and lighter in the wallet. I am one of them.
The shop isn’t flash or fancy. It is little more than a glorified shed, white walls adorned with beer mats and Camra posters. Even so, it is a beer-lover’s paradise. Bottles and cans line every wall, floor to ceiling. It takes a solid twenty minutes just to inspect every label.
“Under one roof, we believe it is the largest real ale bottle shop in Scotland,” Frank told me. “We have the largest variety.” More than 200 different products at last count.
The shop’s bestsellers are the pub’s own beer, Waylade, Ladeback, and Ladeout. These are easily drinkable, lending themselves to sessions in the Lade Inn bar, sitting by the fire while a local folk band delivers reels and jigs, as they do each (non-pandemic) Saturday night.
When Frank and his family took over, the smaller building was being used as a microbrewery. That was one of the draws. Quickly, they realised the dream of being able to brew their own beers on-site and sell them in the pub wasn’t going to work. Logistics were against them.
“The idea started with my son-in-law running the brewery, but it became very obvious we couldn’t do it.” Frank explained that the existing microbrewery was mostly a tourist draw, whereas the Parks wanted to brew a much larger quantity. Issues with the rural location of and septic tanks meant that brewing enough on-site was almost impossible. “So he set up the shop.”
Nevertheless, their recipes, brewed for them at Tryst, 25 miles away, are a huge draw. All three beers are on tap in the pub and are available by bottle and mini-keg in the shop.
On my most recent visit I had to stop myself buying the entire range of Fallen Brewing beers. The brewery is five minutes away from my house and if I’m going to buy crates of their products (which I am), I’ll pop by. The way to shop the selection at the Scottish Real Ale Shop is to search for those elusive specialities that aren’t easily accessible anywhere else.
Callum, the man behind the counter, is a wealth of knowledge. He’s clearly in the right job as we discuss the pros and cons of Scottish sours. During lockdowns in 2020 he set himself the enviable task of working his way through the stock, a bottle of beer a night. He’s able to point me towards new beers I’ll love after listening to me talk about chocolate stouts, and is also happy to suggest a couple of bottles that are outside of my usual comfort zone.
Buy by the bottle or box. Themed selections give the adventurous drinker a wide range of options within each category. Weird and Wonderful consists of beers that are a little less common. Alongside Swannay Brewery’s Island Hopping and Jaw Brew’s Fathom is Williams Bros Ebulum, an elderberry black ale originally made by 9th-century Welsh druids. It is dark and sweet, heavy on the tongue. Perfect for winter.
The Scottish Real Ale Shop delights in giving shelf space to new and emerging Scottish breweries. “The main problem is distribution – can they get new beers to us? If they can, we take them on and give them a try.” Frank gave the example of Ardgour Ales, up near Fort William. “[They] came along and they asked if we’d like to take them on. They actually deliver the beers themselves.”
The shop has always had an online storefront. Frank’s background is in computing, so it seemed natural to sell over the internet as well as to passersby. “That is going really well,” he told me. “It was also very useful during the pandemic. It was generating cash flow and kept us moving.” Frank found that throughout the lockdowns, the orders kept flying in.
“The main country we supply is England. People come on holiday and discover Scottish beers, then want to order them at home. Scottish people living down there feel homesick and order them as well.” And it’s not just England, as the shop also ships orders to 30 other countries. People across Europe browsing and buying elusive, favoured Scottish beers, supporting a small business. However, that may soon be a thing of the past. “That’s an area that might be changing due to Brexit.”
The Lade Inn and the Scottish Real Ale Shop have managed to make a success out of something difficult: a specialist bottle shop more than an hour from Scotland’s largest cities. With passion, knowledge, and tenacity, they provide an indispensable service, both to local and faraway trade. I feel lucky to have the shop on my doorstep, to enjoy some of Scotland’s most delicious, hard-to-track-down craft beers, and support a local, rural business while doing so.
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