The Isle of Eriska Voyage
WORDS: Fraser Doherty l PICTURES: Zsolt Stefkovics
Thursday 01 March 2018
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The Isle of Eriska Voyage
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Well, here we are; Beer52 has made it to the grand old age of four years old. Thanks a million to all of you who have joined us on this ride, your membership keeps us in our dream job, and we're all indescribably grateful to each and every one of you.
We’ve tasted many thousands of beers and travelled to California, Denmark, Kentucky, Belgium, Colorado and more. It’s been one hell of a journey.
To celebrate this momentous occasion, James and I wanted to do something truly epic. We had always dreamed of creating a completely exclusive set of beers for the club; beers that aren’t available anywhere else and that will be brewed especially for the occasion and then never again.
So, with the help of three of our favourite breweries, Partizan, Pilot and Forest Road, we set out to collaborate on this unique set of beers to see in the New Year; the beers you see before you in this month's Beer52 box.
The process of their creation involved a heady blend of brewing science, creativity, discovery and unbridled hedonism. Throw these together in the crucible of cameraderie, in the stunning Scottish countryside, and we think the result is some of the best beer we've ever sent out.
When we set out to create a set of exclusive, never-tobe- repeated beers for our fourth anniversary celebration box, we knew that as well as some of the best brewers in the country – from Partizan, Pilot and Forest Road – we also needed a setting that would allow our creative juices to properly ferment. A location that could free our minds and inspire recipe ideas that we wouldn’t ordinarily consider. Being based in Scotland, we could think of nowhere more aweinspiring than our own west coast. Along the unspoilt coastline from Oban lies a private island with a nearmythical reputation, The Isle of Eriska. This five-star hotel and spa would be our destination.
So, with brewers flying in from Belgium and London, we drive the three hours from Edinburgh airport to the quaint harbour town of Oban. The gateway to the Western Isles, the town itself is overlooked by the Colosseum- like McCaig’s Tower.
Before setting sail, and to line our stomachs ahead of an epic day of beer tasting, we treat our weary travellers to a traditional Scottish lunch. Fish and chips with mushy peas are all washed down with lashings of Irn-Bru and Oban whisky. Not wanting to spoil his grease, but still keen to share a national delicacy with his foreign guests, the chip shop owner sends for a dozen servings of deep-fried Mars bars from the other fryer in town.
WE COULD THINK OF NOWHERE MORE AWEINSPIRING THAN OUR OWN WEST COAST
The local hospitality knocks us off schedule and, with cholesterol and Scotch pulsing through our veins, we bid farewell to the mainland. Meeting us on the pier is our captain for the day, Cameron from Coastal Connection, a local company offering private yacht charters and boat trips in a variety of vessels.
After a cursory safety demonstration (“don’t fall off the boat”) we soon crack open a few beers and get the show on the road. While our boat makes its way out to the open sea we capture some obligatory selfies against a vanishing Oban pier on the horizon.
Aboard the ship is a veritable crew of brewing geniuses. Being based in Edinburgh, our local heroes, Pilot, have long been brewers we’ve wanted to feature in our boxes. Famed for their Mochaccino Stout and Ultra Violet, “A classic hefeweizen infused with over 12kg of painstakingly handunwrapped Swizzels Matlow Parma
Violets per brew, giving those love ‘em or hate ‘em floral notes”, it’s an honour to have Pat Jones, one half of the double-act that is Pat and Matt.
Normally selling its beer in kegs only, it hasn’t been possible until now to include Pilot’s beers in our box. Now that it is, thanks to the collaboration beers we will produce together, it’s a dream come true for Beer52.
Another four-year ambition of ours has been to include Partizan, one of London’s most respected craft breweries and possibly the best saison producers in the UK. Joining us on the trip is Chris J J Heaney, originally from Northern Ireland, but now living in London as its head brewer.
Outside of brewing, Chris explains that he is an actor and poet, and seems to be already inspired by our dramatic surroundings, with talk of capturing some of the trip in the form of a poem. Not the only creative soul on board, he is accompanied by artist, illustrator and creative director of the brewery, Alec Doherty.
Perhaps thanks to the likelihood that we were distant relatives who just hadn’t met each other yet (we
Dohertys sure are a prolific clan), I already had a strong affinity with Alec and his work. As well as creating Partizan’s iconic label designs, his work is regularly profiled in design magazines and blogs such as It’s Nice That. He has illustrated features for the Guardian, New York Times and Zeit, and you’ll have seen his work if you’ve ever dined at Byron.
For this particular commission, he will not only be designing the four labels that will go on the Partizanx Beer52 beers, but also the cover for this special anniversary issue of Ferment, which you are now holding in your hands.
And, to be sure that the event is nothing short of a raucous party, we invited our friend and Ferment contributor, Pete Brown. Not to be confused with the beer author of the same name, Pete is the Boston-born, London-based founder of Forest Road. Having worked for several other brewers, including early-days Camden, he sure knows how to brew. His ‘Work’ pale ale stormed the Beer52 ratings when we featured it in early 2017.
Creator of a number of viral videos that have reached over a million views, Pete’s legendary sense of fun is a welcome addition to the crew. We’re also joined by Pieter De Bock and Nicolas Volders from Anders Brewery in Belgium. At the end of the trip, they’ll have the task of taking all the recipes the brewers come up with on the trip and turning them into a reality.
Before long, our little boat is a short distance from the shores of the rugged Isle of Mull. Ahead of us is a sprawling ancient castle, criss-crossed by miles of scaffolding, with a full crew of masons hard at work on its restoration. Our captain explains to us that this is in fact Duart Castle. The original seat of power of the MacLean clan, it dates back to the 13th century.
Sitting proudly atop a cliff, with a full bank of cannons aimed precariously towards our boat, the castle guards the Sound of Mull. The present home of Sir Lachlan MacLean, twenty-eighth Chief of Clan MacLean, the castle boasts a tearoom and museum, and is a popular wedding venue as well as home to reunions of Clan MacLean, at which the family’s diaspora from around the world return to this rugged island to discover their roots.
Taking a leisurely cruise around the surrounding islands, most of them uninhabited, we come across one rock that is black with birds. Of course, we don’t find anything funny at all when it’s explained to us that this is, in fact, a shag colony.
A short distance further along, we come across the Eilean Musdile lighthouse, which we are told is now,of course, automated. However, the lighthouse keeper’s lodge is the holiday home of a couple from London.Pulling along the coast of the island of Lismore, home to 192 people as of the last census, we spot an otter scurrying away from the sound of our arrival as well as dozens of seals. Lazing around on the rocks, they don’t seem to have a care in the world.
The last sight on our tour is an insight into Scotland’s third big industry, after oil and whisky; a largescale salmon fishery. A series of huge nets sit here in the currents, each home to 30,000 salmon. Overshadowing our boat is a steampunk monstrosity of a ship, which we’re told has the rather fetching name of ‘feed barge’, pumping tonnes of food pellets into the salmon nets.
Having taught our guests the full story of Scotland in one short boat trip, from deep fried Mars bars tocastles, salmon farms and whisky, we make our approach to the Isle of Eriska. Awaiting us on the pier as we pull up to berth are the hotel’s staff. House manager Steven Sheridan welcomes us and we enjoy a few glasses of 2013 vintage Rodenbach Grand Cru on the pier.
A deliciously balanced and tart Flemish Red, it is a fitting first drink to have on the island as we admire the views over Loch Linnhe and the dramatic Morvern mountains beyond. Jumping into the hotel’s golf cart, we wind our way through the woods before the castle-like main house reveals itself between the foliage.
THE CASTLE-LIKE MAIN HOUSE REVEALS ITSELF BETWEEN THE FOLIAGE
The sense of excitement is palpable as we settle into the piano room for afternoon tea and the hotel’s staff transport our luggage and vast number of crates of beers and other vital supplies into our cottages. A wood fire crackles in the corner, with its wonderful aromas gently permeating every room of the house.
We soon discover the hotel’s enviable whisky collection and restaurant manager, Robert, talks us through the history of the house as we relax in the bar.
Constructed in 1884, the halcyon period of Eriska was during the late Victorian and early Edwardian period, where its owners would travel from their home in Edinburgh by occupying a full two train carriages – one for the family and another for their luggage and staff. Requiring up to 56 employees to accommodate their pastimes of picnics, sailing and donkey-rides for the children, we marvel at how things must have been in those days.
Thoroughly warmed up, we all gather in one of the cottages. Equipped with hot tubs, conservatories and cosy lounges, we’re certainly going to find our recipe development sessions comfortable if nothing else. Steven joins us while James and I brief our willing compatriots as we all embark on the mission to create a series of recipes together.
To help get the creative juices flowing, we’ve brought with us an epic ‘Beer Library’. Close to 200 different beers of a magnitude of different styles, we wanted to be able to reference all the key flavour touchpoints. If someone has an idea for a particular style, we hopefully have a beer with us that will help to illuminate the conversation.
As well as formally welcoming us to the island, we discuss with Steven what kind of beer he likes himself and what he hopes we’ll brew at the end of the process. Pete Brown then vows to brew ‘Something Light for Steven’, to honour our host. After a few more beers, we are invited to the hotel’s highly awarded fine dining restaurant.
Over a seven-course tasting menu, followed by a good crack at the 30-cheesestrong farmhouse cheese trolley, we discuss everyone’s respective backgrounds and hopes for the collaboration project. After merely scratching the surface of the restaurant’s 40-page wine list, we’re soon in high spirits and retire back into the whisky bar to continue the discussion.
The next morning, we enjoy an array of different cooked breakfasts – some opting for kippers, others for a full Scottish. The table clinks with the sounds of little porcelain pots filled with Scottish heather honey and homemade marmalade. A grand breakfast like this does wonders for a hangover and we’re soon ready to go foraging throughout the estate to blow the last remaining cobwebs from between our ears.
The Kitchen Garden
We start our tour of the grounds in the vividly green kitchen gardens. Like a pair of diligent school teachers, James and I dish out notepads, pencils, rubbers and pencil sharpeners to the gaggle of eager brewers, so that they may take notes throughout the morning. Meeting us between the apple trees, which are completely covered magically by blueish, stringy lichen, so clean is the air here, are the hotel’s gardener and chef. We wander through the tranquil settings, tasting as we go. For the most part, the hotel’s garden provides micro salads, herbs and the tiny vegetables that are delicately assembled in their beautifully artistic dishes. Inside the greenhouse, we taste nasturtiums, their beautiful yellow and orange flowers bringing a touch of colour to a patchwork of various shades of greenery.
Picking stalks of fennel and passing them around, the tiniest pieces of its feathery stalks burst with its instantly recognisable aniseed type flavour. Stepping back outside, we’re asked to identify the 10-foot tall tree that stands in front of us – rubbing its leaves, we discover that it is in fact a gigantic, semiancient bay tree.
In its shade is a patch of watercress, which again we taste. The tiny leaves set the mouth on fire with their peppery flavour, remarkably strong for such an unassuming little plant. It seems that virtually all that surrounds us is edible and the chef explains that harvesting tiny amounts of each of these ingredients ahead of meal prep is a daily ritual.
Living an almost monk-like existence, the hotel’s staff mostly live in staff quarters on the island. Everyone we talk with has a serene aura and their friendly, easy-going nature helps to add to the peacefulness of the island.
Exploring beyond the kitchen garden, we wander through the various wooded areas of the island. A bountiful source of wild mushrooms, the woods provide a surprising variety of other ingredients for the chefs to play with. We taste the very young green shoots of pine needles, which are deliciously sweet and Chris explains that they have in fact previously brewed a beer with pine needles, with great success.
Earlier in the day, we had wondered how many potential ingredients we could possibly find to brew beer with on a remote Scottish island. But, as it turns out, inspiration is all around us. Some of the things we discover are completely natural and wild and others have been introduced by the island’s various owners throughout the decades.
At the time of the house’s construction, a single oak tree was planted in the garden. Now some 152 years old, the old oak tree provides shade in the summer and shelter in the rain and we enjoy a shot of the swinging seat suspended from its boughs. In 1974, an ambitious tree-planting program was undertaken on the island’s 300-acre estate, bringing a vast array of different species to the soil.
As it turns out, oak wood is a vital ingredient for the restaurant and a potential ingredient for our beers. The chef takes us into a small brick outbuilding set within the woods, where the restaurant smokes all its own fish and meat. By burning oak chips and funnelling the resulting smoke through a cabinet filled with metal racking, they can offer a truly unique taste of Eriska to their guests.
Walking through the hotel’s pristine golf course, we head back towards the pier where we originally landed on the island. The shoreline is striped by pebbles and sea shells of various sizes, as well as rows of dark green sun-dried seaweed that chart the daily ebb and flow of the sea, casting these marine plants ashore as a natural high water mark.+
Chef continually picks small plants, many of which we have never heard of, from between the pebbles at the topof the shore, passing them around to taste. As we board the pier, he scouts
the edges of the wooden walkway for the most appealing sheets of sugar kelp. More popularly known as kombu, thanks to its prevalence in Japanese food, this extremely nutritious and flavourful seaweed is a regular feature on the hotel’s menu.
As he reaches into the sparklingly clean water, he explains that in fact every other type of seaweed we can see dancing in the currents is also completely edible. The sugar kelp, however, is a particular favourite. We all enjoy a taste and marvel that none of us had ever simply reached into the sea and eaten its bounty like this before. Enamoured by the beauty of the setting, Alec later decides to take a dip in the freezing waters, bobbing around and no doubt sketching out the scene in his artistic mind. Pete discovers an area of thick clay, which he promptly applies to his skin as a face mask, clearly taking the island’s reputation for health-giving rejuvenation to heart.
The chef explains that the waters here are in fact so clean that a local lady grows oysters a stone’s throw from here. When the restaurant needs a supply, they simply give her a call and she plucks them out of the water to order.
Working with such fresh ingredients comes with its own peculiar challenges, of which most chefs will never experience. “Being only a few hours out of the water, the fish we get is usually too fresh”, the chef explains. “The rigor mortice hasn’t left the flesh and the fish are too hard to handle”, requiring some resting time before they can be de-scaled and filleted.
Back in the cottage, we’re all completely blown away by the things we have just seen. To come to such a beautiful place and learn about its history, flora and fauna in the way we just have is an experience we’ll no doubt remember for a long time to come. But, for us, the real work has only just begun. Somehow, collectively, we need to distil what we have just heard, seen and tasted into a series of twelve recipes.
The clock is ticking and having enjoyed a leisurely morning, it dawns on us that we’re under a bit of pressure to pull this all together by the end of the day. The restaurant staff bring an urn of homemade soup and basket of bread to us and we crack open a few beers for good measure. At first, we struggle to come up with a way to split up the recipes into a cohesive set of themes. And then, it dawns on us. Each of our three brewers should come up with one recipe inspired by each of the four areas of the island – the house, the kitchen garden, the woods and the sea shore. Eureka!.
These guys are all absolute pros. Watching them work out recipe concepts together was like witnessing musicians coming together to make music. Ideas are thrown around, some are discounted and others are added to, based on the collective experience of the group. We’re cooking with gas.
You don’t need me to tell you the complete line-up of recipes that came out of that day, since they each have their own tasting notes elsewhere in this edition. What was amazing to witness was how many of the influences from the island came to be an integral part of the beers that we have created.
Nasturtiums, as discovered in the kitchen garden, were used in Partizan’s saison recipe. Chris even managed to incorporate a touch of sugar kelp into his fennel gose, bringing the necessary salty notes to this slightly sour and refreshing beer. Pete managed to bring inspiration from the woods by adding oak chips to his porter and Pat added a touch of smoke malts to his Märzen, giving it a flavour reminiscent of Eriska's smoke house.
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