| The Brewery |
The Cairngorm Brewery is situated within the boundaries of The Cairngorm National Park in the busy tourist town of Aviemore | http://www.visitaviemore.com | and began production of real ale back in 1997. It was originally called the Aviemore Brewery, but when the park was granted National Park status the brewery was quick to try and capitalise on that and changed to the present name.
It brews a fairly wide selection of beers ranging from pale and golden ales through to award winning stouts (more on those below).
The brewery site is reasonably sized and produces around 6500 litres per day, rotating their brew cycles among their core range beers and a mix of seasonal brews. There is a sizable brew-house, a busy shop and bar area and a huge bottling plant toward the rear of the site (as well as bottling their own beers, they also bottle beers for a number of other smaller breweries based in the north of Scotland).
They offer an informative and entertaining tour & tasting session, where they will talk through some of the history of beer and the brewery itself and then lead a tasting of around 10 of the current range of their beer. They also own a local bar which serves as a tap house, just a few minutes’ walk from the brewery | https://www.facebook.com/TheWinkingOwlAviemore |
| The Beer |
Sheepshaggers Gold / Cairngorm Gold | These two bottles hold exactly the same contents, but the original Sheepshaggers Gold was renamed Cairngorm Gold for Tesco and other stores & pubs who deemed the original name too offensive to stock on their shelves. It is a golden ale brewed at 4.5%abv and pours a clear golden colour with a crisp white head. The initial aroma has notes of floral malt, grassy hints and a touch of biscuit. The taste is light to medium sweet, primarily malt with a light, bitter floral flavour coming from the hops. Whether it’s Sheepshaggers or Cairngorm, this is a pleasant enough golden ale and is easy to drink.
Trade Winds | This is the brewery’s best selling beer and it is one of my own personal favourites. It is a light golden ale at 4.3%abv and is brewed with elderflower and perle hops. The nose is fruity and very floral, with hints of light sweetness from the malt. The taste is crisp, again very floral but not overpowering and some light citrus from the hops. The finish is bittering and crisp with wheat notes lingering among the floral flavours. This is an easy drinking, sessionable beer with pleasant summery flavour.
Caillie | This is another golden ale, at 3.8%abv, with very light hops and a light malt backbone. Some light citrus hops on the nose, with mild fresh grassy notes coming through. The taste is bitter and malty with very little in the way of clean flavour to complement the beer. Unfortunately, I didn’t really enjoy this beer as the smell and flavour were quite bland and thin. I also struggle to see the need for it given the fact there are other, better golden ales being produced by Cairngorm.
White Lady | A pleasant change in direction with this wheat beer brewed at 4.7%abv, the nose on this one is light, spicy with some sweet orange notes which linger. It pours a hazy light gold, although is clearer than most other typical wheat beers, and has a light, refreshing body and mouth feel. The flavour is light and a bit tangy, with the spice and orange coming through before giving way to a light malt and wheat backbone. The finish is clean and pleasant malt. This is a decent beer with interesting, if light flavours. Not a typical wheat beer, but perhaps a good one to try if you are new to wheat beers as this is an easy, entry level beer to dip your toe in the water with.
Highland IPA | This recent addition to the range is an IPA brewed at 5%abv and is one of the few beers from Cairngorm to come in 330ml bottles (typically all beers have been in 500ml bottles in the past). I get the feeling this is perhaps a beer which is trying to grab a slice of the current popularity and ubiquity of IPAs within the US & UK craft beer markets. It pours a dark amber colour, with an off-white head which dissipates slowly. The nose is strong malt, with some grassy hops and some earthy tones. The taste is bitter, malty and lightly hopped but doesn’t taste very clear. The finish is primarily dark malt and for some reason a hint of smokiness. Unfortunately for me, this is not a great beer, let alone a great IPA. It claims to be “larger than life” with a “massive American influence” but when put up against the likes of a Ballast Point Sculpin, a Stone IPA or an Oskar Blues Pinner IPA, I’m afraid this one simply doesn’t cut it. I think it will struggle among the UK IPAs from the likes of Tempest, BrewDog, Five Points, etc.
Highland Gold | Brewed at 4.8%abv, originally for the Highland Cattle Society, this is a pleasantly hoppy red ale and was the first of the darker ales sampled during the tasting. The nose is sweet malt with fruity/floral hops and the taste is very similar. The hops are up front, but mildy sweet and floral, giving way to the sweet, toffee like malt toward the finish. Overall, a decent ale.
Wildcat | A really nice Scottish ale at 5.1%abv, it pours clear red/amber with medium carbonation. The nose is light on hops, but there is a pleasant cereal malt aroma. The flavour is primarily bitter, but smoothing off to a toasted malt finish; no hop flavours at all really, but a pleasant Scottish ale and it is fairly typical of the style. If anything, it is a solid red ale, if a little unremarkable, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Highland Hammer | The strongest abv beer, at 5.6%abv, on offer from Cairngorm is another Scottish red ale. The nose is cereal, toffee and malt with some floral notes. The taste is initially floral & slightly fruity but that quickly gives way to a heavy maltiness, with a sweet, toasted finish. Other than the strength, I find it hard to distinguish this one from the Wildcat and it’s another beer I think is probably unnecessary in their range.
Stag | This is a fairly typical bitter ale, very dark in colour, and a pleasant beer at 4.1%abv. On the whole I think this is a better ale than Wildcat or Highland Hammer and is very similar in style. The nose here is better, more open with some earthy, pine, grassy notes with a strong toasted malt aroma coming through too. The taste is initially sweet malt but the bitterness comes through with grassy notes and the finish is quite dry but pleasantly bitter. Of the 4 red ales tasted this is probably my favourite, with the Highland Gold a relatively close 2nd.
Black Gold | I think this was definitely a case of leaving the best until last, with a really decent stout at 4.4%abv. This is by far the best beer tasted from Cairngorm today and it is unsurprising that it has won multiple awards. It pours jet black with a light creamy head. The aroma is principally dark malts and some chocolate and toast notes coming through too. The taste is initially a smooth but bitter chocolate with notes of malt sweetness and roasted dark malts coming through toward the finish. A really great stout and one I would definitely recommend as an alternative to Guinness if you can find it.
Overall, there are some solid, decent beers on offer from Cairngorm Brewery. Their best beers, in my opinion, are their more traditional beers, but when they begin to experiment it can deliver some mixed results. I also feel that there are perhaps too many similar beers in the range with too little to distinguish each one on its own. There are also a reasonable number of others in the range, which I didn’t taste, but these are mostly red or golden ales so I would assume (perhaps incorrectly) that they are more of the same.
I also get the feeling that Cairngorm is in the middle of a transition from brewing the traditional ‘real ales’, moving toward some more ‘craft beer’ as exemplified by the addition of the Highland IPA in a 330ml bottle to their range. I would be more interested in them perhaps consolidating their core range down to a more manageable and meaningful profile of beer and perhaps move toward more of a seasonal or limited release program for their more experimental beers.
The brewery is definitely worth a visit if you are in the area, and I would recommend that craft beer and real ale fans alike try their beers whenever you can find them; there are some really good beers on offer here.