Taste of travel part 2: Cheers to brewery tours

When traveling, I try to taste as many local delicacies (I use that word loosely) as possible to get a real taste for a place and its culture.

Last week, I blogged here about trying iconic Scottish soft drink Irn‪ in its original form. It wasn’t for me, but I had to taste it to find out.

The frothy craft beer and distillery movements across the country and globally make it easier to find local products — made with locally grown hops, berries, flowers, and more. It’s all about supply and demand. For every $100, Americans spend $1 on alcoholic beverages, according to government data.

Travel mixed with beverage tours — whether it’s beer, wine or liquor — have become popular across the country and worldwide. Many breweries — big or small, mainstream or craft — offer free tours and samples. 

day-1-kitsch-at-lakefront-brewery
You only get to see this at Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, Wis., if you visit. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Here’s a flight of breweries to consider:

Old and new: Milwaukee is a city rich in beer history (Blatz, Miller, Pabst and Schmitz), but it’s also big in craft beer. (See photo above and at top.) Read my article about some of Milwaukee’s craft breweries that was published in The Dallas Morning News.

Boulevard Brewing Co
The guided tour at Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City, Mo., lasts an hour. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Fun learning: Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City, Mo., is a bit unusual in that it starts its free 1-hour tour with a small sample of its original pale ale. It also does an excellent education job: exhibits tell you about the history of beer in Mesopotamia as well as its owns product, which dates to 1989. My tour guide, Kelsi Pile, noted that 75 percent of Boulevard beer is sold locally. She also mentioned that Boulevard made 19 beers before it was bought by Belgian-owned Duvel Moortgat Brewery in 2013; now it brews 41 varieties. Boulevard also has a large beer hall, gift shop and hosts events, such as trivia and bingo nights.

Boulevard beer hall
The beer hall at Boulevard Brewing is reminiscent of the ones in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)


Brewery Goliath: Coors beer has been around since 1873. I’ve been on a tour of the Coors Brewery in Golden, Colo., which claims to be the world’s largest single-site brewery. On its 30-minute tour, you’ll learn how Coors beer is brewed and packaged and then try free beer samples in its “Hospitality Lounge.”

Go overseas: For a taste of something different, head to Cantillon Brewery in Brussels, Belgium. This small, family owned brewery has made Lambic, Gueuze, Faro and Kriek beer using the same tools and brewing process since 1900. If you like the sour beer trend, then you’ll love Cantillon. Lambic beer is fermented using wild yeasts and bacteria native to the Zenne valley. Gueuze, a blend of lambics produced during different years, has a slightly acidic, fruity taste. Kriek is a blend of lambics and sour cherries. Cantillon also blends lambics with grapes, raspberries, apricots, hops, elderberry flowers and rhubarb. Tours are not free, but include a tasting.

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Taste of travel: Irn-Bru reduces sugar and loses some local cred

What would fictional Scottish copper John Rebus think of the reformulated Scottish soda Irn-Bru — known as the “other national drink” of Scotland — with less sugar? Och!

The British government just slapped a new tax on sugar to help fight rising obesity rates. The United Kingdom — just like the United States — has a big obesity problem.

In Scotland, not everyone is happy with the change to its sugar-laden national treasure.

On a visit last fall to Scotland, I tried Irn-Bru (pronounced ‘Iron Brew’) under the original recipe. It tasted just like bubble gum, but it also was too sweet for me. My traveling companion, however, loved it.

The taste of travel

Trying local foods and drinks of other cities and countries is a one of the great joys of travel. It’s part of the experience of learning about different cultures and how people live. Many people plan trips around wine tasting, beer tours or top French restaurants.

In addition to Irn-Bru, I’ve drank fresh coconut milk from a coconut in Hawaii, tea made from plants grown on a nearby hillside in Taiwan and a hot ginger-lemon concoction that cured my ills in New Zealand.

Visitors to the United States may want to try a Slurpee, Dr Pepper soda or eggnog. They also may find that chili in Cincinnati is very different than in Texas.

In March, the maker of Irn-Bru cut sugar in the drink by more than half (to 4.7 grams per 100 milliliters) to avoid the new tax and a price hike. The reduction of sugar and the addition of the sweetener Aspartame lowered the calories in each can of soda — to about 65 from just below 140.

The UK’s obesity rates have soared so that it’s now the most overweight nation in Western Europe, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). About 27 percent of UK adults are obese.

The legend of Irn-Bru

Americans may not be too familiar with Irn-Bru, which dates to at least 1901, even though it’s exported to the United States.

Barr's Irn Bru on Falkirk Town Heritage Trail
The Town Heritage Trail in Falkirk, Scotland, features this plaque. Falkirk is the birthplace of A.G. Barr, the maker of Irn-Bru. (Mark Begbie, Wikimedia Commons)
In Scotland, Irn-Bru is so popular that it’s called the “other national drink,” after Scotch, and it frequently pops up in popular Scottish writer Ian Rankin’s crime series featuring Detective Inspector John Rebus. In the books, Rebus swears Irn-Bru is the best cure for a hangover and drinks copious amounts of it.

In addition to its unique taste and high sugar content, Irn-Bru stands out for its bright orange color, its vibrant orange-and-blue labels and oft-controversial advertisements. (See my photo at top.)

Scottish Irn-Bru fans reportedly are scouring shops for the full-sugar version and stockpiling it. Some fans have made their outrage public: Ryan Allen of Ayr, Scotland, started the Hands Off Our Irn-Bru campaign, a petition to save the traditional recipe and Stephen McLeod of Glasgow started the Save Real Irn-Bru campaign to protect the nation’s iconic drink.

Will people warm to the new recipe? Perhaps.

For me, I probably should make another trip to Scotland for a taste comparison — for reporting purposes.

Who is St. Mungo?

Ever heard of St. Mungo?

Harry Potter fans might recognize the name as the fictional patron saint of St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries.

In the real world, he’s everywhere — at least in Glasgow, Scotland. That’s because he’s the founder and patron saint of that city and was its first bishop.

Glasgow Coat of Arms (WikiMedia Commons)
Glasgow’s Coat of Arms features images, such as the three salmon, associated with St. Mungo. (WikiMedia Commons)

St. Mungo has even made the leap to pop culture. A giant mural painted last year by Glasgow graffiti artist Sam Bates (aka Smug ) on a gable row depicts a modern-day St. Mungo in realist form. (See featured image at top, photographed by me.)

The legend of St. Mungo says he was the illegitimate son of a princess. When her father found out, he threw her over a hill, but she floated down a river to land in Culross in Fife. Around 518, she gave birth to a son named Kentigern, who was raised by St. Serf.

St. Serf called the boy Mungo, meaning “my friend” or “dear one.” St. Mungo did missionary work and brought Christianity to the area in the sixth century before dying in the early seventh century.

The City of Glasgow’s coat of arms, according to TheGlasgowStory, bears symbols connected to St. Mungo:

  • The three salmon with rings in their mouth refers to a tale involving the sixth century Queen and King of Strathclyde (a Scottish kingdom). The queen had an affair with a young soldier, giving him a ring that the king had given to her. When the king found out, he threw the ring in the river, and then demanded that she produce the ring. She confessed to Bishop Mungo, who pledged his help. He sent someone to catch fish from the river. Mungo found the ring inside the salmon, giving it to the queen.
  • The oak tree with a bell hanging from it symbolizes a fire St. Mungo set using one of its branches.
  • The robin on top of the tree signifies a favorite of St. Serf’s that young St. Mungo revived after it was killed.
  • A phrase used by St. Mungo in a sermon was shortened to “Let Glasgow Flourish” to become the city’s official motto.

Some of the same symbols are incorporated into the University of Glasgow’s crest.

Visitors to Glasgow also will find a statue of him at the north entrance to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. His name graces the free St. Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life & Art housed in a 1989 building next to Glasgow Cathedral, where St. Mungo is buried.

What is a bothy?

bothy (pronounced both-ee) — A small hut or cottage in the wilderness that’s usually unlocked and open for anyone to use for free.

You might have wondered what that is after recent news headlines featured a family rescued by the “Hogwarts Express” steam train of Harry Potter movies after they were stranded at a remote bothy in the Scottish Highlands.

The Scottish Bothy Bible book

Jon and Helen Cluett and their four children were staying at the Essan bothy on Loch (Lake) Eilt, about 130 miles northwest of Glasgow. After their canoe was swept away by a swollen river, the Cluetts called the police, which arranged for the train to pick them up, according to a BBC news report.

A bothy — also called a byre, or cowshed — is a rustic place to rest tired feet or sleep, sheltered from the wind and rain that pummels much of Scotland. The Mountain Bothies Association maintains about 100 of these basic shelters in remote areas across Great Britain.

For Americans, bothies are similar to the Appalachian Mountain Club huts available for rests or overnight lodging along part of the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail.

Similarly in Scotland, it’s popular to sleep or rest at bothies along multi-day walks and hikes. Each bothy differs slightly, but they usually do not have water or a toilet. Most bothies have a fireplace or stove, but no fuel; some have a sleeping platform or a table.

Doune bothy, Scotland, GoogleMaps
The location of Doune bothy, or byre, where I rested tired feet. (GoogleMaps)

A new book, The Scottish Bothy Bible, reveals the location of 80 bothies across the country’s boggy, forested and mountainous terrain.

On a recent trip to Scotland, Doune bothy on the northeast shore of Loch Lomond in the Central Highlands (see photo at top) was a welcome respite after a tough stretch of a 17-mile hike on a rainy day. My traveling companion and I shared the one-room stone cottage with a fireplace, table and sleeping platform with three men from Germany.  Four other people stopped by as we were leaving.

The Bothy Code simply requests that users respect the shelter, other visitors, the surroundings, agreements with private estates and restrictions on numbers.

Edinburgh is rich in literary lore

A city that names a soccer team after a novel (The Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott) must be steeped in literary legends, right?

Right — at least for Edinburgh, Scotland.

Scott Monument in Edinburgh
The monument to author Sir Walter Scott. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Edinburgh has been known as a “City of Letters” since the early 18th century. Quotes by famous Scottish writers are scattered across the city, including on the wall of the Scottish Parliament building. A 200-foot monument to Scott — the world’s largest to a writer — looms over Princes Street across from Jenners department store. A marble statue of Scott (1771-1832) sits at the base and there are 64 other statues of characters from Scott’s historical novels.

It seems impossible that the narrow spires of the 1840s Victorian Gothic Scott Monument contain 287 steps to the top. I climbed up in a narrow, spiral stone stairway made me a bit dizzy. I was rewarded with spectacular 360-degree views of Edinburgh (see photo at top) from the tippity top. If you can’t make it all the way to the top, three platforms along the way also offer incredible vistas.

“I am sorry to report the Scott Monument a failure,” author Charles Dickens said in 1858, according to an information board inside the monument. “It is like the spire of a Gothic church taken off and stuck in the ground.”

The Writers’ Museum on Lady Stair’s Close celebrates Edinburgh’s three best known writers: Scott (Ivanhoe and Rob Roy), Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). It’s free.

Stairwell  of the Scott Monument in Edinburgh
Slit windows let light inside a stairwell to the top of the Scott Monument. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

The museum displays their portraits, rare books, letters and other personal items. You’ll see Scott’s pipe and chess set. There’s also Burns’ writing desk and, on the ghoulish side, a plaster cast of his skull. Born of a humble farming family, Burns (1759-96) was called the ‘Heaven-taught ploughman.”

Visitors also will see Stevenson’s snuff boxes, fishing rod, riding boots and the ring given to him by a Samoan chief, engraved with “Tusitala,” or “teller of tales.” Stevenson (1850-94) reportedly was wearing that ring when he died.

Visitors can eat or stay at Stevenson’s former home at 17A Heriot Row. It’s now called Stevenson House. (Note: I did not stay there).

For a more modern literary turn, The Writers’ Museum is celebrating the 30th anniversary of Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin’s character, Detective Inspector John Rebus. The Rebus30 exhibition, which runs through Jan. 21, 2018, displays some of Rankin’s personal items, such as manuscripts, and explores the relationship between him and Rebus, and both men’s connections with Edinburgh.

“I don’t think the Rebus novels could be set anywhere else – they really are about Edinburgh,” Ian Rankin writes in the exhibition. “I still haven’t got to the bottom of what makes Edinburgh tick or what makes it a unique setting. It just seems to be a place that has influenced writers, and continues to nurture writers.”

The Writers' Museum sign in Edinburgh
Entrance to The Writers’ Museum (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

You can take a Rebus Tours walking tour with readings from Rankin’s books and real Edinburgh locations. Grab a pint at Rebus’s local pub, the Oxford Bar or Milne’s Bar, where a group of poets including Norman MacCaig, Sorley MacLean and George Mackay Brown, used to meet. The Literary Pub Tour is another option.

As you leave town, you might pass through the central train station, which is named for another Scott novel (Waverly).

Glengoyne: When in Scotland, tasting single malt whisky is a must 

I once tried to be a scotch drinker, but it didn’t work out. 

Still, on a recent trip to Scotland, I thought I should try some of the country’s single malt scotch whisky to see what all the fuss is about. When in Rome . . .

Scotland is synonymous with single malt, where the drink dates to at least 1494. Today, it has some 90 malt whisky distilleries.

Visitors get to see the distillery process up close. (Phot by Sheryl Jean)

For scotch newbies like me, single malt is made with malted barley at a single distillery and aged for at least three years. Blended scotch, on the other hand, combines several types of whiskies (barley, wheat or corn) and typically is not aged.

Glengoyne Distillery in Dumgoyne (about 15 miles north of Glasgow) has been making whisky since at least 1833. Today, it produces 1 million liters of whisky a year that’s aged at least 10 years. As soon as I walked on to the property, I smelled the sharp, sweet scent of the grain used to make the whisky.

My recent 45-minute tour of the distillery started with a we Dram of 12-year single malt. Glengoyne offers seven tours — from my basic tour for just over $12 to a $193, five-hour Masterclass.

Tour guide Helena De Raemedenaeker tells a group of visitors about how whisky is aged. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

While I and about 35 other visitors sipped our scotch, tour guide Helena De Raemedenaeker told us about the history of Glengoyne, scotch processing and how to drink scotch. She showed us how and where the barley is malted; took us through the mash house; and gave us a peak at some of Glengoyne’s oldest casks.

Glengoyne uses only three ingredients: malted barley, yeast and water. Although all single malt makers use the same ingredients, each distillery’s product has a distinctive character, such as smokiness, a hint of vanilla or a whiff of peat, due to variations in the process and equipment.

Glengoyne’s oldest whiskies are kept under lock and key. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

De Raemedenaeker noted that Glengoyne uses the same techniques as years ago for a smooth flavor. It uses warm air, not peat, to heat its barley. Distillation occurs in copper kettles in small batches. 

By Scottish law, scotch must be matured in oak casks, which can contribute to the flavor of the product. Glengoyne uses barrels made from American and European oak. Some casks were previously used for sherry, giving the scotch a darker color.

Scotland has five major single malt production regions: Campbeltown, Highland, Islay, Lowland and Speyside.

(Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Glengoyne’s 

Gengoyne’s Teapot Dram is matured in six sherry casks for 59.6% alcohol. That particular scotch is sold only at the distillery and is listed in the book 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die. According to De Raemedenaeker, the name harkens back to a time when workers received three drams of whisky a day. Instead of drinking it, some younger workers pooled theirs in a teapot, where it aged into a fiery spirit

Most Glengoyne whiskies, however, have between 40% and 43% alcohol content.

Single malt has seen a dramatic increase in interest since the 1980s. While I was there, Glengoyne was selling its last bottle of 35-year whisky for about $3,800.

Alas, Im still not a scotch drinker, but I tried.

Note: Whisky is the way Scots spell it.