In search of Shetland beer

It started with a work bonus trip to Shetland to present some results. Since I was flying all that way, it seemed daft to just turn around and head home so having established that there was two breweries in Shetland, I found myself the least salubrious hotel for the night. My quest: to ‘research’ the local beers.

Friday.

My work is done and I’ve managed to get myself lost but eventually I find my bed for the night in the Lerwick Hotel. It’s not busy.

Hi. I have a reservation.

(Reaches under counter and produces a piece of paper) Mr Hope?

Err, yeah.

Room 201

It’s the room nearest the reception desk. I think I might be the only guest.

What I want to do is dump my bag and have a pint. If I sit too long I’m going to fall asleep and the most obvious first stop is the hotel bar but this only reinforces my impression that I’m alone here (apart from the twins). There’s no one in the bar. No one. Not even staff so the tap with Valhalla Brewery’s Simmer Dim goes unmolested. I head out.

First stop: The Lounge, Mounthooly Street. This has been recommended by a Shetland native no less though, to be fair, it wasn’t an unqualified recommendation:

The Lounge Bar on Mounthooly St in Lerwick used to be “THE” place to go at weekends – really busy with live trad music but not so sure these days. It’s probably still the best bet though as Lerwick is not blessed with overly great pubs I’m afraid.

It is, shall we say, a classic pub. Vinyl floor, plywood panelling and bench seats around the walls, dart board. A display of the world’s bank notes behind a bar blocked by a knot of regulars. To one side, under the silent but captioned TV there’s a couple sitting side-by-side, in silence, looking straight ahead. It could be any town. Somewhere in Govan or Springburn. Leith, maybe. The taps are Carling, Tennents, Coors Light. We’re spoiled for the choice of pish lager. Belhaven Best, Guinness. Tartan Special. You can buy every variety of crap lager but local beer on Shetland is as rare as trees. There’s nothing local on tap. Two breweries but just one represented by one bottled beer – Valhalla Auld Rock. It’s nice, dark, malty-sweet. A traditional Scottish heavy but they must still be doing oil-boom pricing – £3.70 a bottle. Oddly, there’s an impressive range of Orkney beers in bottles.

When the Auld Rock is done, I head out and, looking for another pub to continue the quest, I notice Beervana, a modern bottle shop on Lerwick’s main commercial street: Commercial Street. It’s an excellent shop, reminiscent of Edinburgh’s Beer Hive, with the two Shetland breweries well represented and their whole range of Scottish beers given a very prominent display at the front of the shop. Considering most of these beers need to be brought to Shetland, the prices of all the beers are very reasonable. The off-trade in local beers is obviously better than the on-trade since Beervana will be moving to a larger shop soon. The advice for a local pint: try Da Wheel.

So I headed along to Da Wheel. On the way I walked past The Thule. Even though it looked like something out of an Edward Hopper painting I could see through the window that it only had the usual kegs of fizz on offer. And, to be honest, it looked pretty unwelcoming. Da Wheel had nothing. But I’m starting to notice a pattern here: empty pubs. A little group of men, already a few pints in, hanging around the bar chatting or playing pool. Maybe I’m just in the twilight zone between Lerwickians (is that the word?) finishing work and going out. Maybe it gets a little livelier later in the evening.

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The recommendation in Da Wheel is to try Captain Flint’s at the Market Cross at the other end of Commercial Street. Thankfully, Commercial Street is pretty short so although the drizzle is starting, I get to Captain Flint’s without my hood. It has to be said that Captain Flint’s is a strange place. Themed as a pirate ship with easily the most surly barmaid ever, Flint’s had Lerwick Brewery Azure on cask. Light, hoppy with a Mr Whippy head. A success of sorts, although it’s a little aggressively bitter for my taste but I’m pleased to find it on tap.

With that under my belt, I decided to call it a night. 7.30pm. Back to Beervana for a few beers: Valhalla Simmer Dim, A Valhalla Sjolmet Stout, Lerwick Tushkar and an Orkney Porter. Because I’ve heard good things about it. 

Mainly they’re fine. Simmer Dim is pleasant. Tushkar is nice but with a slightly odd aftertaste that I can’t place. The Orkney Porter is stunning, although at 10% and after two films and a long day I’m ready to sleep. 

Saturday

It’s looking grim. Breakfast is served until 9.30am, which seems early for a weekend but I’m up, washed and dressed in plenty of time to take my seat in an otherwise empty dining room. Breakfasted, packed up and checked out and then off to wander looking for Norse myths and viking tat for the weans. The weather never advances beyond little drizzle and having done my wandering and got presents for everyone at home. I decide to give The Thule (The Famous Thule, apparently) a try. It has the distinct advantage of being just opposite the bus stop I need for the airport and it’ll let me put my bag down while I wait for an hour. Opening the door, the place is heavy on the scent of bleach. That, the tiled floor and the industrial steel panelling give a distinct impression of municipal public toilet. Never a good first impression, except in a municipal public toilet. My walk-past last night was right: I have to settle for a pint of Stella. It was that or Best and even in a straight competition between Stella and Best, Best isn’t the best.

Then there was an hour-long bus trip to the airport, listening to the lilting accent, with just enough local words interspersed to make conversations barely understandable. Finally, I find a decent pint. Lerwick IPA. Reminiscent of Sierra Nevada but that’s not a criticism.

In departures there’s bottles. Valhalla Old Scatness, described on the bottle as Light and Smokey and they’re not wrong. It smells like lager and has a light malt taste and quite low bitterness but that only means there’s very little balancing the smokiness. The first mouthful is like a kipper in a glass, although that’s just the initial impression – the first shock of that unexpected level of smoke in a beer so light. Subsequent mouthfuls are more balanced although I’m still asking why I would want a smokey lager. It’s doing neither of the jobs I want in a beer – giving neither the dry, crisp thirst quench of a lager nor the sip-and-think complexity of a stout or porter, where smoke often adds to a mix of malt and other flavours. Do I want another one? No, no thanks. I’m not sure I even want to finish this one.

So that was Shetland and quite a disappointing attempt to sample the local beers. Top impression: Shetland pubs are for serious boozers but maybe I’m seeing them at the wrong time. Shetland beers don’t seem to be getting the support of Shetland’s pubs. Top marks to Beervana for sticking their neck out and opening a craft beer shop. How they assessed the market potential is anyone’s guess but they seem to have called it right and best of luck to them. Craft beer is drunk at home here.

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In search of Shetland beer

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