As many of you will have gathered from my previous ramblings, I have the privilege of plying my trade in and around the beer industry and as a good pint has always been dear to my heart, I feel I may have found my vocation. After attempting to make money in my younger days by trying to flog the stuff to pubs and their customers (without a great deal of profitable success, I should point out) I now write about beer and publish material for breweries, and this seems to be keeping a roof over the family’s head. Oh, and I still get to drink some of it too, usually in the name of research.
So when I’m invited to join a Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) beer judging panel in the Lake District on a Thursday, my natural inclination is to accept, and then have a quick look at the fixtures to see if it’s worthwhile making a few days of it. As luck would have it, Berwick Rangers are playing at Peterhead on the Saturday and the night before, Ross County are hosting local rivals Inverness Cally in a TV match. So, two of my last remaining Scottish grounds on a plate. All I have to do is drive up there. Well, I’m in Cumbria – I’m already halfway up!
Just a word about beer. Most punters will know that CAMRA was born out of frustration at the domination of keg beer, but after years of success is now having a real problem deciding how to deal with the spread of ‘craft’, essentially a ‘new wave’ of keg beer. Many of the new breed of microbrewers, also with one eye on what’s happening in the States, have embraced the fact that a substantial percentage of UK retail outlets still can’t cope with cask ale, and want a brewery conditioned alternative that takes the hassle out of cellaring and dispense. So an increasing amount of their output is going down that route, as well as into bottle, where much of it is not bottle conditioned.
In the meantime SIBA, the small brewers’ organisation, is also having an issue with ‘craft’ but for different reasons. They’re worried that the big brewers will hijack the term and convince unsuspecting punters that all beer is ‘craft’. Surely not, they wouldn’t do a thing like that….!
My 6-hour, rain-soaked drive up to North-East Scotland on Friday morning from my base in Kendal necessitates that I first check in at my hotel in Aberdeen, before the cheap hotel company that I often use gives my room away. I have it on good authority that double-booking is standard practise, to ensure profits are maintained. Once safely installed in my room I make a telephone call to Ross County to ensure the game is on and I can buy a ticket at the ground. Both questions receive an affirmative. So it’s back in the car and another 3-hour slog to Dingwall, the rain unrelenting. It’s only when I reach Inverness that I realise I don’t quite know where Dingwall is. Fortunately, a minibus with prominent Inverness Caledonian Thistle markings takes up station in front of me and, as they are County’s opponents tonight, I reason that this vehicle is the one to follow!
Parking at Ross County is easy and free. Right outside the ground and plenty of space, even for a local derby like tonight’s. I purchase a ticket from a portakabin nearby, and head round to the East Stand, the newest part of the stadium. The wait outside for the gates to open is stressful, particular as a fellow punter muses that the last time the gates were this late opening, the match was called off! A senior steward turns up and bangs on the door, and we are in. The snack bar inside the ground serves the legendary Macaroni Pie, which I eagerly devour before making my way to my seat. There’s a problem, as I’m right next to a security barrier which restricts my view of the far goal unless I lean well forward in my seat. That’s OK, until the guy in front decides to lean well back! A young female steward sees my predicament and promises to re-locate me once the match starts, which she does.
The game itself is typically Scottish. Some individual skill but played at much too high a level of intensity, the ball pinging around like a pinball and tackles flying in. Well it is a local derby I suppose. At half time the floodlights go out, which we presume is a cost-saving exercise. Two attempts to restart them fail miserably, we are staring an abandonment in the face, and I head off back to Aberdeen.
The following morning there’s time for a Wetherspoon’s brekkie at the Justice Mill – one of those ‘Spoons that becomes a disco on weekend evenings – before a slow drive northwards up the coast via a nature reserve and a twee coastal village before arriving in Peterhead around midday. I park up at the ground before walking downhill into the town centre where the Cross Keys, another Wetherspoons hostelry, is the main attraction. It’s one of their bi-annual beer festivals presently, and I plump for a pint of 21st Amendment American Bitter Red, a very palatable 4.4% red ale brewed at Wychwood by a Californian brewer of note.
Back at the ground I am immediately a source of attention in the clubhouse, as my Berwick Rangers scalf is the only one the local fans expect to see today. In fact four more Rangers fans sit near me in the bar, but my attempts to strike up a conversation are shunned – must be my impenetrable East Midlands accent! Inside the ground there’s a large snack bar which sells chips, but sadly not the macaroni pie. Shame. It’s a windy day and I take up station behind the goal that the visitors are kicking into. I make a point of not standing with the other Berwick fans, seeing as how they didn’t want to know me in the bar. So when the wee ‘gers take the lead in the first half, I’m the only living soul jumping up and down right behind the goal. Now if only there was a Scottish version of the Football League show…..
I’m amused in the first half by antics in the crowd. It’s a designated Ladies Day and about 50 or so presentable young women – from where I’m standing anyway – get really excited at times. They also show commendable sympathy when a home player is pole-axed by a blow to the nethers, and heartily applaud him as he is stretchered past them. It occurs to me that one of them might be his other half, and she’s no longer anticipating that romantic end to the day.
It’s a fairly even game and when Peterhead equalise from the spot early in the second it could still swing either way. When a home player is sent off for getting the better of a two-footed lunge dual, it’s a great chance for Rangers to take all three points but they don’t quite have enough firepower. And so I start to think about my impending eight-hour drive back home.
Back in the bar, to get the full-time football scores, I notice posters on the wall advertising a new Scottish beer. Called Caledonia Ale, it stresses the traditional quality of its brewing process and the ingredients used in the brew. And sure enough, there is the word ‘craft’ in the description, despite the fact it’s brewed by Tennents, one of the biggest keg beer producers in the UK. So it does look like SIBA have a point, and CAMRA have cause for concern. We live in interesting times….
Programmes: Both A5 and £2. The Ross County prog is slightly glossier but there’s not a lot in it. The chap who puts together the Peterhead prog is confusing his SFL Division 2 with the new SPFL League 2 and prints the wrong league table. Yeah we know Rangers are well clear, but that’s not the division we’re watching today. Both 8/10 for style and presentation.
Floodlights: 4 at each ground.
Birdlife: Only seagulls at the ground but i had the pleasure of ‘twitching’ a field of grazing curlew at the nature reserve on the way to Peterhead
Club Shop – outside the ground at Ross, inside at Peterhead
Toilets: behind the stand at Ross and Peterhead
Kop Choirs: Yes
Away support: Plenty of noisy Cally fans at Ross, 15 Berwick fans at Peterhead (14 from the borders plus one interloper)