Saturday, 20 September 2014

Scots kicking it auld skool with family, friends, freedom (and beer)

The night drove on with songs and clatter. And aye, the ale was growing better
Tam o' Shanter, Robbie Burns

"Tell our enemies that they may take our lives but they will never take our freedom"
William Wallace (played by American-born Australian of mostly Irish stock Mel Gibson) in Braveheart

With historic independence votes, family reunions, legendary beer writers, prodigious feats of strength and a scotch ale with a Canadian twist,  it's been a very Scottish summer for me and my family.

Thursday's Scottish vote for independence was a massive international event with huge implications for the Scots in particular, as well as for every UK citizen.

But until the last few weeks - at about the same time the No side realized the working class people were overwhelmingly voting Yes - it was a back-of-the-mind story happening an ocean away. I didn't really pay attention to it all until just a few days ago.

I joked with my Scottish pals about independence, shouting "Freedom" in my best Mel Gibson voice, but in my heart I believed Scotland to be better off in the Union and was happy with the result, with No forces taking 55 per cent of the vote.

Scots certainly took the vote seriously, with nearly 85 per cent of eligible voters casting ballots, a number that is about double what Canadians get for a hotly contested election over here.

So while the referendum was historic, the highlight of my Scottish season was the reunion we hold every year or so to catch up on gossip, take a dip in the pool, drink a beer or two, and most importantly, to remember where we came from: a wee seaside village so hard on Scotland's North Sea coast it gets wet dreams whenever the tide rolls in.

All of us Canadians (and a few Americans as well) who can trace our roots back to the enchanted village of Pennan make a point of being available the second weekend in August for the party - dubbed the Gatt Family Reunion - which was held this year at my cousin's home in Toronto's posh Bluffs neighbourhood.

The common demominator for everyone in attendance is my Nana, Jean Hendry (nee Gatt), who hailed from Pennan before marrying my grandfather, Fred Hendry, a townie from nearby Fraserburgh.

Nana, who would have turned 111 in January, never forgot her roots, and if you see the picture below, you can understand why. Still, beautiful can be dangerous and with the wild open ocean in front and towering cliffs that threaten to crush the village's single street behind (a very real concern in recent years), it is not a place for the soft.

Pennan, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Rugged and beautiful

Which made it a perfect plunder, pillage and holiday spot for marauding Vikings of a thousand years ago (we like to think we still have Norse blood flowing in our veins) who sailed here for the fishing and the women, as well as the view.

Some still do, though less so for the fishing these days. Tourists still come for the view, as well as the famous red telephone box from the 80s cult film classic, Local Hero. (That phone box, by the way, was originally a prop but after much public outcry installed permanently on the village's main street, six years after the movie's release in 1983.)

Visitors also come to this part of north-east Scotland for the beer - Brew Dog's Punk IPA is one of Scotland's (and Fraserburgh's) greatest gifts to the world - but I digress. There's more to family reunions than beer and nice views after all.

There's family, to start. I have aunts (no uncles left, alas) and four generations of cousins to chat up - most of whom I only see at these parties - and for the older members of the family, there's always the fear I won't see them again.

There are also the newcomers to the family, and I brought some of them to the reunion. I even used them as fodder for trash talk.

"The Hendrys are going to kick ass at this party," I crowed to Jamie Lyn, my slightly confused cousin in the days leading up to the event, citing my three awesome grandkids and my daughter-in-law Katie, who was three weeks away from delivering my fourth grandchild - darling Josie - to the world.

"I'm bringing a very pregnant girl and a major announcement from a member of the family. What are YOU bringing?"

As it happened,  Jamie and family already knew about the big announcement (my brother Brian shocked us all by tying the knot this summer in Anguilla) and, as I mentioned, Josie hadn't made her appearance yet. So I knew what Jamie's answer would be. And I knew if I had put money on my boast I was going to lose, because she was bringing her daughter Addison, The Adorable One.

Damn stars make it hard to get
a decent pic of the Adorable One
Addison, who just turned one (her birthday party was held the day before our reunion), is the most photographed child in the history of photography. And in each of these pics she is absolutely adorable.

She never seems to fuss, fidget or fight and she has a Mona Lisa smile in every picture. It is uncanny, really.

With a house full of women to dote on her - cousin Logan struck out on his own, leaving only Addison's father Shawn to represent the male influence - it's no bloody wonder, I suppose.

So I raised a can of Red Racer IPA (see how I bring it all back to beer?) to Addison, still adorable even after soiling my second best shirt with the remains of her chocolate cake dessert, and went back to socializing and seeing what everyone was drinking.

I had made sure to bring some decent IPAs to the party - a couple of Red Racers and a Mad Tom - figuring any freebies would be the usual commercial crap. But brother Brian surprised me with a cooler filled with some of Keith's Hop Series as well as some German beers with my enjoyment in mind. Not my cup o' tea, but I appreciated the gesture and the cooler proved quite popular with some, notably my budding rock star cousin Logan (gratuitous plug - check out the band St. Andrews and how Scottish is that?), who eagerly enjoyed the Keiths, while announcing he was starting to embrace the craft beer scene.

(Logan also had this to say about beer and beer drinking: "I must be getting old. I used to be able to drink a case easy. Now if I have ten I'm done." He is, I think, 23. But I did say he was a rock star.)

I also ran into Peter, a Texan who married into the family a while back. My dad mentioned to him that I write a beer blog - "IPA Tales," he was told ("Dad, you remembered!"), a tidbit that perked up Peter. "That's my favourite style," he said, happily announcing Stone IPA as his top choice.

Hello! You need to come to all the reunions, Peter. Between the two of us we'll change the world. Or at least my clan's taste in beer.

(Seeing as this is a Scottish blog, I should to point out that famed San Diego brewery Stone has collaborated with Brew Dog several times. Just to bring it all back to Aberdeenshire and that Circle of Beer thing.)

We talked about things other than beer at the reunion, but at this multi-generational house (presided over by my Auntie Jan, the family matriarch) the topics tend to gravitate to kids and their issues more than Scottish independence. Scotland is near and dear to this family - five of the ladies just returned from a Scottish vacation - but independence is an issue best left to those who live there. But that's just me.

Our kids though? They are our future. Even the kids who pranked my cousin Christine's house that night, plastering it with for sale signs. Them too, especially as it could have been her kids anyway.


This is what a Beer Writer of the Year looks like in
New Zealand. Yes, he gets paid to do this

The other newsworthy event (with a slightly Scottish spin) that took place this summer was the selection of Neil Miller as Beer Writer of the Year by the Brewer's Guild of New Zealand.

Neil, a new pal, was a famed Kiwi writer with an thing for moose touching before this honour. Now, while his ungulate obsession and general love for all things Canadian remains unabated, his writing status has been upgraded to Legendary.

And well deserved at that.

Neil's Malthouse blogs are always funny and informative, with a two-part tale dubbed The Greyhound Story standing out this year. In this, Neil regales us with the story of how, down on his luck at the track, he watched his dogs finish 1-2-3 - a rare trifecta - only to see the race scratched and his winning tickets invalidated because of alleged shenanigans on the track. The worst part about it, he lamented, was that he had no part in the fix.

It seems the 'rabbit' fell off the motorized rail, causing the three leading greyhounds to attack it, with the next dog bounding into the middle of the ground and "rather brutally" killing a real goose. "My dogs ran on," Neil remembered with pride, "mainly because they were so far behind the pack they probably did not see the rabbit or the goose, All these soon to be gloriously victorious creatures probably heard was me cheering them on from the most prestigious seating area in the ground."

His Honourary Canadian title (photoshop skills courtesy of fellow Musketeer Steve) was awarded shortly after being named Beer Writer of the Year and was given partly for that momentous achievement and partly because of his self-proclaimed infatuation with us Canucks. Mr. Miller's favourite Canadian, William Shatner, inexplicably failed to acknowledge the beer writing crown but number two on the list, Stephen Beaumont, the world's richest beer writer (in prose if not in actual salary) was effusive in his praise for the man.
Neil Miller - our honourary Canadian

(Somewhere in that thread I inadvertently challenged Beaumont to prove his own Canadian status by humming the Hockey Night in Canada theme, and got this response back: "Of course I can! Dah, da-dah-dah. Dah dah dah dah dah dah. Dah, dah da-dah..." and so forth. I'm sorry I doubted you Stephen.

Neil, you are now the fourth-most famous native of Bathurst, Scotland, after Sir James Young Simpson (the inventor of chloroform); John Newland (who parlayed the profits from a slave-laboured sugar cane plantation into fame as the founder of Bathurst Academy); and racing legend Dario Franchitti.

Any time you want to visit us in the frozen north, I can guarantee you great beer, at least one moose to touch, and probably Beaumont.

With his fame and fortune he may even be able to provide Shatner.


My Scottish summer had its start earlier in July when the J Man and I got our kilts on and ventured north to the hills of Uxbridge for the Durham Highland Games.

Okay, We really didn't get wear kilts. It's just a figure of speech. But I would of worn one if one had been available. Seriously.

I have more hair than this guy
but otherwise, pretty similar
Anyway, after seeing the sights we settled in to watch some of the Heavy Games; specifically the two hammer throw events, where one dude - far from the biggest guy on the field - absolutely dominated. He was aided a bit by his cheering section: a woman with non-stop chatter who didn't actually praise her man so much as trash talk his opponents. The fact that the beer tent was just a few metres away might have had something to do with that. Can't say for sure.

I also couldn't keep my eyes off  a small circle adjacent to the grandstand containing three boulders weighing 80 pounds, 150 pounds and 200-plus pounds, along with a sign that implored me to "give it a go."

At this point my mind is racing with the possibilities, both good and bad. Showing off by lifting heavy things is a rite of passage between father and son, but on the other hand, I'm 54, out of shape and sporting a left knee that is both arthritic and meniscusly-challenged.

So avoiding embarrasment is also important.

With Jake and the whole crowd (maybe 40 people) looking on, I approached the first stone and set myself for maximum effort, only to hoist the rock with ease.

"Try the next one sir?" asked our friendly emcee. I wasn't going to, but I was on a roll here and damned if I didn't get this one - dubbed the Stone of Pain - onto my shoulder as well, though not without a great deal of huffing and puffing and wheezing and grunting.

My eyes were bulging out of the sockets and I knew my back would get payback in the morning, but I got it done.  Mission accomplished.

"Would you like to try the Great Stone of Durham sir? Just 200 or so pounds."

"Next year," I said. "I'll be wearing a kilt for that one."


I'll wrap this long-winded blog with a review of a Scottish beer, Innis & Gunn's Canadian Cherrywood Finish.

This one came on the recommendation of pal Don of Brew Ha Ha fame, who had tried several of Innis & Gunn's offerings and declared this one the best of the bunch, calling it "liquid dynamite."

I have to agree. This brew is matured over Canadian Black Cherrywood for 49 days (not 50) and then cold-conditioned while drizzling maple syrup into the concoction. At 7.4 per cent, it is - like all things Scottish and Canadian - not to be taken lightly.

It pours a dark bronze and I get all sweet malts on the nose - no hops to speak of - with hints of cherries and aromatic wood. Go figure. Really, really silky smooth on the tongue and a really outstanding beer.

Alba Gu Broth!

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