CoffeeBeer >> Pint Pleasures >> Previous Beer Columns >> Two Stromness Pubs

Previous Pint Pleasures - August 12, 2007

guinness eileen

Ferry Inn, 15 John Street, Stromness, Orkney, Scotland

guinness eileen

Hamnavoe Lounge, Stromness Hotel, 15 Victoria Street, Stromness, Orkney, Scotland

Although Horace Greeley was remembered for popularizing John Soule's phrase "Go west, young man", I suspect somebody must have whispered in my infant ear, "Go north, young woman." Ever since I can remember, northward has had an irresistible draw. On our summer family holidays, as my father would drive us from Southern California to Northern California, either directly up the Pacific Coast or zigzagging across the state via Carson City and Reno, Nevada, I would always push for going further north - hopefully as far as the north of Oregon where my mother grew up. But if we made it that far it was never enough, as beyond the Columbia River lay the state of Washington, and beyond that Canada, and beyond that Alaska, and then - and then -- the North Pole!

Not that I've ever fancied being an Arctic explorer, as losing my digits to frostbite has never appealed to me. Besides, Russia has just staked its claim on the North Pole, and the fact that my Russian has become quite rusty is just another reason not to go there.

But when I moved from the 34th parallel up to Seattle, at 47 degrees latitude, I was ecstatic. And then it was on to Kent at 51 degrees, and then Yorkshire at 53 degrees plus some. A few weeks ago I had the chance to go on a holiday the farthest north yet, to the 59th parallel.

The Orkney Islands are situated off the northern tip of Scotland and only 50 miles south of Greenland, where the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean meet. Of the 70 islands only 16 are inhabited, and the total population is less than 20,000. Nevertheless, anyone interested in archaeology knows of Orkney because of its wealth of Neolithic villages and standing stones. And although there are very few trees this far north, the islands are a haven for wildlife including puffins, curlews, oystercatchers, butterflies, seals, and whales.

There are two towns in Orkney, both located on the Main Island or "Mainland": Kirkwall and Stromness. My friends and I stayed in a self catered cottage in Stromness, situated on the southwest tip of the island on Hamnavoe Bay. With its narrow streets and lanes leading down to the water and up to Brinkie's Brae, Stromness is a picturesque base from which to explore the rest of the islands. Although there were isolated settlements and farmsteads in the area for centuries, the actual town arose in the 16th century, establishing itself as a seaport. Stromness was the first British landfall of Captain Cook's ships Discovery and Resolution when they returned from the South Seas voyage on which Cook was killed. In the early 1700s the Hudson's Bay Company began recruiting in Stromness, and by the end of the century Orcadians made up 75 percent of the Company's workforce. Stromness has a rich history of whaling, herring fishing, and trade, and in WWII it was a naval headquarters when Scapa Flow became the base of the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet.

Today two ferries operate out of Stromness: Northlink's Hamnavoe, which takes cars and passengers across the Pentland Firth to Scrabster in Caithness; and the passenger-only Orkney Ferry which goes to the isles of Hoy and Graemsay. Directly across the road from the ferry terminal is the Ferry Inn, from which our cottage was only a few steps away. We arrived in Stromness shortly before midnight on a Saturday, after traveling since 5:20 in the morning from Sheffield on three trains and a ferry, and we were in bad need of a nightcap. Fortunately the pub was still very busy, crowded, and friendly. Although I was so sleep deprived I was having trouble focusing, I got the distinct impression we were inside a boat, with rich mahogany details, a ship's steering wheel on the wall, and tabletops made of maritime maps. Behind the bar is a collection of bank notes from around the world, presumably picked up from various ports where the pub docked.

On this first visit we had pints of Scapa Special (4.2% ABV, Highland Brewing Co, Swannay by Evie, Birsay, Orkney, Scotland), a solid golden bitter with a good balance of malt and hops. I know that's boringly like a traditional beer review, but it's pretty accurate. Okay, how's this, then: a blonde beer that stands staidly but proudly, even on horseback, with long flowing ginger-golden tresses, like General Custer before the trouble started.

Over the course of several visits during our week in Orkney we had two opportunities to sample the Ferry's cuisine. My Arctic char was quite lovely, and my Seafood Platter refreshingly bore no trace of anything that had been remotely near a deep fryer.

Aside from the fine cask ales we spent a view visits sampling some excellent bottles of local brews. My bottle of Scapa Special (4.4% ABV, Highland Brewing Co, Swannay by Evie, Birsay, Orkney, Scotland) was, not surprisingly, extremely nice: spicy, bitey, hoppy, just like I like -- like coffeebeer in a beer. On another occasion I had a bottle of Orkney Blast (6.0%, Swannay Brewing Company, Birsay, Orkney, Scotland), which tastes like a rich floral bubble bath. Marian had a bottle of Raven (3.8%, Orkney Brewery Ltd, Stromness, Orkney, Scotland) which distinctly says "toast": not as in "Cheers" but as in "buttered wholemeal nutty toast". And Ali had a small bottle of Skull Splitter (8.5%, Orkney Brewery Ltd, Stromness, Orkney, Scotland). This is definitely a barley wine, with a touch of coke syrup -- although this impression comes from my childhood when I still liked Coca-Cola. Ali says it tastes like Bass No. 1, which was the very first barley wine to be mass produced. Anyway, please go with Ali's description, because it's his beer and I wouldn't want to see anybody do something horrible like mix it with rum. It's very attractive from the top view into the glass as well.

And later I had a bottle of Dragons Head (4% ABV, Orkney Brewery Ltd, Stromness, Orkney, Scotland). Now this is a proper dark malty beer, with a good chocolaty head, a chocolaty character, and complicated flavours. This is a dark beer to make you think. If you like malty stouts, definitely try this one.

While we were in Stromness we decided to try out the nearby Stromness Hotel which hosts an annual beer festival. Although the Flattie Bar looked relatively lively, it was the sedate Hamnavoe Lounge Bar upstairs where we found the handpumps. The lounge is carpeted, warm and posh, and it offers balcony views of the ferry terminal and the harbour. But it was disarmingly quiet and devoid of life on this particular late afternoon. Some sort of three-quarter-time march music was timidly whispering from the sound system, and because half the lounge appears to be a restaurant it was even more depressing as it was too early for diners.

We decided to try a couple of beers we hadn't seen before in Orkney. My pint of Orkney Best (3.8% ABV, Highland Brewing Co, Swannay by Evie, Birsay, Orkney, Scotland) was light in all ways but satisfyingly hoppy, a bit like Abbeydale Moonshine but spikier. Marian's pint of Scapa Deep (4% ABV, Highland Brewing Co, Swannay by Evie, Birsay, Orkney, Scotland) started off disappointing, the initial bouquet promising malt but nothing much following, even though it resembled a stout. At £2.70 a pint they were both on the pricey side.

Along with the tiny no-smoking balcony there are two bay windows. When Ali met us we were lucky enough that a bay window table had just been abandoned, so we moved in for the pleasant view. But it was so quiet and dull that we were almost wishing there were fresh paint on the walls so we could watch it dry. Considering it was so early, I'd like to think the place gets livelier later, at least as some of the hotel's 42 rooms of guests pile in for their evening meals and nightcaps.

Nonetheless we decided to head back to the Ferry Inn, which we knew would already be lively.