Continuing education

Continuing education

Michael looks back at the early days of his education in Edinburgh's finest

Musings with Michael Jackson | 20 Jul 2007 | Issue 65 | By Michael Jackson

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Had I discovered The Canny Man’s so quickly by the employment of my own nose, that would have been a precocious feat. I was a teenager, and had been living in Edinburgh for only a few months.I was introduced to the pub by my friend Wullie, a colleague on the newspaper where I worked. He had also extended my range from pints of heavy to nips of single malt. You may remember my story about Wullie. We lost touch until our paths crossed 40 years later at the other side of the world.The Canny Man’s was a rare delight: a pub that applied equally high standards to the choice, care and serving of the fermented and distilled forms of barley malt.The Canny Man’s beer came from the then family-owned Belhaven brewery, in the nearby coastal town of Dunbar.Despite the proximity of the source, Belhaven beer was even harder to find in Edinburgh than single malt Scotch. Most of my friends considered McEwan’s beer to be more than adequate. If they fancied a whisky, they had their favourite blends.At the age of 15, my friend Slavinsky and I spent the morning reading the newspapers in the Carnegie Library, and then tried to look 18 in order to obtain a beer at a local pub. We were not quite ready for whisky, and couldn’t afford it anyway.Remembering the flavour of the local beer, I now realise that it was almost malty enough to be Scottish.I have since learned that the brewer at the time was a Scot, who played the bagpipes.Unaccountably, his practising disturbed the neighbours.His solution was to march up and down the tun room pitching pibrochs. He apparently swore that Scotland the Brave roused the fermentation more robustly than the usual Yorkshire technique of hitting the biggest bubbles for six with a cricket bat autographed by Len Hutton.I have on occasion referred to “losing my virginity” in Edinburgh. I intended this as a metaphor for the time when my teenage drinking progressed from bravado and exploration to a more sensuous, perhaps even emotional, experience.It occurred to me the other day that the sense of this came with the juxtaposition of the fermented malt and the distillate at The Canny Man’s.The Belhaven was so much more expressive than any beer I had tasted that I became obsessed with its secrets.The Glen Grant captivated me by so laconically outstripping any blend I knew.Together, they drew me into an internal trialogue.In the early to mid 1970s, the Campaign for Real Ale made it permissible to talk in public about the aromas and flavours of beer. My book The World Guide to Beer prompted enthusiasts to demand my qualifications.“I have visited a greater variety of breweries, in more countries than anyone else, tasted more styles and asked more questions. Than anyone else,” I would reply.“Yes, but how do we know you have good taste?” a cynic would respond.“When Belhaven was barely known even in Edinburgh, I habitually took two bus journeys to get from Leith to Morningside to enjoy a pint,” I would boast. In the meantime, it had become one of the most fashionable British beers.“It was that good, even then, and you recognised it?” I permitted myself a smug smile. “It was terrific when it chased down a Glen Grant.” So why tell this story now? Because Belhaven did much more than stimulate my taste-buds and my curiosity. When my appreciation of beer became a profession, how did I bridge the gap between enthusiasm and knowledge? I put naïve and stupid questions to brewers.Who was the most astonishingly patient, tirelessly helpful, selflessly encouraging and recklessly generous with his time and knowledge?Sandy Hunter, of Belhaven. Consummate craftsman, passionate brewer, maltster, hobby wine-maker and lover of all good drink. He truly appreciated the best of his homeland.Sandy died recently, at the age of 86.Without Sandy, there would have been no World Guide to Beer.That was not my first book, but it was the one that established me as an author. Without that precedent, there would certainly have been no World Guide to Whisky.
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