2005 | COLUMN | BEAUMONT
A Rare Bit Of Wales
For a child of about seven or eight, the young lad I encountered
on the banks of the estuary in Conwy, Wales, was unusually
aware of his surroundings. Casting a glance at my slack-jawed
visage as he passed by on his bicycle, he hit his brakes and
smiled up at me. "Pretty amazin', innit?" he inquired.
"Ya," I dumbly replied, "pretty amazin'."
What we were discussing was Conwy Castle, a landmark, 13th-century
fortress that utterly dominates the town, and which at that
precise moment was backlit by the waning rays of a spectacular
sunset. In truth, the special effects were hardly needed;
while the sun shone for the entirety of the daylight hours
I spent in Conwy, there was and remains no question in my
mind that the castle would look no less "amazin'"
viewed through torrents of rain or walls of sleet. More uncomfortable,
perhaps, but almost certainly as breathtaking.
For me, at least, part of the appeal of Conwy Castle and
its more than three-quarters of a mile of intact walls —
all built by the British monarch Edward I as part of an "Iron
Ring" of castles meant to contain, rather than protect,
the Celts who populated Wales — is that its grandeur
was entirely unexpected. Having done my research in advance,
I knew that there was a castle in Conwy — hell, I was
staying at the Castle Hotel! — but like so many travelers
for whom the United Kingdom stretches only between the hop
fields of Kent and the distilleries of the Scottish Highlands,
I was utterly ignorant of its magnificence and majesty.
again, as I was to learn repeatedly over the course of the
following seven days, when you're a tourist in Wales, "surprised"
is pretty much a constant state of being.
Conwy, in the far north of the country and really only a
short hop from Liverpool, was my first stop in Wales. From
its dramatic beauty, I drove through the verdant hills of
Snowdonia, passed the coastal resorts of Cardigan Bay, experienced
the pastoral Brecon Beacons National Park, and ended my voyage
at the unabashedly modern redevelopment of Cardiff Bay. Along
the route, I encountered such fascinating bits and pieces
of Welsh arcania as Hay-on-Wye, the self-proclaimed "used
bookstore capital of the world"; a wonderful B&B
gastropub, the Felin Fach Griffin, stuck in the middle of
nowhere; and a 6,000-year-old burial chamber incredibly topped
by a 40-ton capstone and marked only by a small sign in the
middle of a sheep meadow, invisible from the passing road.
Of course, I also had a few drinks along the way.
The first impressive ale I sampled in Wales was from the
Conwy Brewery, a less than one year old operation located
on the town's outskirts. To its great credit, the charming
and lively pub at the Castle Hotel pours two of the fledgling
brewery's three ales, both on cask, including the deep ruby-brown
Celebration Ale, a substantial and chocolaty beer that caught
my attention with a richness belying its 4.2% alcohol. If
this was what a new brewery in Wales could do, I was looking
forward to further exploring the country's cask-conditioned
And by exploring, I mean discovering. Although I have been
a semiregular at the Great British Beer Festival for many
a year, I must admit to having only a passing familiarity
with Welsh beers. Part of this is due to a lack of Welsh focus
in my tastings, but the majority of the blame must rest on
the shoulders of CAMRA, organizers of the GBBF, whose range
of Welsh breweries presented at Britain's biggest beer festival
is nothing short of appalling. Of the more than 200 breweries
represented at the 2004 GBBF, a mere half-dozen hailed from
Wales, including the regional juggernaut, Brains, and the
youthful Breconshire, the latter of which was included not
at the "Wales and West" bar, but at the Wetherspoon-sponsored
it happened, I did try the Bar Nouveau's Breconshire Golden
Valley and was more then pleased by its honeyed apricot start
and herbaceous body. So when handed the opportunity to stop
by the "brewery tap," the Old Boar's Head in Brecon,
I grabbed it and enjoyed not just a second pint of the Golden
Valley, but also the ale's bigger brother, the 4.7% alcohol,
slightly raisiny Red Dragon, an auburn-hued ale with earthy
bitterness supporting notes of plummy fruit and complex malt.
Venturing farther south from Brecon, I decided to pay heed
to the maxim that man does not live by ale alone, and I booked
a visit to another new producer of beverage alcohol, the Welsh
Whisky Company, makers of Penderyn Single Malt Welsh Whisky,
and the first whisky distillery to operate in that country
for more than a century.
The story behind the distillery is similar to that behind
so many such start-ups, namely that a bunch of friends were
sitting around the pub — these stories always seem to
take place in bars, oddly enough — bemoaning the lack
of local whisky, when one of them suggested that they do something
A short while later, the group secured their site in the
small town of Penderyn and contracted Dr. David Faraday to
design for them a unique "super still" that distills
in a single process, thus eliminating the need for a second,
"low wines" still. Roughly three and a half years
later, on St. David's Day, March 1, 2004, the first bottle
of Penderyn Whisky was sold.
was amazed that such a youthful spirit could have such an
elegant, refined flavour. The secret, I was told, lies in
the fact that the distillate emerges from the still at over
180 proof, an unusually high degree of purity. From this level,
it is reduced with the distillery's own well water to 63%
alcohol and aged in oak casks that previously held Evan Williams
bourbon and Jack Daniel's whiskey, yielding a floral, caramelly
and relatively light-bodied spirit which, unlike most Scottish
whiskies, is to my taste best sampled at cask strength, uncut
by even the finest of waters.
My final beverage stop in Wales was the Llanerch Vineyard
— yes, Vineyard, as in wine-producing property. This
bucolic refuge located just outside Cardiff is one of a small
but growing family of U.K. wineries, and while they likely
won't be making French, Californian or even Argentinean winemakers
sweat anytime soon, I truly enjoyed the general quality of
their Cariad line of white wines, in particular the pale pink
and the unfortunately monikered Cariad Blush, with its strawberry-ish
start, firm and slightly off-dry, fruity character and softly
Ordinarily, it would have surprised me mightily to find a
winery in the suburban outskirts of the Welsh capital, if,
indeed, the collection of impossibly narrow laneways masquerading
as two-way roads we traveled could be considered the ’burbs.
But at this stage of the trip, I had reached the point where
little, if anything, Welsh would have surprised me. Instead,
I was just happily enchanted by the entire country.
CBN Associate Editor Stephen
Beaumont brings his passionate and unapologetic opinions
to the Internet each and every month at WorldofBeer.com. His
most recent book is The Great Canadian Beer Guide, Second
Edition (McArthur & Company, 2001).