Scotland celebrates a thriving brewing industry
Caledonian, Brewdog and more are holding their own on the world stage
High-quality water, historic recipes and a growing number of microbreweries means that Scotland is producing beers to rival those produced on the Continent, writes David Pollock.
Traditionally, Scottish beers were more malty and less hoppy,’ explains Lindsay Grant, CAMRA’s Scotland & Northern Ireland Director. ‘Although that distinction doesn’t really exist any more. There are now a lot of Scots beers made with hops.’
Although Scotland’s brewing tradition was strong throughout the 20th century, particularly in the renowned ‘charmed circle’ of Edinburgh, the beers produced north of the border enjoyed precious little goodwill outside the country at the time. ‘I don’t think there was a bias against them as such,’ says Grant of the shilling-categorised beers that used to dominate. ‘It was more to do with problems in transporting and marketing them anywhere else.’
The sea change for the nation came in 1991, when Edinburgh’s Caledonian brewery ﬁrst started producing the hoppier Deuchars IPA. A hit at home and abroad, it’s been the regular recipient of brewing awards ever since, including the title of CAMRA supreme champion beer of Britain in 2002. ‘The cask beers being produced at the time were heavier and more wintery,’ says Cameron Mather, of Caledonian Brewing Co, ‘and Deuchars is simply a lighter and more refreshing drink. It was pretty unique among the Scottish beers of the time.’
This breakthrough came around the time that many Scottish breweries were closing down in favour of larger national ‘superbreweries’ such as Scottish & Newcastle, whose production became more centralised. At the turn of the 20th century there were more than 40 breweries in Edinburgh, but now only Caledonian remains.
‘Gone are the days when there were 50 different varieties of lager available. Now there are only seven or eight big brands sold on tap in bars. Cask ale is the area where variety is encouraged, and that’s allowed more and more microbreweries to carve out a niche in the market,’ says Mather.
One positive factor that is mentioned frequently by those within the Scottish brewing industry is the particular quality of the country’s water. In fact, that was a large part of the reason for Edinburgh’s popularity with breweries. ‘The city is set on volcanic rock,’ says Mather, ‘which incorporates a series of underground wells and water passages. This area is the “charmed circle”, which all the breweries of the city once sat upon.
‘It’s very similar to the natural water supply at Burton upon Trent, which is the brewing centre of the UK.’ Sadly, however, agricultural run-off has eroded the quality of this supply, and it’s no longer suitable for brewing with.
‘A lot of breweries now Burtonise their water artiﬁcially,’ says Tuggy Delap, chairman of the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) Scotland and co-director of Fyne Ales in Argyll. ‘However, we don’t and neither do a lot of the breweries in Scotland. We’re all using the water from our Scottish hills and mountains, and it’s good fortune for all the country’s breweries – whether they’re on the Black Isle, Skye, the Orkneys, in the Cairngorms – that we have access to this incredible water. And most of it falls out of the sky on our heads, so at least that’s one delivery each week we don’t have to pay for.’
At the same time, the rise of microbreweries (Grant says there are around 40 operating in Scotland now, of various sizes, which is roughly double the number of a decade ago) has led to a far greater variety of beers coming out of Scotland than ever before.
Among the more illustrious brands are Innis & Gunn, who age their beer in oak barrels, and Williams Bros Brewery, Alloa, which produces a variety of beers made to historic Scots recipes, beginning with their most renowned range, the heather-infused Fraoch. Subsequent Williams ale revivals include Kelpie (infused with seaweed), Alba (Scots pine), Ebulum (elderberry) and Grozet (gooseberries).
Then there is the Fraserburgh-based Brewdog, who produce an iconoclastic and diverse range with names such as Trashy Blonde and Hardcore IPA, demonstrating that Scottish beers have at least overcome those marketing difﬁculties mentioned earlier.
‘I ﬁnd the beers produced in Scotland stand up really well to those produced on the Continent,’ says Simon Briggs, head of sales at Great Grog wine merchants in Edinburgh, ‘even those brewed to Czech or German purity laws. Our lager is almost as good, if not quite as light, but a lot of our ales are arguably better than anything you get on the Continent. That’s certainly so in the case of really ﬂoral, characterful lines like Deuchars IPA or [Cairngorm Brewery’s] Trade Winds.’
‘Regardless of the quality of our water or the ingredients used,’ concludes Grant, ‘it all comes down to the ability of the brewer. As with any cottage industry, in the case of microbrewing, not everyone is going to be good at it. But some people will be very good indeed.’