Let them brew cake

Robyn Gilmour drops into Vault City, for a sweet collaboration that shows the power of localism and community


I first heard about Vault City’s partnership with local bakeries while chatting with a bartender at the brewery’s Wee Vault taproom in central Edinburgh; the brewery and bakery had just recently hosted a tasting session that paired various brews with buns and brownies. It makes sense; while stout’s chocolatey profile and unctuous mouthfeel speaks to the rich, silky quality of ganache or gateaux, the fruitiness of pastry sours conjures the sweet surprise of jam and red berries in a sea of sponge and cream.

Several months pass, and as the seasons change I swap after-dinner tipples from stout to porter, red ale to kölsch, helles to pilsner, but I keep thinking of beer and cake. Never mind what bar snacks pair well with a pint of this or that; I wanted to serve beer for dessert. Would a pastry stout replace or complement ice cream? Could a barrel-aged imperial porter work well in an affogato? Should I pair red ale with stewed fruit or cheese? Can I make cake with beer, and can one make beer with cake? 

Maddened both by the intensity of my obsession, and the sweet intrigue baked into the notion of a bakery/brewery duo, I get in touch with Vault City’s marketing manager, Richard Wardrop, in the hope he can lend some insight into motivations behind beer and cake collabs. As serendipity would have it, the team has plans to pilot a coconut and hazelnut stout, inspired by a recipe supplied by neighbouring, Edinburgh-based business, Mimi’s bakehouse, the very next day. Being the gracious and welcoming bunch they are, the team allows me to tag along to the brew day, to satisfy my curiosity. 

The brewery has come a long way since my last visit, less than a year ago. As Richard and I weave between kegs, packers, and forklifts I notice a new drainage system in the freshly levelled floor, upon which unusually slim, but tall tanks have been installed to make the best use of limited space. There’s also a whole additional unit, diagonally across the street from the main brewery, for storage and offices, so the current site can be dedicated solely to production. 

Meanwhile, just a fifteen minute walk from where we stand, the Porty Vault is making final preparations for its grand opening on 7 July. The new taproom and smokehouse will firmly establish Portobello, Edinburgh, as the home of Vault City. Aside from being a milestone in the brewery’s growth, the Porty Vault will serve beers with a little more elbow room, and a BBQ menu formulated by award-winning US steakhouse chef, Darren Lim. 

Success looks different for different breweries, and of course, in a world with grain, gas, and can shortages, there are degrees of success in every step of the brewing process. From brewery to brewery, shape, size and aspirations differ, but universally, the production, sale and consumption of beer is only half of what a great pint is about. In Vault City’s case, it strikes me that the wellspring of its creative juice might be engendered in the people it works with, and the collaborations in which it participates.

Last year, Vault City was invited by Brewgooder to join a collaboration with Bruichladdich whisky distillers. The project saw Bruichladdich barrels leave the island of Islay for the first time ever to age a mixed fermentation sour base in the Vault City brewery. Every litre of beer sold funded 1,000 litres of clean water for communities around the world, through Brewgooder’s ‘Billion Pint Pledge’. 

Mere hours before my visit, Richard was notified that the Bruichladdich Barrel Aged Whisky Sour had been nominated Brewing Product of the Year by the Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Awards, a substantial nod both to the participants and the good cause they worked together to support. 

While the Bruichladdich collab extended a helping hand from Scotland to places all over the world, other collab partners range from the far-flung to hyper-local. Where possible, the fruit Vault City uses by the tonne comes from Perthshire farms, and for past series’ that celebrated this close connection, the brewery moved produce from farm to fermenter within 24 hours for ultra fresh brews. The grain used is grown within a few miles, and the brewery is determined to maintain its link with local producers for as long as possible, though Richard says the war in Ukraine is putting increased pressure on suppliers.

Vault City’s recent collaboration with Sweden's Nerd Brewing to make a chocolate, coffee, coconut and vanilla Kärleksmums (a rich, chocolate traybake loved by Swedes everywhere) Imperial Pastry Stout, used coffee from neighbouring The Edinburgh Tea and Coffee Company. Further collaboration on this project came from Fi’s bakery in Glasgow, which provided the Vault City team with a shining example of Kärleksmums for the team to keep as a reference point while brewing.

While everyone potters and chatters, and we wait on the boil kettle to heat up, I ask Richard how the idea for this beer-in-the-making came about. He tells me the pilot brew could lay the foundations for a beer that ends up in the brewery's birthday series, or that is released around Christmas time; the occasion is more about collaboration with Mimi’s than when or if the beer is released. 

When the Mimi’s team arrives with two enormous cakes and a tray of coconut and hazelnut brownies, the brewing team pauses to gaze in childlike wonder at the mountain of baked goods. For their part, Rebecca Brown and Beth Telford, Mimi’s brand manager and social media coordinator, peer curiously into the mash tun, observing the multicoloured array of malts swirling below the rising cloud of sweet steam. 

It’s smiles and excitement all around as Rebecca and Beth get ready to drop an enormous cake and several brownies into the boil kettle; a completely unnecessary step in the production of this beer, with chocolate malts and hazelnut adjuncts doing more than adequate legwork for a nutty, chocolate stout. But as the cake slips to the edge of its plate, and tips over the edge into the boiling, beery abyss, it occurs to me that Mimi’s involvement is about much more than adding a hint of authentic cake flavour. 

Beth says that “as a second-generation family business, meaningful business-to-business connections are important to us, from our tea and coffee suppliers to our cafe refurbishments and our new website, local businesses are at the heart of our own local business”. The pitching of cake into beer isn't really about beer at all, or cake for that matter; the collaboration of brewer and baker on this occasion, is an event that celebrates comradery, community and connection.

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