Thoughtful brewing, on the beautiful Forth
Saturday 17 December 2022
This article is from
Ones to Watch
Share this article
Step off the train at Edinburgh’s central Waverley station and, on the right day, your nostrils will be filled with the warming Horlicks scent of malted barley, wafting over from traditional breweries in the city’s west end. It’s a beer city, and always has been. So when classy-looking tallboys of immaculately brewed lager, table beer and other zeitgeisty styles started popping up in bottleshops from a new local brewery, Edinburgh’s beer cognoscenti promptly lost their collective minds.
Newbarns, based in fashionable Leith, is the long-incubated brain baby of Gordon McKenzie, his partner Emma McIntosh, Jonny Hamilton and Fred Bjerkseth, all of whom come from impeccable brewing pedigree. In essence, it’s that blue-sky conversation that brewers often have after a pint or two, where they discuss how great it would be to start their own brewery without compromise.
As Newbarns has recently opened a lovely new taproom – just on the city’s new tram line, at the bottom of Leith Walk – I pop down to catch up with Gordon and get the whole story. Affable and passionate, Gordon came to brewing from an engineering background, but fancying a change, in 2013 landed a role at the recently-founded Siren Craft Brew. Somewhat unusually, he had no brewing experience at this point – he’d tried homebrew, but found it didn’t really “scratch that itch” – so talked his way into Siren on the strength of his engineering knowledge alone, which is admittedly very valuable to a new brewery.
Gordon picks up the story: “Emma at that time was working at one of the Craft Beer Co pubs in London, but wanted more sociable hours, so got a job brewing with The Kernel. Evin there likes to take people on like that and build them up, so we were both learning on the job with these great brewers. After a couple of years traveling from London to Reading, I was getting friendlier with everyone at The Kernel and eventually ended up working there myself.”
Fred was also very much at large in the London beer scene around then, having worked with Emma at the pub, before becoming the first ever salesperson at an exciting new start-up called Beavertown. That’s also where he met Jonny, a recent graduate of Heriot Watt’s legendary Brewing and Distilling course, who had just started working there. The stage was properly set for Newbarns’ eight-year gestation.
Skip forward through almost a decade of increasingly serious discussion of just how great it would be to start a brewery together, which finally coalesced one night when Gordon (returning from the pub, obviously) was casually browsing an industrial auction website (also, obviously) and spotted an old 1970s brewkit being sold to make way for renovations at Molson-Coors' large Burton site. It was weird engineering love at first sight.
“Although it's from the 70s, it kind of ticked every box for the brand new brewhouses I was getting quotes for,” says Gordon. “And a lot of the stuff that I wanted, actually, wasn’t really things that the modern brewhouse manufacturers wanted to spec. Brewers see it now and laugh, because it has virtually no automation, but a lot of things I wanted to add in terms of fine manual controls, so it really doesn’t look anything like a typical craft brewery.”
The unorthodox look of the brewhouse is compounded by the fact that, after it was bought and paid for, the crew tasked with clearing out the old Molson Coors site weren’t exactly respectful of the vintage kit. “I think it was just too annoying and fiddly for them, so you’ve got things like the legs have been cut off tanks, so they could just be rolled out the building. We didn’t really have any recourse, so we just went with it. It’s 200 brews in now though and still going strong, so I’ve no complaints.”
Learning the story behind Newbarns’ brewhouse, several realisations feel like they’re clicking into place. Although it outwardly has many of the trappings of a modern craft brewery (did I mention how nice the taproom is?) the brewing itself has a very refined, traditional feel that’s more first-wave than hype-train, more table beer than NEIPA. What better vehicle for such ambitions than a reclaimed, high-end, 1970s brewhouse?
“It certainly fits the kind of brewing we’d always talked about, before all this started and we were just pals sitting in a pub,” says Gordon. “The idea of… I suppose you’d call them ‘stunt’ beers doesn't really inspire me that much, because there's far less of a concept of working on something and improving it, which is what keeps us engaged. What we’re doing is the opposite of trying to make your beer taste massively of the ingredient that you've put on the label. I mean, there's obviously loads of room for those kinds of things, and a big market, but it’s not what interests us.
“Timing and people’s changing tastes have definitely been on our side in that sense; I’m not sure if we’d done the same thing a couple years earlier that it would have worked. But there are a few newer breweries taking a similar approach, and of course breweries like Thornbridge, who never went away, and have always been something for us to aspire to. I know the brewers at Thornbridge, and it’s really interesting to see them really digging into the minutiae of brewing in a very similar way to us. Those conversations feel very familiar, particularly how excited they get about lagers!”
I’m curious whether this obsessive focus on the detailed process of brewing itself – and how it, rather than exotic ingredients, becomes the primary tool at the brewer’s disposal – marks a step backwards in craft beer’s decades-long push for bigger and more outré flavours.
“I’d say we’re easily as excited by ingredients as someone making, say, fruit beer,” says Gordon thoughtfully. “It’s just that our excitement is focused on beer ingredients rather than additions. So, for example, the Heritage Series of lagers like the one going into the Beer52 box, has been great for us. All the stuff that’s been going on behind the scenes, as we get to engage a lot more with the people growing the Golden Promise [malted barley], has generated so many new ideas.
“We’ve found that the older the variety, the more interesting it generally turns out to be. So… do you know what a ‘landrace’ crop is? It basically means a subvariety that’s naturally perfectly adapted to the local climate and soil, so it thrives there. We recently bought a variety of malt from a farm that we already had a relationship with, and it turns out this local barley was a landrace variety that is adapted for the village I lived in until I was five years old. And it was brilliant.”
This approach extends to working directly with hop farmers in Germany, rather than brokers, or places like Brookhouse hops in the UK; suppliers where provenance can be followed and care guaranteed. I absolutely buy the idea that this meticulous approach translates to better beer, but I worry about how scalable it is. It seems like a good time to ask Gordon that most embarrassing of interview questions: where he sees himself in five years’ time.
“I think what we’re doing now will scale up to the point that’s on our horizon, yeah,” he says. “The business plan is kind of written up to the point where everybody that already works here would still be happy. And then we'll see. In terms of how that dictates our general direction… I think the ethos of the brewery having a more traditional slant kind of extends past the beers that we make. For example, we'd be really interested to follow some of these older regional breweries and start looking at pubs. Not having a chain of taprooms, but actual pubs.”
Newbarns can also be expected to continue its run of characteristically thoughtful collaborations with other breweries. Its recent team-up with Omnipollo, a prime purveyor of great “stunt” beers, showcased both breweries’ creativity, and their willingness to play with drinkers’ preconceptions, by producing an entirely adjunct-free pastry stout; rich, unctuous and brewed purely using technical wizardry and classic beer ingredients.
As our conversation draws to a close, the taproom has filled up considerably, with people who presumably aren’t lucky enough to start drinking during office hours. As much as I agree with Gordon that Newbarns is an idea whose time has come, it also feels like it’s actively setting the agenda for the UK’s post-lockdown craft drinking tastes. With traditional skill and commitment, but a modern desire to challenge and improve, it’s Newbarns and breweries like it that will be the real ones to watch for many years to come.
Share this article