Everyone loves a pilot

It’s getting hazy down in Leith

When the invitation came through, to take part in a weekend of collaboration on the remote Scottish island of Eriska, Pilot brewer Pat Jones jumped at the chance. Not because of the faint promise of booze-soaked hijinks, cigars and hot-tubs. No: Pat, the father of a 14-month old boy, simply spied the opportunity for a decent night’s sleep and a lovely walk.


“Honestly, I went to bed at 11 both nights. It was brilliant,” he says wistfully. “I believe there was some debauchery, led by the Beer52 guys and Pete Brown from what I can gather, but I missed that. So, I got up about 8am and had a walk around the island, which was beautiful. I was desperate to see an otter in the wild though, and there was a place called otter point, so I thought right – here we go. I went down there, thought I spotted one, and it was a fucking statue! I was livid! What kind of mean spirited person would do that?”


Pilot is a bona fide Edinburgh legend, turning out some of the best Scottish brews you will ever find on tap. Its output may be relatively small and restricted to keg for now, but its beers have swiftly become a local staple, appealing to craft beer lovers and those simply looking for a great, drinkable pint.


We meet Pat mid-brew in Pilot’s tiny home, an unpromising industrial unit in Edinburgh’s historical port area of Leith. Three shiny new 2-hectolitre fermentation vessels have been added since I was last here, in addition to the existing three 1-hectolitre vessels that are now obviously showing their age a little. Even the characteristically understated Pat is clearly excited about the new arrivals.


“When we just had these three tanks, it was literally just Vienna Blonde and Mocha Stout [Pilot’s most popular core beers] all the time. We had all these things that we wanted to do, but we didn’t have the capacity to do them. Having the new vessels means we can brew the core beers on those and use the three old tanks for specials.”


This stint of focusing on meeting demand for its core beers was tough for Pat and co-founder Matt Johnson, who had got used to experimenting with one style after another in the brewery’s early days. But Pat says it has been useful for them as brewers – forcing a level of discipline and attention to detail that had perhaps previously been lacking.


“A great example is the kettle sour we’re brewing at the moment, which Matt’s put a lot of work into,” he says. “It’s dead easy to make a sour beer, but to make one that’s only soured with the strain of bacteria you want is more challenging, and this is our first fullscale attempt. Before we start sticking fruit in or dry-hopping or anything like that, we wanted to prove we could make a nice clean sour, and this absolutely hits the mark. Now we’ve got this figured out, we can go on to be more experimental, make things a bit funky, but it’ll be on our terms.”


One of the things Pilot is best known for is its long-standing commitment to not filtering or fining its brews, which Pat and Matt believe results in more fulfilling, flavoursome and textured beer. In Pilot’s early days, this caused some problems, with one highly respected Edinburgh beer and whisky pub returning two kegs of supposedly ‘faulty’ Vienna Pale. This particular story has a happy ending though; the same pub some time later gave it another shot, sold seven kegs in a weekend and now has it permanently on tap.


While Pilot was the first Scottish brewer to make a point of not filtering or fining, the approach has become much more in-vogue over the past few years, to the point where some of its beers might even be considered insufficiently hazy for current tastes.


“It makes us laugh really,” observes Pat. “We’ve never actually been that fussed about the appearance. The reason we stopped fining was because we were drinking it out the tanks and it was amazing, and then drinking it fined at the pubs, and it just wasn’t right.

So we’re giving it longer conditioning instead, which is more onerous on us but gives better beer. The only problem is that we’re brewing a New England IPA at the moment, and it’s actually coming out quite bright, which isn’t necessarily what people expect.”


The new fermentation vessels aren’t the only expansion on the cards for Pilot, with the currently keg-only brewery currently eyeing up smallpack, as well as distribution beyond its Scottish heartland.

“We’re already sending kegs to places in London, Bristol, and a couple of other cities – we do that through Brewdog. I see there being a sweet spot that we’re aiming for, size-wise; it’s certainly got to be bigger than it is, hence the new vessels and we’ve just taken on another brewer. We want to get to a point where were not personally coming in at 7am and mashing in every day, but not to get so big that we spend all our time in the office with spreadsheets, or out on the road selling it.”


This is a perennial problem for craft breweries of a certain age; a tipping point where factors from capacity and distribution to duty and marketing mean that, in Pat’s words, “you need to decide whether to get much bigger or just not bother”. One gets the strong sense though that Pat and Matt have their priorities straight and, even as Pilot matures, they’ll continue to tread this line with aplomb.

Share this article

Sign up to our newsletter