Malt in the blood

Louise Crane walks us through Edinburgh’s long and storied relationship with beer


Take a lungful of air on a crisp, sunny day in Edinburgh and you might be lucky enough to catch a nutty, toasty smell that warms you from head to toes. This delicious scent comes from the breweries and distilleries (plus a biscuit factory) sited in the city, the malt they use wafting on the breeze. But Edinburgh didn’t always smell so sweet, and that was down to the breweries too. Before electricity powered everything, breweries burned so much coal and wood that the air around them was thick with smoke, and Edinburgh earned the moniker “Auld Reekie”. And that’s just one way that breweries have made their mark on the city. With the help of John Martin of the Scottish Brewing Archive Association, we explore the longstanding partnership between Edinburgh and its brewers.

While Scotland is well known for its whisky, its brewing history is less talked about. But to first make whisky, you need to make a kind of beer, and with good quality water and grain around, this was easy to do and was happening long before distilling came about. Even the Picts as far back as pre-Roman times were brewing using heather, spruce and rowan berries for flavour, explains John. It wasn’t until the 12th century that brewing appeared in Edinburgh though, and this is credited to the thirsty monks of Holyrood Abbey, whose land was granted to them by King David I. Using a well to capture the clear spring water on site, they began to brew ale for themselves and for trade with the local community.

“By the 15th century, brewers were seen, along with bakers and butchers, as purveyors of the necessities of life,” says John. “Brewing was widely practiced in the home by women who were known as brewsters.” In 1520, 228 homes in Edinburgh brewed beer, representing one brewery for every 40 inhabitants. The establishment of the Society of Brewers in 1596 ensured that all aspects of the trade, including grain supply, malt and water for brewing, and pricing policies, were regulated.

Public breweries began to appear in the 17th and 18th centuries. “Edinburgh was the ideal location for brewing beer. Apart from the excellent supply of water, it also had a readly supply of barley from the surrounding land, local mines that supplied coal for power, and its own port for exporting beer all over the world,” says John. One area in particular was rich in breweries, the part of the Royal Mile named “Canongate” for the route that the Augustinian canons of Holyrood Abbey took to Edinburgh. Due to an underground water source known as the “Charmed Circle”, as many as 20 breweries set up here, jostling for space.

One of the earliest public breweries was Archibald Campbell, who set up in 1710. An award-winning streak saw his company become a bigger enterprise, and soon amalgamated with Hope & King, a wine & spirits merchant. Other big names include Drybrough’s, Ushers, William Younger and William McEwan, all in fervent competition with each other. William Younger bought in 1858 what would turn into the largest brewery in Edinburgh, Holyrood Brewery, with the capacity to produce 60 brews a week, generating 600 barrels of beer a week, or 432 million pints of beer every year. In 1894, William McEwan donated £115,000 to construct a new graduation hall for Edinburgh University: the McEwan Hall. Following suit, Andrew Usher, whose father was a famous local brewer, bequeathed a similar amount to build a new concert hall. Unfortunately, Andrew did not live to see his name on the wall, as Usher Hall’s construction was held up and not completed until long after he had died.

In 1835, John Muir was the first to brew lager in the UK at the Calton Hill Brewery. Muir had been impressed by German lager while on a European excursion, and upon his return to Scotland, decided to try brewing it himself. He arranged for a German friend to send him some lager yeast and got down to business. But Muir struggled with the challenge of keeping the fermenting lager at a cool, even temperature (even in Edinburgh’s decidedly chilly climate) and lager didn’t become widely established until toward the end of the 19th century when brewing technology had improved.

Ferment #27_Page_24_Image_0001

Between 1850 and 1914, Edinburgh became known as the Brewing Capital of Scotland, if not the UK, explains John. “In 1890, Edinburgh had 33 breweries operating. Its fame spread to all over world and was renowned for its quality.” Scotland was churning out 1½-2 million barrels of beer by 1900, “with Edinburgh breweries producing the lion’s share. At its peak, Edinburgh ale was more famous than Scotch whisky.” Scottish ales were very popular overseas, particularly in India and Australia, and the early success of Edinburgh’s big brewers was down to strong export figures.

The two world wars of the 20th century had a huge impact on brewing across Europe. Shortage of materials, and to some extent labour, reduced the volume that could be produced. Women were drafted in to help - a mass return of the brewster. “During these troubled times breweries did provide beer to the troops abroad, which helped with morale,” explains John. Even after the Second World War there were fewer materials available up until the mid 1950s, and by the 1960s many smaller breweries were taken over and closed down. An over-reliance on exports meant that when the British Empire broke up, a lot of breweries closed for good.

In 1920, breweries Edinburgh & Leith, Summerhall, The Palace, and Bell’s formed a conglomerate called Edinburgh United Breweries, which soon ran into some big money troubles. One of the directors and the head brewer came up with a rather naughty fix to avoid paying the full amount of duty on the beer they produced. In classic television crime story style, the brewery kept two sets of accounting books, and only one of these books was shown to the Customs and Excise inspectors. From 1926 until 1933 all was going well, until a sacked employee turned sour and blew the whistle on them. The brewery couldn’t afford to pay what they owed, and the business went under. You could hardly make it up, and in fact a book based on the case by author and historian John Pink was used for years to train new Customs and Excise officers.

Ferment #27_Page_25_Image_0001

The two largest brewing companies, Younger’s and McEwan’s, also attempted to survive the inter-war period by joining together, merging in 1931 to create Scottish Brewers Ltd. In 1960 they further amalgamated with Newcastle Breweries to form Scottish & Newcastle, the largest brewing company in the UK, and the 3rd largest in Europe. In 1973, Scottish & Newcastle built a new brewery at Fountainbridge, opposite McEwan’s now-closed Victorian Fountain Brewery, and at the time it was the most automated brewery in Europe. It closed in 2004 and was once earmarked for conversion to flats, a fate already met by St Leonard’s and Craigmillar. In the 1990s, Scottish and Newcastle’s Holyrood Brewery was demolished to make way for the Scottish Parliament building, and in 2008, the firm was taken over by a combined venture of Heineken and Carlsberg.

There is now just one Victorian-era brewery remaining in Edinburgh, the Caledonian Brewery, founded in 1869. But Edinburgh’s brewing industry remains strong. “Today the country is experiencing a brewing revolution with the number of breweries on the increase and offering a much wider range of flavours than ever before,” explains John. There are at least thirteen micro-breweries in Edinburgh now including Barney’s, Edinburgh Beer Factory, and Bellfield Brewery, the UK’s first entirely gluten-free brewery. “My own particular favourite is McEwans Champion Ale,” says John, “and although it is now produced elsewhere, the flavour is unchanged. It is one beer I turn to whenever I want a treat. None better.”

Many old brewery buildings can still be found across the city, but brewing has left its legacy in other ways too, notably in education. The International Centre for Brewing and Distilling was set up as part of Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University in 1903, when Emil Westergaard was appointed as a part- time lecturer in brewing in the Chemistry Department. Since then it has grown to be a flourishing department with 157 students on campus and ten staff. There is also a public health position at the university funded by endowments from Alexander Lowe Bruce of Younger’s distillery and Sir John Usher of Usher’s following discussions with the great Louis Pasteur. The Scottish Brewing Archive Association was founded by the university in 1981 to promote the history of brewing in Scotland. It’s a fine history whose coal-fired torch has now been passed on to the new generation of brewers who are making the beer we drink today. Now that’s something to raise a glass to.

Share this article