Beer Boffins: The ICBD

The International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Herriot Watt is key to Scotland's craft success. Katie Mather finds out why.

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If you read enough brewery profiles, you start to notice a pattern. “We homebrewed at first,” most still-passionate brewers say, chapped hands stuffed into the pockets of their Dickies dungarees. “Then we thought, hang on, we could really make a go of this!”

In fact, this is the most common reason breweries burst into being, and we love that. Great beer is made by people who care about its greatness — and who cares more about making great beer than brewers who’re still excited by the magical combinations of malt, yeast and hops at their fingertips?

Increasingly however, there’s a section of the story missing. To make great beer, you really need to know what you’re doing. Enthusiasm is all well and good (essential, actually) but to make excellent beer you need skill. And that skill, like any other, is something that can be taught. Oh sure, brewing is a talent. But a bit of hard work and study never hurt anyone, and that’s what an increasing number of beer-minded individuals are realising. Far from restricting your fluid creativity, some of the best brewers in the country gained intense-sounding qualifications as part of a rigorous self-inflicted programme of education and self-betterisation. Some were even sent to achieve them by their bosses, so useful and meaningful they seemed. I’m talking about the postgraduate and masters programmes at the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Heriot Watt University, Scotland’s world-renowned facility of brewing excellence. The place where your heroes probably learned how to brew.

Herriot Watt’s brewing and distilling courses have helped lay the groundwork for the UK craft scene. In a world where brewers learn only from their mistakes and from each other, one could argue that repetition and stagnation is inevitable. Learning deep lessons about each specific ingredient within your brew, what limitations you may encounter and the endless levels of experimentation available within brewing has enabled innovation throughout the beer world, driving creativity and a thirst for knowledge (pun absolutely intended) that radiates from its glowing, active core. Does this make craft beer people nerds? Do you even have to ask that?

To find out more about the fabled postgrad and how it’s changed our brewing landscape, I spoke to Dr Dawn Maskell, Director of the International Centre for Brewing & Distilling at Heriot Watt. (It’s based within the Institute for Biological Chemistry, Biophysics and Bioengineering. I felt like a scientist.)

“I think that there has always been a desire for a higher level of technical knowledge,” Dr Maskell told me. “The forerunner to Heriot-Watt University today ran its first brewing classes in 1903. The growth in the industry has seen more people view it as a business they have wanted to get into, often it looks easy from the outside, but even if you have been a very successful home brewer in your past there can be challenges around scale-up that haven’t been expected. Our graduates are trained in the science behind brewing, they know why things are done in a particular way, of what needs to be achieved, and this makes them better at problem solving.”

So, for more than 110 years, Heriot Watt has been training brewers how to do more than mash in and cold crash. Over that time, students haven’t just learned how to brew, they’ve created research that’s enable the quality and consistency of beer to continue to improve, pushing the industry forward even when beer wasn’t seen as innovative. Some of their students’ research or findings have now become common practice. Which is pretty cool.

“One past student who springs to mind is Dr David Quain who did the BSc (Hons) brewing and biochemistry degree with us in the 1970’s,” says Dr Maskell. “He worked for Brewing Industry Research Foundation [now the Campden BRI] and in the Bass Technical Centre for many years, and has published over a hundred papers throughout his career. He is now at the brewing school in Nottingham (ICBS).”

A quick scan of his work shows that David Quain’s huge body of work includes vital research in yeast supply, fermentation and handling, several works on draught beer hygiene and testing to assure it, and a book called Brewing Yeast and Fermentation which I’ve definitely seen on the shelf in many big brewerys’ labs and offices. It’s known as a definitive work on the subject. If that’s not industry-changing, I dunno what is.

I asked Dr Maskell if the Heriot Watt courses were gaining in popularity. Both on-campus and off-campus post-graduate study numbers have increased more than undergraduate study, which maybe isn’t surprising. How many brewers do you know who left school already desperate to set up a 10bbl kit in their garage? Brewing is often a career for people who’s original careers weren’t giving them the creativity and satisfaction they wanted or needed in life. That’s why courses like these are so vital to the scene. It encourages new brewers to train and educate themselves. It pushes long-time brewers to renew their skills and learn something new. It keeps the quality high, and it keeps us expecting more, whether we knew it was down to them or not.

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