Meet the beloved Scottish brewery that's still making waves
Thursday 28 November 2019
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Notwithstanding the many other fantastic breweries in the area, it’s probably fair to say that Harviestoun is the Central Belt’s local craft brewery. It’s an institution, part of the furniture. In these troubled times, it’s a genuine comfort to go into almost any decent pub and sink a pint of Bitter & Twisted or Schiehallion – they’re great beers, as evinced by the groaning awards cabinet in the brewery’s reception area. And I’m here today to meet the man who’s largely responsible for their creation and continued success, so I start by shaking his hand with genuine gratitude.
Head brewer Stuart Crail has been at Harviestoun for 22 years, from the days when it was run out of a farm outbuilding in Fife, with a tiny 10-barrel brewhouse. Many of the recipes devised in these early days remain the brewery’s flagships, including its Old Engine Oil black ale, originally created in collaboration with a local homebrewer. It’s a truly classic example of the style, brewed dark and strong, with now aroma hops and a pronounced roasted coffee bitterness.
“When we first started brewing Old Engine Oil on the old kit, the mash bill was so huge that mashing in was really back-breaking work, and we’d actually not get that much out of it,” says Stuart. “It was a 10-barrel kit, and we were only getting five barrels of wort! The solution was to work with Muntons the maltsters, which produced a bespoke malt extract for us. That worked well until winter. We were still on the farm at that point, and these big containers of malt extract were stored outside. Of course, as soon as the temperature dropped this stuff turned to tar. So we’d have to go in a couple of hours early with hot water and a paddle, just to get it to a liquid again!”
Old Engine Oil was (and has continues to be) a huge hit, but Harviestoun’s big break came when Bitter & Twisted was named Champion Beer of Britain in 2003. “Demand went through the roof. You never like letting people down and we never had, and we didn’t want to contract it out, so we just built a bigger brewery! We were probably ready to move anyway, and being able to design somewhere from scratch was a real luxury. Plus, no more mornings with the paddle and kettle.”
Harviestoun bought an old brewhouse from Cornwall’s St Austell brewery, repurposing a 30-barrel mash tun and whirlpool in two mash tuns for a bigger brew. They still use the same kit to fill the array of irregularly shaped and sized fermentation vessels in and around the brewery; all the hallmarks of a truly organic growth.
Today, such is the ubiquity of Harviestoun’s beers around Edinburgh, that it’s easy to forget the brewery’s genuinely groundbreaking credentials. It was a true craft brewery in every sense, at a time when such a thing was simply unheard of locally. It also ticked off a number of firsts which have become standard practice, including barrel ageing a beer – its Ola Dubh, which translates, fittingly, as ‘black oil’ – in barrels formerly used to mature Highland Park 12 year-old (it retains an exclusive deal with the distillery, which has been extended to older barrel classes).
It also continues to experiment, out of a passion for exploration rather than any sense of pressure from the constantly evolving beer market. A project that seems to have Stuart particularly animated is his ‘solera’ system of sherry butts currently maturing batch after tiny batch of a Scottish old ale he’s brewed on a pilot kit. It will never produce huge volumes, it may not even work, but seeing the beer change and mature with each rotation is clearly giving him and his team a lot of pleasure.
But the scene has changed dramatically around Harviestoun, as craft beer has taken hold in the UK and found a real home in Scotland. Stuart has been happy to see these developments, and is proud of the quality that Scotland has achieved.
“There are some great brewers out there,” he says. “It’s changed hugely in terms of numbers, but also what they’re doing. So you look at the likes of 71 Brewing, who are very experimental, they’re brewing some great beers and they’re nice guys. I’ve always found one of the things that makes brewing such a satisfying industry is that it’s so collaborative and open, so when you find a brewery like 71, it’s a happy day, of course!
“The bottom line is that anyone is brewing good beer, I like them because it helps all of us. It’s like when someone who tries cask beer for the first time and it’s good, you’ve got them. If it’s bad, they might never try it again. Well, it’s the same with craft. So anyone who’s not a good brewer, I have a problem with.”
And brewing expertise is something Stuart thinks about a lot. While a lot of the staff at Harviestoun have been here since the early days, there is an oddly high churn among the brewing staff. This isn’t as worrying as it seems though. Himself a graduate of Heriot Watt’s Brewing and Distilling course, Stuart has a long history of taking on newly trained brewers, giving the opportunity to turn their knowledge into practical skill and then waving them off into the industry.
It seems like a great start to any career; Harviestoun’s beers are technically top-notch, brewed on a kit with minimal automation and the attitude to raw ingredients is clearly very respectful. Every year, Stuart will travel to inspect the hop harvests and make decisions about his order, he has a great relationship with his maltsters and frequently sends his junior brewers on Charles Faram’s Hop Walk, to get a feel for what they’re working with.
“Just explaining how all these things work is hard. You really need to see where all these ingredients come from, talk to the people who grow them and get a sense that this is a live, changeable thing, rather just something you can buy in by the bag and forget about. For me, that’s the basis of good brewing – you’ve got to have a deep understanding of where the beer comes from to shape what it will become.”
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