Catch up with Dundee's greatest export
Saturday 05 June 2021
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It’s hard to believe this is the first time we’ve visited Dundee’s 71 Brewing. After all, it’s practically down the road from Ferment HQ, has been in the box a fair few times and – perhaps most importantly – these guys and girls have an international reputation for knowing how to have fun. Prolific collaborators, the team at 71 have also established themselves as a permanent fixture on the beer festival circuit, where they can always be found in the middle of the party.
Back in 2017, when I heard Dundee would be getting its first brewery (it had been the only city in the UK without one, fact fans) I admit I was sceptical. Was there really that much of an appetite for craft in quiet, staid Dundee? Why was it launching with just one beer and why on Earth was that beer a lager?
Four years later, the brewery’s Dundonian Pilsner is a bona fide hit, pre-empting the resurgence of lager in UK craft, and riding a wave of craft-focused bars, bottleshops and events in Dundee and the surrounding area. I take the opportunity to admit my misgivings to founder Duncan Alexander and acknowledge how wrong I was.
“I think that was a pretty common reaction,” he says graciously. “At that time in particular, Dundee’s pubs were very focused on lager, so it was an obvious place to start from that point of view, but it was also what really appealed to me as a brewer. Different people get joy out of different aspects of the process; some love the creativity and want to brew differently every single time, but others find their satisfaction in honing the process and technique so it’s exactly the way you want it, consistently. I’m definitely in the latter camp, so lager really appealed.”
Duncan’s road to brewing started in 2010, when he was spending a lot of time in Melbourne, Australia, and was “blown away” by the craft scene there. Although there was some activity starting in the UK, Melbourne was a good five years ahead and, on returning, Duncan felt his best option was to start home brewing the kind of beers he’d fallen in love with.
He started out with a couple of tiny outfits in Portobello, a seaside town on the outskirts of Edinburgh, where he would brew the odd cask and give them to the local pubs.
“It was good fun, but didn’t really come to anything and they soon fell by the wayside,” he says. “But the idea was always there and by 2015 I said ‘it’s got to be now or never’. And I was working in Glasgow at the time, doing another job, and it took another six months to get the plans and the funding in place.
“And then it was a decision of where to site the brewery. I’d been working with somebody in the early days who was an ex-colleague, based in Aberdeen. So Dundee was initially a good middle point for both of us, but it’s also where I’m from and was the last city in the UK without a brewery. And which brought us to the building we’re in now, which we thought was fantastic – like something from Brooklyn!”
While the meticulous approach of Duncan’s brewing is definitely still in 71’s DNA, its repertoire has broadened out considerably, with an experienced and creative brew team firing out a steady stream of great beers, ranging from highly accessible to more experimental.
I get to see both sides during a zig-zagging tour of the brewery itself, from Ian Clark, whose role in the business isn’t entirely clear, but seems to include a bit of everything. There’s certainly a strong sense that following Ian will result in fun sooner or later; an impression that’s perhaps reinforced by the insistence that I at least nose a sample from every tank.
There are some awesome and varied beers on the go here, including two of its amazing Fruition seasonal sours – rhubarb and dark berry – which absolutely crackle with lactic sourness and fresh, bold fruit flavour. This is the kind of beer that’s always best out of the tank, on draft, or grabbed straight from the canning line, all things I’ve missed during lockdown.
We also catch softly spoken senior brewer Michael Dimmock outside, where he’s tending to three tall tanks standing just off the street. These, he explains, contain all the beer destined for Beer52 customers. The only one of these I haven’t previously tried is the Sabro DIPA, and I’m very excited at the prospect of an olfactory preview. Even though it has only just received the first of two dry hoppings, the hallmark Sabro characteristics of coconut and vanilla are right there, along with apricot sweetness.
One of the most exciting developments on the horizon is a planned new taproom, occupying two currently empty floors above the brewery itself. While the space itself is currently empty, save for a few old pieces of furniture and a lot of dust, the potential is immediately obvious. A beautiful old industrial redbrick building from the early 19th century, 71’s home was once part of Dundee’s famed jute industry, and is full of exposed brickwork and sturdy steel columns – more than slightly reminiscent of Northern Monk’s Refectory in Leeds.
Once renovated, the double-level centre will house not only the new taproom, but also several other creative businesses, including a maker of bespoke furniture which specialises in creating beautiful and durable surfaces from spent grain. Duncan proudly shows me a chair whose back and seat are “made from Dundonian Pilsner”. It really is a lovely looking thing.
Naturally, there are also more immediate plans to open the large courtyard at the back of the building as a beer garden. The bar – thriftily upcycled from the crate that once contained 71’s new de-palletising machine – is already in place, and it’s not hard to imagine the music on (there are not houses on this side, thankfully) tables out and happy customers chatting over a pint. Let’s never take such simple pleasures for granted again.
“It’s a really exciting time for us, where the business is evolving into something more,” says Duncan. “And what’s been noticeable for us over this journey has been the change in the city as well. I’d been away from Dundee for about 24 years, and never thought I’d move back, but you could see it was going through this period of regeneration; the V&A is what everyone mentions, but it was more than that. The city is evolved, and we were kind of a symbol of that as well.
“For any brewery it’s weird, because you have two markets, you’ve got your UK-wide, European market, and you’ve got a certain face for that, then your local market as well, and you have a bit of a different face. You have to adapt to that though, because it’s very important that you don’t lose sight of your local market – that’s what gives you your identity.”
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