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"The story of brewing in Scotland" by Allan McLean, Vice-chairman of the Scottish Brewing Archive association and Editor of the Association's Journal: Edinburgh meeting of 13 January 2015

Allan McLean at the meetingd

Allan McLean at the meeting.

© John Yellowlees, 2013

In Allan's 20 years as a journalist in Edinburgh, his article that attracted the biggest response was one on the shape of beer-glasses which explained the introduction of the Worthington new tulip shape because the stem of the old version was prone to break.

When in 1842 a new type of transparent but dark glass was introduced in Pilsen, a brewer obliged by creating lager so that it would look good in the glass. The Scottish national drink could be defined as whisky or historically more correctly as red wine, but beer too has a long history and arguably Edinburgh not Burton is the brewing capital of Britain.

One of Scotland's most successful beers Innis & Gunn is described as oak-aged, but nowadays oak staves are used for greater flexibility rather than oak casks that formerly contained whisky.

However there remain other links between beer and whisky production: malt whisky is akin to distilled beer, and the main ingredient in both brewing and distilling is barley, as much as possible of which is grown in Scotland with the best varieties such as Maris reserved for the best beers and whiskies.

When the Forth Bridge opened in 1890, the resultant increase in rail traffic reduced Edinburgh Waverley to such a shambles that passengers arriving from the north or west were advised to alight at Haymarket rather than endure the twenty minutes that it might take to reach Waverley. Pressure from critics including The Times forced the North British Railway to quadruple the tracks through Waverley, at whose east end in the way of such expansion stood the Craigend Brewery of Drybroughs and four others together with a distillery. At this time it was investment by the railway companies and breweries that was leading Britain out of recession, and anxious to gain traffic for its new freight bypass of Edinburgh the South Suburban the NBR was happy to help fund Drybroughs' relocation to new bigger premises at Craigmillar.

The opening of the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway in 1842 had been supported by an Edinburgh business community worried by overdependence on brewing in the hope that the city's economy might diversify at a time when the only other industries were paper-making, printing and glass.

It was in Edinburgh not Burton that British lager production began in 1835 using yeast that sinks to the bottom instead of floating as in ales. In 1879 William Younger introduced an Edinburgh lager, but it took Glasgow brewer JR Tennant to begin production of a lager with which its name became synonymous. Bovril was invented in Edinburgh when a butcher began to mix the beef that people could not afford with yeast from the brewery next door.

Now that brewing has largely vanished from the industrial scene, the Scottish Brewing Archive maintains an inventory of information alongside the similar distilling, railway and shipping sections in the University of Glasgow's Business Archive. In Edinburgh the human story of brewing is told on the second floor of the Canongate Tolbooth, serving as a reminder that the tea-making expressions brew and mash are derived from a time when brewing was done at home.

The involvement of the Flying Scotsman in the Rail 150 celebrations in 1975 was notable for support from William McEwan, but while the locomotive survives the brewery in Edinburgh is no more. In Caledonian Railway days a goods train from Leith at 1605 paused at Murrayfield to shunt the sidings of Jeffrey's Heriot Brewery before the locomotive picked up more wagons from the Caledonian Brewery at Slateford, heading to Lothian Road goods station for marshalling into the 1905 departure of the Edinburgh Ale Train bound for Carlisle and thence via Newcastle to Sunderland also Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and London. Several Edinburgh breweries including seven in the Craigmillar area had rail connections, those in the Cowgate and Canongate sending their output by horse and cart to Waverley, but William Younger preferred sea transport until the Second World War, and in the East End of London there survives a pub the Edinburgh Castle whose cellars stored Edinburgh ales for maturing.

Road transport came to dominate beer movements by the 1950s, with the 1955 ASLEF strike forcing many customers onto the roads. By the 1960s the railways were no longer interested in wagonload traffic, and although Freightliner brought container-loads of beer onto the railways domestic flows ended with the closure of the Portobello terminal in 1987.

Tacitus reported a Roman defeat at the hands of the Germans who were drunk on a wine-like drink made from barley. Brewing also originated in China, Mesapotamia, Babylon and Ancient Egypt inspiring Harrods to create a Tutankhamun Ale. The earliest Scottish beer may have been heather ale (fraoch), and religious orders pursued brewing in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Banff and the Borders. In 1488 James IV drank beer at his coronation in Tullibardine, and in 1556 a maltster called Tennant was active in Glasgow.

The Society of Edinburgh Brewers was founded in 1596 at a site now occupied by part of the Museum of Scotland. Until then brewers had concentrated at the Canongate, a burgh that did not charge the same tax as Edinburgh. In 1725 some Edinburgh brewers launched a petition against the levying of a malt duty in defiance of the Act of Union which from the 1880s became payable to the Customs & Excise based on volume and specific gravity at fermentation. Beer is taxed twice through duty and VAT, and the victory of a campaign against the duty in 2013 served as a reminder that the Campaign for Real Ale has now been active in Edinburgh for forty years. The shilling system denoted a beer's specific gravity ranging from 60/- for a light ale to 90/- for a wee heavy.

In Edinburgh pale ales were brewed by McEwans and Youngers, Scotch ale by Gordon & Blair, IPA by Ushers and wee heavies by McEwans and Fowlers. Steel Coulson's Elephant Ales were marked in NAAFIs "for officers' use only". Glasgow was probably the greatest exporter in the world, with lager appearing from 1935 in cans that twenty years later became flat-topped with ring-pulls and later sported images of the Tennants Lovelies chosen for their sectarian balance with an eye to the Northern Ireland market. From Alloa came George Youngers whose name still appears on sweetheart stout, Calders and Maclays, while Dundee had Ballingalls and Falkirk's Aitkens Ales which boasted that they were "strength behind bars".

Scotch beers won a worldwide reputation which resulted in a huge export market that shrunk with the loss of empire. In the Great War there had been shortages of raw materials, while the interwar years saw temperance movements like the Rechabites. Increase in demand during the 1950s was followed by a 1960s spate of takeovers and closures. Now Campbells Edinburgh Ales can be found only in Belgium, and the McEwans name is owned by a Bedfordshire brewery.

At least the Caledonian Brewery remains in production owned by Heineken, and the growth of micro or craft breweries means that Scotland probably has more breweries than at any time in the past hundred years, with for example Stewarts at Loanhead and Barneys bringing brewing back to the Summerhall site which had been the home of the Dick Vet. The Scottish Brewing Archive rescued the archives of Scottish & Newcastle thirty years ago, and now promotes awareness of our brewing heritage through publications and visits.

"Then let us toast John Barleycorn, Each man with glass in hand, And may his great posterity Ne'er end in old Scotland."

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.


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