A Brief History Of Scottish Brewing

It is believed that brewing first began in Mesopotamia sometime around the beginning of the 4th millennium BC. In Scotland, there is evidence that some sort of fermented beverages were being "brewed" possibly as early as the mid- to late-4th millennium BC as is evidenced in archaeological findings from sites such as at Balfarg/Balbirnie complex in Fife and at Kinloch on the Isle of Rhum. These "beers" were likely little more than a cereal-based porridge with the addition of flavorings such as meadowsweet.

Another type of early fermented beverage was heather mead or heather ale. While in many sources this fabled heather ale is attributed solely to the Picts, there is quite simply no firmly identifiable artifacts to prove that this is the case. In Scotland, there is, however, evidence of these heather based drinks existing prior to the first documented description of the people known as Picts. The epic story of the secret of the recipe dying with an elderly Pict who refused to give it up to his captors even after his sons were put to death has parallels in Ireland and in Europe that are not associated with the Picts. Regardless, these heather beverages were certainly brewed by the inhabitants of both Scotland and Ireland prior to and after the arrival of the Romans in Great Britain.

Up to the 15th century the art of brewing was dominated by the monastic establishments. About this time the first "Publick" breweries (commercial sellers) began to appear. While it is not certain, possibly the first brewery in Scotland was at Blackford in Perthshire where King James IV was said to have purchased a barrel of ale. Throughout this period the majority of brewing was still domestic and largely performed by women. By the 16th century, the brewing trade was beginning to become organized as is evidenced by the establishment of the Edinburgh Society of Brewers in 1596. Despite this, domestic brewers still dominated to as late as 1700 but the number of women brewers declined significantly. Some historians believe this decline in female brewers was due to the fact that it was becoming profitable and therefore attractive as an occupation to men who subsequently moved in pushing women out of the trade.

The early- to mid-18th century saw the establishment of the firms of the greatest names in Scottish brewing history. These included Archibald Campbell and William Younger in Edinburgh, Hugh & Robert Tennent in Glasgow, George Younger in Alloa and Dudgeon & Company's Belhaven Brewery in Dunbar. Beers were brewed for both domestic (within Scotland) consumption but also for export to England, the Baltic, the Americas and the West Indies. This boom continued into the 19th century with even small towns having several breweries. Export markets expanded to include India, Australia and the Far East. At this time, the dominant styles were strong 'Scotch Ale', 'small' or table beer which was known as 'tuppenny' due to its price per Scots pint and was made from the second mashing or sparging of the grain, and, from the late 18th century, Porter. The popularity of Porter throughout England led a number of Scottish firms to seek brewing expertise from London.

From about 1850, the urban brewers began significantly encroaching upon the rural (country) brewers  due to new accessibility provided by railways. Unfortunately, this began what was to become a sad trend in Scotland (as well as Great Britain as a whole) of consolidation and rationalization combining larger interests and pushing out smaller ones.

Beginning in the latter part of the 19th century, brewers all over Britain began catering to the public's taste for lower gravity, pale colored and clearer beers. The higher hop content of some of these beers allowed them to travel better than previous products thus creating a higher quality product for export. The lower alcohol content shortened the fermentation and maturation time thus increasing throughput. Shortly thereafter, Scottish brewers also began to experiment with lager brewing with Tennent's of Glasgow arguably dominating this pursuit as is evidenced by the building of a dedicated lager brewery at their Wellpark site in 1890.

Scottish brewing reached a peak of 280 breweries in 1840 after which they declined due to the rampant mergers and closures (that continue to the present day). As Scotland entered the 20th century, brewing was primarily concentrated in large firms residing in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Alloa with Edinburgh having the largest number of breweries (35). By 1910, 92 breweries were left in Scotland dropping to a total of 63 in 1920 as reported by the Brewers Almanack. Restrictions on raw materials imposed during World War I along with the Temperance Movement took a further toll reducing the number of breweries to only 36 by 1940. There were just 26 left in 1960 and the number declined further to only 11 by 1970.

At the turn of the 20th century, traditional Scottish styles - with the exception of lager - were in decline. The industry moved toward the what could be termed as the shilling era. Beers were termed based upon their invoice price per barrel in shillings which roughly designated the alcohol content of the beer. At the low end were Table and Harvest beers at 28/- and 36/- and Light and Mild at 42/- and 48/-, followed by Pale Ales at 54/- and 60/- and Export and Imperial beers at 70/- and 80/-, and at the high end, Strong Ale at 12-15 guineas. The latter is where the term 'Wee Heavy' originated in that these strong ales were sold in 1/3 Imperial Pint 'nips'; hence, 'Wee' (nip), 'Heavy' (stronger end of the alcohol spectrum). After World War II, the predominated styles were termed (in order of increasing strength) Light, Heavy, Pale and Mild, Export and IPA, and Stout including Sweet Stout which was hugely popular at one time.

Today, with the impending closure of William McEwan's Fountain Brewery in Edinburgh, and the demise of Maclay's Thistle Brewery in Alloa in the early 1990s, the Belhaven Brewery in Dunbar is the only historic brewery left in Scotland to have remained largely independent and continuously operating. (Tennent's in Glasgow is also a very historic firm but is now owned by a large non-Scottish interest). Thankfully, Lorimer & Clark's Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh was saved from total extinction in the late 1980s by the Russell Sharp led management buyout from Vaux; however, its recent acquisition by Scottish Courage certainly spurs a feeling of uneasiness.

Scotland's brewing future now resides firmly in the hands of today's small firms that are fueled by the restless pursuit of producing world class beers. They are reviving the once great Scottish brewing tradition and this author's hat certainly comes off to them!