Natural Selection: The project that is pouring talent into Scotland’s brewing scene

Teaming up with Stewart Brewing, Heriot-Watt’s Natural Selection programme offers students a unique insight into the Scottish beer industry, discovers Sean Murphy.

Published 22nd May 2019
Updated 9 th Aug 2023

A wellspring of future talent for the country’s beer, whisky and gin scenes, the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling (ICBD) at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh is one of Scotland’s biggest success stories.

Highly regarded, many of the world’s top brewers and distillers have cut their teeth on the ICBD’s MSc course, including Edinburgh’s own Steve Stewart, who co-founded Stewart Brewing in 2004 with his wife Jo, shortly after graduating.

Having loved his time at the ICDB, and following discussion with Jo, Steve got in touch with his former lecturers to see how his new brewery could help with the students.

“About ten years ago, Steve and I were discussing our business and the beer industry,” Jo explained. “One of the things Steve said was that he absolutely loved the degree and thought it was very thorough in terms of the technical aspects and science of brewing.

Natural Selection Brewing

(L-R) Caroline, James and Fred discuss the collaboration with Tom from Great Grog Bottleshop. Picture: NSB

“However, he felt that if he had some more practical experience of bringing a product to market, it would have been really beneficial for when it came to starting our brewery.”

The idea for Natural Selection then sprung from those discussions. Partnering with Heriot-Watt, the two institutions decided to create a new brewing project that would allow a team of post graduate students to set up their own beer company, develop and test different recipes through small batch test brews, and create a 5,000 litre run of their final recipe.

Natural Selection brewing

The ICDB teaches students about the brewing and distilling industries. Picture: ICDB

Now its ninth year, the project also sees the students making decisions on label design, packaging and finally marketing and sales to both the on and off trade.
Jo added: “A win-win, Natural Selection allows us to give something back by helping to add value to the degree that helped Steve so much as well as allowing us to add some innovation and creativity to the brewery."

The project also has other knock on benefits for the brewery, in one of the previous years one of the teams pushed for their final beer to be canned, something that the Stewart's team had never previously done.

"At that time we hadn’t canned any of our beer at Stewart Brewing," Jo said. "That year the team, who had a really strong project leader who pushed for the connection with the mobile canning company, really inspired us to put some of our own products into cans."

This year, four Heriot-Watt students including Danielle Whelan (project manager), Caroline Gilmer (sales), James Pugh (brewer) and Fred Newell (marketing) were successful in their applications to the project - which are handled like real job interviews - before being joined by Napier University student Rory Russell, who will work in-house on design.

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A few of the beers from previous years. Picture: Sean Murphy

Fred, who is the only Scot on the team, stated that the quartet decided that their focus would be to make as sustainable a product as possible. He said: “We had a lot of discussions around the idea of carbon neutrality and fully recyclable packaging.

"Before we’d even discussed beer styles, we had agreed we wanted to include some sort of carbon offsetting to reduce the environmental impact of our brew. As this project is essentially a learning experience and an experimental project for us students, we thought it a great opportunity to assess the feasibility of such a concept on an industrial scale.”

The team have been experimenting on the pilot kit under the tutelage of experienced brewer James Hardacre, the Craft Beer Kitchen manager, with team brewer James taking the lead on production.

James, who hails from Chester, stated that the Stewart Brewing team have been incredibly helpful over the course of their brewing days, he said: "The freedom that they've given us with relation to recipe development is brilliant, so we've had plenty of opportunity to try out some pretty unconventional techniques."

Jo explained that in the past some of the more recent teams had put forward some "wild and wacky ideas", something they would try to curb if the products they'd create weren't "commercially viable".

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She said: "The good thing is we've given them the opportunity to brew some really creative beers on the small 80 litre pilot plant alongside their main production brew, and this allows them to experiment a bit more and push boundaries. These beers can then be used for tap takeovers and things like that."

So far, the team have created four beers, including Man o’ War, a collaboration-brew Blackcurrant Berlinerweisse with Great Grog Bottleshop, and Primordial Soup, an un-fruited Berlinerweisse that went down well at the university’s two-day student-run festival.

The four beers they've created so far. Picture: NSB

Designer Rory has already been hard at work on creating the labels for each of the beers, he said: "My role on the team is to bring the beer to life with our visuals and branding. This is the first year a designer has been part of the core team, so I'm hoping to show it's a great asset for the project.

"I've been piecing together our various ideas to create a cohesive, exciting series of visuals that will hopefully draw more people into the Natural Selection Brewing story."

In previous years, most of the final beers have been bottled. However, Danielle and her team have decided to use cans, something that they feel is not only in keeping with their style of beer but also weighs less meaning less of an energy cost during transportation.

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Team leader Danielle, who is originally from Dayton, Ohio and learned about the course online, added that they plan to use barley sourced close to the brewery and to plant trees to help further offset their carbon footprint. She said: "We are still in the planning stages, but it’s almost finalised. We have done calculations to see how many trees we need and are contacting companies and the city council about putting this idea into motion."

The Stewart's team confirmed that they learn a lot from the project, this year for instance, Jo said that the drive for sustainability is challenging them also, to look at how they can reduce the carbon footprint of some of their brewing processes.

The job of selling the final beers to the off and on trade will lie with Caroline, who is also from the US - South Carolina in this instance, and Fred, with both being charged with carrying out the teams' sales plan.

Caroline said: "I'm responsible for looking at our routes to market, signing up new accounts, maintaining previous relationships formed by this project, and ensuring our beer is profitable.

"Essentially I will be in charge of promoting and selling our main beer and trial beers to local pubs as well as hopefully ones in Aberdeen and Glasgow."

Dr Dawn Maskell, director of the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling (ICBD) at Heriot-Watt University, said: "Heriot-Watt’s heritage is rooted in industry collaboration; and as a university, we continue to deliver education and innovation through knowledge transfer, commercialisation and promoting the value of enterprise through education.

"The partnership between ICBD and Stewart's Brewing is one example of how we work closely with our industry partners, providing both production and commercial experience. Our graduates enter a range of roles after they leave us, with global corporations and smaller regional and national companies around the world.

"They go into a mix of graduate training schemes or directly into production roles. One of our recent graduates recently became the youngest person to qualify as a Master Brewer while one of the Class of 2017 is the now the head distiller at the Isle of Rassay Distillery."

The final brew will take place in the first week of June with a launch event held in Six Degrees North on 27 June. The as-yet-unnamed final beer will then be available in specialist shops and bars around the country.

• Heriot-Watt has an Edinburgh campus open day coming up on 7th June, find out more here

Stewart Brewing and Edinburgh students unite to create new beer


Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.
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