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Scotland's Larder: Gareth Young of Epochal Brewery

Cat Thomson talks to Gareth Young of Epochal Brewery about his philosophy behind the thinking man’s pint.

Published: April 6, 2022

Gareth Young is his own words, "a craft beer nerd". He grew up in Lenzie but started home brewing as a hobby about the same time as he went to Glasgow university.

He studied Computer Sciences and Maths, but added an extra subject of Philosophy. “It just kind of caught my attention. I found that thinking that way came quite naturally to me. I started off really knowing very little about it but instantly found it quite captivating and I found myself good at it," he says.

Philosophy

However, after lecturing Philosophy he quickly became disillusioned with academia, he admits: "There was a lot of pressure to publish and apply for grants, things I was never very interested in or good at."

But, parallel to his career in academia, something else was brewing - quite literally.

Gareth Young Epochal Brewery
Gareth Young Epochal Brewery in Port Dundas. Photo: John Devlin

In the same week as gaining his PHd in Philosophy he also won the uk national homebrew awards, and a £5,000 prize; he had been the runner up the previous year.

That win gave him the impetus to turn professional. “There was a lot to celebrate that week and all homebrewers fantasize about running breweries and what beer they would make if you opened one."

Research

Gareth had already been researching in the University archives, which hold extensive brewing records including some by James Steel - at the time Glasgow's top 19th Century Porter brewer.

Industrial brewing in Glasgow reached its zenith in the1800s. “He adds: “Partly because of my academic background I tend to be very bookish about things. Back then it was like the whisky industry is now, it was very highly regarded across the world. A lot of the modern processes that people take for granted now were invented by Scottish brewers at that time. And Scottish beer was exported worldwide - it was basically the arteries of the British empire."

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So he put all this research into practice, setting to work brewing a Glasgow porter that was based on a specific historic recipe that was exported to the West Indies and Nova Scotia.

Before he switched careers he wanted commercial experience so, for a few years, he worked at Out of Town Brewery in Cumbernauld, and also at Drygate Brewery.

Gareth Young Epochal Brewery
Gareth Young Epochal Brewery. Photo: John Devlin

A Brewery is born

Then he felt ready to start his business enterprise, but the pandemic hit and he was concerned about whether he would be able to turn his dreams into reality.

However, armed with a business start-up loan and investment from his friends he launched Epochal Brewery in June 2021.

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He now works from an industrial unit in Port Dundas, next to the Forth and Clyde canal. He jokes: “If I took five paces forward I would be in the canal."

The area is steeped in brewing history; there used to be a major malting site called Bairds, and the ruins are around the corner. Coincidently, the owner of Baird's paid to publish the brewing books Gareth studied in the university archive.

He explains: "I didn't have loads of money and I needed to be quite cautious." So he does everything himself to keep costs low which allows him to be, "very uncompromising".

Age old question

Although craft beers today can be made in a week, he says: "mine take a minimum of three months and sometimes a year because they are aged in oak barrels and again in the bottle."

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Each one is unique, and he gives them unusual names, often referencing philosophy or brewing history.

His first beer was named Ethereal Substances, after a quote from a scientific paper in the early 1900s where they identified one of the key microbes, Brettanomyces, involved in making the type of beer that he brews.

This microbe made British beer taste distinctive and was described as ‘producing ethereal substances which cannot help but attract any connoisseur.' He says: “it made a kind of neat beer name."

Gareth Young Epochal Brewery
A few of Epochal Brewery's unique beers. Photo: John Devlin

Another, called Ad Infinitum 5.5% was hopped with a classic German noble hop called Tettnang. “People tend to think of it as a lager hop but there is a big tradition in Scotland way back to the 1880s of using hops like Tettnang to make pale ales, so it is a kind of nod to that”.

Ethereal Substance 6.8% used modern European hops - Hüll (or Huell) Melon and Centennial so, he explains, making an IPA in a Scottish style with more modern varieties “made quite a nice pair".

Ad infinitum and Squarer Of Circles also reference his background in philosophy.

For the most part his customers are specialist shops and bars across the UK. In Glasgow that means The Good Spirits Co, Koelschip Yard, Grunting Growler, The Wee Beer Shop, Curious Liquids and Valhalla's Goat.

He also exports to Norway and the Netherlands. "I have a big order going to Californian in the next month which is very exciting. It's very encouraging and I've published an article in a top brewing magazine in the United States because what I'm doing is so unusual."

Gareth Young Epochal Brewery
Brewing with oak barrels to aged his beer at Epochal Brewery. Photo: John Devlin

Roll out the barrel

Epochal is the only brewery in the world making wood-aged beer in this Scottish style. The reason he uses old wine and whisky barrels sourced from Speyside Cooperage is because they make very good fermenters.

Inside each barrel is a microcosm which produces unique flavours: "You can then blend them together at the end to make very distinctive beer."

He adds: “So it is impossible to replicate things. I just kind of embrace that it varies batch to batch and that it adds to the uniqueness of what you are consuming."

The primary purpose of the barrels is to create unique flavours from fermentation rather than soaking out a whisky or wine flavour.

Crafty Maltsters

In mainstream industrial maltings brewers look for a high level of consistency, but instead Gareth prefers to use barley from Crafty Maltsters in Fife, to achieve, "a snapshot of a single place and even a single field which varies again year to year and season to season”

He has used their Scotch Common and Annat barley and is also planning to experiment with Bere, an ancient grain.So, how do you make beer?

Beer monster

You steep malted barley in water until the enzymes in the grain break the starch down into sugars. Boil it up with hops to give bitterness and aroma and then ferment initially in open stainless steel fermenters.

Then it goes into barrels for a longer second fermentation and maceration which can take up to a year, before it ferments again and carbonates in the bottles.

He says making beer depends on many factors. “When you are working with microbes you are giving up some degree of control of how it will turn out in exchange for higher levels of complexity. You have to kind of sign up to let the beer go and once it reaches a point where you are happy with it you can then blend it and package it."

But to do that relies on the skill and experience of the brewer; he is looking for complex fruity flavours and floral aromas or, over time, perhaps earthy notes things like leather which can start to emerge.

Gareth Young Epochal Brewery
Gareth Young Epochal Brewery Photo: John Devlin

Young and old

To create a perfect beer, you might blend one that is only two months old to add a fresh hop character with one that is six months.

The whole process seems magical with Gareth a creative sorcerer or alchemist. “You can't just follow a set of instructions and think it will turn out the way you want it to be, it takes a certain amount of patience and experience."

He tells us that sometimes using these unusual microbes can make the brew taste bad, and a decision has to be made about whether a flavour character is going to mature out or not.

For example, slightly aged hops can smell cheesy.

Gareth Young Epochal Brewery
Gareth Young Epochal Brewery. Photo: John Devlin

He explains: “It is actually a compound called Isovaleric acid, which is a key aroma component in parmesan but if you ferment that with these special microbes then it eventually turns it into an ester called Ethyl Isovalerate which smells of pineapple. You can have a beer that smells a bit funny which will eventually turn into one which is quite fruity if you have the time and the conviction to let it just ride."

Label

His labels are designed by a local brand company, O street, and he used to walk past their offices on his way to the Philosophy department.

The labels capture some of the history of Scottish brewing and are half barrel shaped, as a nod to the oak barrels that he uses. "I'm really pleased with it." Although it is a pretty niche drink the feedback he has received has been positive.

“People appreciate what is unusual about it and like the depth of flavours you get from wood ageing and brewing nerds who get quite excited about it."

Gareth Young Epochal Brewery
Gareth Young Epochal Brewery. Photo: John Devlin

In the future he would like to have space in the brewery for people to come and see where it is made and taste on site.

However, one of the things he is most looking forward to is tasting some of his longer maturing beers which will be ready to be released later in the year.

He is happy to have swapped his job and hobby, "It seems like a crazy change but there is nothing else I would rather be doing.”, being able to make something you believe in and have creative control over is rewarding; It was a bit of a risk but it was worth it."

Epochal Brewery

3a Payne Street
Port Dundas
Glasgow
G4 0LE

Catriona is a freelance writer based in the Scottish Borders, and a nominee for Food and Drink writer at this year's Scottish Press Awards.

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