In 1840, Scotland was a beer-making hub, with 280 breweries in operation. By 1970, there were just 11 left. Edinburgh was at the centre of this industry, exporting beer around the world, and a modern craft beer revival has brought the city back to the forefront of brewing. One of many Scottish beer events, the inaugural Edinburgh Craft Beer Festival (ECBF) – which takes place at the end of May – will bring together brewers from across the globe, and celebrate the impact that Scotland’s capital (and the wider country) has had on the brewing world.
How a small country stands out Germany has been brewing beer since the 11th century, and Austria since the 15th, so what sets the relatively much younger Scottish scene apart? “Many of the ingredients used within craft brewing are similar – especially hop and malts. Also, trends within styles tend to be global – like a West Coast IPA, or a Baltic porter,” admits co-founder of ECBF, Greg Wells.
“Scotland has a passionate and patriotic beer culture.” Darryl de Necker, Beerbliotek “One thing I’ve definitely noticed in Scottish brewing is still a love for a great pint, and making beers that work well in the pub environment. Some of the beers from the likes of Fallen, Pilot and Cromarty are just so on point. “But then, along come folks like Tempest and Fierce, who are making some riotously experimental brews.”
Experienced brewers from further afield agree that Scotland has something special to offer. “Scotland has a passionate and patriotic beer culture, so the foundation is there for the craft breweries to really find their niche,” says Darryl de Necker from Swedish brewery, Beerbliotek.
In recent years, many small and microbreweries have popped up across Edinburgh and its outskirts, from Barney’s Beer and Campervan Brewery, to Edinburgh Beer Factory and Pilot Beer – just to name a few. “People forget that Edinburgh’s a tiny city. For the population, I’d say we do alright,” says Patrick Jones, co-founding director of Pilot.
Independent pubs work hand in hand with local breweries to showcase what the city has to offer. And (more importantly, perhaps) Edinburgh beer drinkers are willing to pay more for locally made craft beer, rather than settling for a cheaper, mass-produced product.
“Edinburgh has some fantastic pubs, like the Salt Horse, The Hanging Bat and BrewDog, as well as a great selection of up and coming breweries. Plus, don’t forget the passionate consumers,” says de Necker.
Things weren’t always this way, and the city certainly benefits from the independent craft beer boom. “I worked in the Edinburgh beer scene back in the early days, when craft wasn’t really a thing. When I co-founded the Hanging Bat, it was seen as an outlier for focusing utterly on quality craft beers and foregoing any mainstream brands,” remembers Left Handed Giant Brewing co-founder, Bruce Gray. “I think there a handful of cities in the UK doing real, big things with the modern beer scene, and Edinburgh is one of them.”
It’s not surprising, then, that Wells and his colleagues (who founded London Craft Beer Festival) chose Edinburgh, but the decision wasn’t quite as calculated as you might expect. “We spent a bit of time coming to the city and fell in love with the place. We met so many people from the beer and food scene here who were so supportive of what we’re trying to do,” Wells explains. “The craft beer category is still really tight, so when we ran the idea past people across the country, it kind of took a life of its own. Six months later – here we are.”
More than 30 breweries from across Scotland, England, Scandinavia, the USA and New Zealand will be in attendance at the festival, although even whittling the list down to that number was difficult.
“We like to invite breweries who we feel hit a certain level of quality, and make beers that are really full flavoured and push people’s taste buds in the right way,” says Wells. “It’s not easy – there are many we’d have loved to have had, but we like to keep it boutique and let people really experience the folks we have in.”
As well as allowing Scottish beer fanatics to meet the faces behind the craft brands they already know and love, ECBF will give breweries the chance to get to know and learn from one another – something many are already doing. “For what seems on the surface an incredibly diverse scene, homogeneity is actually more of an issue.” Patrick Jones, co-founding director of Pilot Beer
“As a brewery that produces so many different beer styles, our willingness to be inspired allows us to be the same,” says de Necker of Beerbliotek. “Six Degrees North and Tempest Brew Co are two [Scottish breweries] we’ve had beers from that inspired us.”
Inspiration is one thing, but breweries must be careful to avoid copycatting, according to members of the craft beer scene. “For what seems on the surface an incredibly diverse scene, homogeneity is actually more of an issue,” reveals Jones. “It’s a great industry to work in, as people are genuinely happy to share techniques and the like, but that can definitely lead to a bit of bandwagoning.”
Now home to more than 80 breweries, Scotland has regained some of its former glory as a beer-making destination – but how many craft breweries is too many?
“No matter what the product, in any market, in any place in the world there is always place for a quality product,” says de Necker. “Before the era of mass global beer brands, it was always a regional and civic product.” Greg Wells, co-founder of ECBF
“As with most places, Scottish brewing runs the whole spectrum, from amazing to not very amazing,” counters Jones. In this case, quality is somewhat subjective, but the general consensus is that as long as there is a thirst for good craft beer, there will be somebody making it.
“Any industry where demand is so high that poor quality is not recognised is an industry that is doomed to stagnation,” says Gray. “High demand, plus high competition breed innovation and creativity. That can’t be a bad thing.”
Although Scotland may never again produce beer on the same scale as it did in the 19th century, many in the industry feel we are closer now to the roots of the industry than we ever have been. “Brewing has such rich traditions, and it goes through phases of evolution,” says Wells. “Before the era of mass global beer brands, it was always a regional and civic product, that’s the era we’re returning to now.”
Edinburgh Craft Beer Festival takes place between 26th and 28th May 2017 at The Biscuit Factory, Leith – edinburghcraftbeerfestival.co.uk
• This article originally appeared on the i news website.