Category Archives: Brewing

The Viking Tour (Part 1)

To ‘go-a-Viking’ means to go raiding for loot. The Institute of Brewing and Distilling annual trip was titled ‘The Viking Tour’. For £250 it was possible to ‘raid’ 6 distilleries and 2 breweries over three days with all accomodation and travel included. A coach filled with 21 like-minded viking raiders headed north with a thirst for knowledge and liquid refreshment.

The first stop was Invergordon Distillery. The industrial scale of the distilling columns and the smell of dark grain processing made an immediate impression. It was my first visit to a grain distillery and it presented a welcome contrast to slick touristic malt distilling operations. Invergordon is the workhorse of Whyte & MacKay, pumping out up to 40 million litres of pure alcohol per annum from a mixture of barely and maize. It’s muscular exterior masked a soft, delicate centre. The 1974 single cask we tried was smooth, complex and had a lusciously long finish. The distillery was also notable for its unusual continuous fermentation system. Reduced downtime and faster fermentations can result in considerable cost savings due to lower energy consumption.

We continued up the A9 to Wick and pulled in to Pulteney Distillery. This northern classic is plonked in the middle of the old town of Pulteney. The surrounding houses and local businesses give the distillery a lovely community feel and give the impression that they are protecting their most prized asset! Most of the whisky is matured on site which is believed to enhance the whisky’s salty, sea air character. As no peated malt is used and Old Pulteney has a heavy coastal character I am inclined to agree. After the tour we were invited to try the 12, 17 and 21 year old expressions. All delicious but the 17 was my favourite on the day.

Ring of Brodgar
UNESCO World Heritage site – The Ring of Brodgar

Day 2 and an early start for a bit of sightseeing around Orkney. The last time I was here was 20 years ago and I was soon reminded of why I loved it so much the first time. A cocktail of neolithic archaeology, war history and rugged, treeless landscapes gives Orkney its unique atmosphere. The Ring of Brodgar, a UNESCO World Heritage site, seemed to trap us in its stoned circular trance. What? Why? and How? Only those alive 4,500 years ago will know for certain. Ask an archaeologist today and you are likely to hear ‘ritual monument’, which is the generic term used whenever they don’t have a clue!

At 9:30am our longboat landed at Swannay Brewery. Beer was served for breakfast in the Viking tradition. Rob Hill, owner and self professed ‘plodder’ has been brewing here with passion for 10 years. When you meet people like Rob you are reminded why the craft revolution is a great boon for the drinkers of today. All he wants to do is make great beer, everything else is secondary. He sincerely said, “As long as you have a good pint in your glass, I’m a happy man”. Here, here Rob!

The now considerably more boisterous raiding party continued to Orkney Brewery. We were welcomed with a delicious selection of beer. I particularly enjoyed the Red MacGregor and the Dark Island Reserve aged in a whisky cask was rich and curious (although something I would not normally drink at £20 per bottle!). The brewery is state of the art with a gleaming brewhouse and fermenters, creating 36,000L per week. Orkney Brewery is a great example to what can be achieved with Viking spirit to all other budding start-up breweries. Tune in again soon for Part 2…..


Dirt in Dee, Done Dirt Cheap

The ‘Dirt’ at The James Hutton Institute

The 2016 Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD) AGM took place at the James Hutton Institute (JHI), Invergowrie, a short hop from Dundee, the ‘City of Discovery’. With my £9.50 Megabus ticket, I boarded at Edinburgh bus station. 90 minutes later, Dundee emerged in all its sunny glory. The construction site on the waterfront is testament to exciting times ahead. Urban regeneration and the arrival of the V&A will transform the former capital of Jute and Jam.

Dundee is also a mecca for agricultural science. The Life Sciences department at the University of Dundee is world renowned for its research in molecular biology and the JHI undertakes pioneering work in crop genetics. The Institute’s work in barley and hops is relevant to the brewer and distiller.

7.3 million tonnes of barley were produced in the UK in 2015, worth approximately £1bn to the UK economy. The JHI uses its climate controlled glasshouse and farm trial facilities to improve our understanding of barley genetics. Commercial breeders use this information to be more effective in their pursuit of new barely varieties. The holy grail is to find new varieties with higher extract yields, improved malting characteristics and increased pest/disease resistance. Current projects include improving hot water extract of Winter varieties relative to Spring varieties and targeting genetic markers to improve saccharification of starch in the mashing process. For example, a reduction in arabinoxylan and beta-glucans in cell walls can be achieved by crossing varieties with particular traits, consequently improving enzyme access to polysaccharides contained within the cell matrix.

Barley trials in the glasshouses at JHI

The JHI work on hops resulted in the first successful trial of Scottish hops last year. There was a small hop industry in Scotland until 1878, but now the majority of the UK’s hops are grown in Kent. UK production is currently less than 1,000 hectares and is approximately 2% of global hop production. With rapid growth in the number of Scottish breweries (currently 93) there is renewed interest in creating an entirely ‘Scottish’ product. Hence the drive to successfully cultivate Scottish hops. THE JHI used a Haygrove polytunnel and drip fertigation to produce a hand-harvested hop with 3.8 alpha-acid content. The aroma is good but because an unregistered fungicide was used during the trial they are unfortunately unavailable for commercial beer production. The JHI aims to progress further trials this year and will hopefully be able to produce a commercially viable crop. I managed to get my hands on one of the 400 bottles of privately produced beer made with the 2015 Scottish Hops. A refreshing pale ale with lots of promise and a pleasant hop taste. As the crop is hand-harvested it is labour intensive. Any help with the 2016 harvest in September would be much appreciated!

Scottish Hops!

In its quest to cement its position as a global leader in agricultural science, the JHI has submitted proposals to the UK government to create a new ‘International Barley Hub’ (IBH) at the Dundee site. At a cost of £36m the new centre is expected to produce a return of £700m in 12 years. The IBH aims to alleviate global hunger by increasing usable land for crop production from 3% of the world’s land area to 12%. This increase would come from more genetically robust cereal varieties thriving in currently marginal agricultural land. The elephant in the room is ‘GM’. Currently, no GM crops are permitted in full-scale field trials, only laboratory and glasshouse trials.

The JHI is a fascinating place for a visit and it is great to see so many agricultural innovations taking place that will benefit not just Scotland, but the world. On the dirt cheap Megabus on the way home I realised that the dirt in Dundee will potentially affect the whole of humanity in the most positive of ways!

The first beer from Scottish Hops since 1878?

Heriot-Watt to Harris

The Edinburgh Festival was sacrificed in order to complete my dissertation, but a lovely Jura from SMWS helped mitigate the loss.
The Edinburgh Festival was sacrificed in order to complete my dissertation, but a lovely Jura from SMWS helped mitigate the loss

The pen, paper and calculator have been banished to the drawer. August was a quagmire of dissertation and deliberation. Upon submission on the 27th I was free as a bird. Free to fly away to Canada. A long, leisurely holiday filled September. I visited distilleries, wineries and breweries in Vancouver, Victoria, Sidney, Salt Spring Island and Galiano Island. Then it was off to the ‘US of A’ for a road trip around Washington and Oregon. I was fascinated to witness first hand the extent of the craft boom in the Pacific North West. Craft breweries huddled together like penguins in the Antarctic. The range of beers was ridiculous. My preference for super-hopped beer increased as I toured the tap rooms of Yakima, where over 70% of America’s hops are grown. The desert like conditions and abundant irrigation create the perfect conditions, resulting in wonderfully fragrant varieties of the hop cone. I also experienced the pleasures of the slow lane, river tubing 10 miles down the Yakima Canyon.

There's more to Yakima than just hops!
There’s more to Yakima than just hops!

Portland and Seattle were intriguing for their creative energy and weirdness. Boundaries don’t seem to be a problem in this part of the world, as illustrated by Rogue’s Beard Beer, made from yeast found in the brewer’s 1978 beard. Distilleries are becoming as popular as Starbucks cafes. There are over 100 distilleries in Washington, more than any other US state.

Upon returning to Scotland it was nice to get back to a comforting pint of tennents and a fry-up before the real work began. I discovered that I had achieved a distinction in my Masters in Brewing & Distilling, which was a satisfying way to finish the course at Heriot-Watt University. With my studies over it is time to turn my attention to the world of work. I left the world of banking in May 2014 in the pursuit of distilling dreams and now it is time to put theory into practice. I am writing this post in a cosy cottage, protected from the wild weather of the Outer Hebrides. Tomorrow I will face the elements and begin my new distilling career at the Isle of Harris distillery….

The Isle of Harris distillery awaits as the ferry comes into harbour.
The Isle of Harris distillery awaits as the ferry comes into harbour at Tarbert

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” (Ferris Bueller, 1986)

Ferris was right, life does move pretty fast, it is almost a year since I left financial services to pursue a career in whisky. Here I reflect on a whirlwind journey into the unknown….

From this...
From this… (the office at Virgin Money HQ)
....To this! (Distilling lab at HWU)
….To this! (Distilling lab at HWU)

The adventure began in Pitlochry at Edradour Distillery. Entertaining visitors in the malt barn, nosing the angels’ share in the warehouse and packing countless boxes of Signatory Vintage bottles to be sent all over the world. It was very refreshing to spend a Scottish summer in a kilt and I was especially grateful on the hot days when the still house could reach temperatures of 38°C!

Then off I went to Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh for a master’s degree in Brewing and Distilling. I have so far completed 8 modules over 2 semesters, consisting of 7 exams and 14 assignments (totaling 29,891 words) and one class test. Just the small matter of a dissertation project to go….

Some of my favourite ‘learning’ experiences were the class visits to various breweries, distilleries, glass blowers and printing works. It has been like an episode of ‘How Stuff is made’. Alloa Glassworks has the largest furnace in Europe and the hot machinery and glowing gobs of glass made it feel like the closing scenes of Terminator 2. We also milled, mashed, boiled, brewed and distilled, with weekly tastings to hone our senses and enjoy the fruits of our labour.

But the best part has been meeting like-minded, enthusiastic people, whether they be brewers, distillers or maltsters. This is a small industry and already I have met some of the great names through various dinners and events. Everyone is approachable, friendly and genuine. I’m looking forward to becoming part of this great industry and seeing where all my class mates end up in the years to come.

Class of 2014/2015
MSc Brewing and Distilling – Class of 2014/2015

Beer Bomb Blues

You learn more in life from your failures than your successes. I have learnt a valuable brewing lesson early on in my new career. After the excitement of brewing iAYE in at the craft beer kitchen at Stewart Brewery, the sad news arrived that the beer had exploded in storage. My first case of the ‘Beer Bomb Blues’!

Some initial investigations of the brew data revealed that the beer had been put on cool before the Specific Gravity had fully stabilised. Furthermore, the storage facility at Heriot-Watt University was excessively warm due to the heating being left on over the Christmas break. Finally, the fact that only some of the bottles exploded may indicate that the fermentation was not even throughout the beer or that there was a concentration of active yeast left in some of the bottles. If anyone has any further hypotheses as to what may have caused the exploding bottles I would be very interested to here.

So the valuable lesson learned is ensure fermentation is complete at a constant temperature before bottling and store beer cold!

The worst part was that not all bottles exploded but the rest was poured away for safety reasons. In total 70 to 80 litres of beer were lost out of a batch of 100L. I have one solitary bottle left in the fridge….. I better savour it! The good news is I can always make some more!!!

So it’s a sad farewell to iAYE but thanks for the invaluable lesson.

Bye, bye iAYE!
Bye, bye iAYE!