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The Rise of Scottish Craft Beer

Scottish craft beer is in its infancy.

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On the far outskirts of Glasgow, just down the road from the city Necropolis and in the hulking shadow of Wellpark Brewery, where Scotland’s beloved Tennent’s lager is made, DryGate brewery sits in a building that looks a disused garage. It used to be one, in fact.

“The building we’re in just now was owned by our Tennent’s”, Drygate’s manager, Sean Brown, says from behind the bar. Now, as DryGate — which is owned in part by Tennent’s parent company, the C&C group, and partly by Scottish craft brewer Scott Williams of Williams Brothers Brewing — the space wide open, all clean new gray concrete and paint. A long shiny bronze bar is topped by a chalkboard where the names of beers from around the world sprawl in curly handwriting. One end of the floor is a big glass wall that looks into the brewing floor, where enormous steel tanks squat and puddles of malt-infused water glisten; off to one side sits a miniature version of the equipment, called a “studio kit”, used for brewing small test batches. “Initially”, Brown says, “they used to use it to make cardboard boxes. Then they used it basically as a big garage, and they kept all the odds and ends and machinery and stuff they didn’t need anymore.” As Brown talks to us a piece of machinery in the brewery — something big and powerful — switches on and the air of the brewpub is filled with a violent, clanging roar. It’s sure as hell a brewery now.

We’re here in search of Scottish craft beer, a relative question mark: It’s usually ignored or forgotten in the mad rush for a good single malt whisky. We know that exists thanks to several big-name breweries with distribution in America. One would imagine the stuff would be good, in a country with world-class barley and water that abuts England, today a craft beer giant. But so far the search has been tough sledding.

In Glasgow, even the nicer bars and restaurants serve blander macro, or mass-produced, lagers (like Tennent’s) and ales on tap, with a focus on “real ales”, which we call cask ales in the States. (If you don’t like cask, it’s like drinking a wounded soldier left out from the party the night before.) Some bars have a few craft bottles in a small fridge behind the bar. But the craft beer we’ve sought has been, like DryGate’s building, hidden in the shadow of macro suds. That means no dry-hopped pilsners. No wheat beers murky like turbid limestone creek water. No stouts with notes of chocolate truffle and Guatemalan coffee beans. And absolutely zero double IPAs — so few grapefruit, pineapple and mango notes that it seems we should be suffering from scurvy by now.


The relative unpopularity of craft beer in Scotland isn’t because Scots don’t drink beer, or because they have poor taste in it. They simply haven’t had the stuff around for all that long, nor on a large scale. “Scottish craft beer has really kicked off in the last couple of years — probably the last five years”, Brown says at DryGate when we ask about Glasgow’s dearth of the stuff.

That didn’t happen in Scotland, Brown says, until two 24-year-olds, James Watt and Martin Dickie, started making craft beer under the name of BrewDog in 2007, annoyed and frustrated by the lack of flavorful beer we were still finding. Watt and Dickie are weird dudes, but effective; their “End of History” held the record for the highest ABV beer (55%) for a time, and was sold packaged inside of a stuffed stoat or squirrel. Today BrewDog is the largest independent brewery in Scotland, with 67 employees exporting 20,000 bottles per month to 50 countries around the world. That booming success has yet to be replicated by other brewers in the country. Few other Scottish breweries export to the U.S. There are only around 70 independent craft breweries in Scotland today, and few of them have gained a major foothold of popularity or sales in more than regional sections of the country. This number is staggeringly small when compared to America’s 2,768 craft breweries in 2013 and the UK’s 723 overall.

Scottish brewers lacked good hops. Hops add complexity to beer. And if craft beer is defined by one word in 2014, complexity is it.

One main reason for this late, slow growth is that Scotland’s long lacked in the use of one of beer’s three main ingredients, and arguably the most important in today’s craft beer movements: hops. “There was always a real history and tradition of brewing in Scotland”, says Brown. “But really what did it for the British scene and the Scottish scene was introduction of hops from the New World, from America, and New Zealand, Australia.”

The little green bombs of flavor that drive today’s craft beer world were absent from Scotland when beer was first made there nearly 5,000 years ago. In its place, the Scottish used bittering herbs like heather, myrtle and broom. By the 19th century these were replaced by imported hops for use in pale ales just like the British were making to the south, though the Scots remained focused on the maltier lager style; even their pale ales lacked the bitterness that plays a major role in popular beers today. It’s no accident that the eponymous Scotch Ale is a malty beast, with little hop flavors to speak of.

Scotch Ale’s Weird Journey


Even today, the UK falls far behind in hop production, growing only 1,500 tonnes to America’s 23,701 and Germany’s 34,000 tonnes in 2010. This is the ingredient, according to BeerAdvocate.com, that imparts flavors and aromas “ranging from flowery, perfumey, spicy, herbal, resinous, citrusy, sharp, acrid, grassy, woody, earthy and cheesy”, in a spectrum “from subtle and delicate to intense, harsh and pungent.” In other words, hops add complexity to beer. And if craft beer is defined by one word in 2014, complexity is it.

So BrewDog kicked down the door in 2007 by depending on hops from around the world. Scottish beers’ international dependence has only grown, as is obvious when Chris Hoss, DryGate Brewery’s bottle manager, shows us his wares. “I tend to label all the beers that I love”, says Chris Hoss, pointing to a small tag he’s tied around the neck of a Mikkeller SpontanDoubleElderflower bottle. Hoss is lanky, and he still has to strain at the tips of his toes to tap the bottle on the top shelf. The small room with its walls of wire mesh in the corner of DryGate’s open concrete pub area might be mistaken for a utility closet, if not for its payload: floor-to-ceiling bottles, small ones and big, their colorful labels making a bright fresco of the walls under the harsh overhead lights. This is Hoss’s realm. He sources every single bottle of its 400 different beers. And though we’re used to seeing rooms like this in American bottle stores, stuffed full of beery creations, this one’s different: the majority of the beer is worldly, the room divided not like an American bottle shop (American beers, European beers) but fragmented like party control of Parliament. Scottish beers have a place of pride on the near wall, but there are far, far more beers from just about everywhere. American West Coast. American East Coast. The UK. Germany. Belgium, Sweden. New Zealand, Australia, Japan.


Hoss’s face lights up as he describes the Magna Carta that can translate them all. “You know, American hops are big and bitey, New Zealand hops are big and fruity. You got Japanese hops that are just really bizarre tasting like bubblegum and pepper”, he says, motioning to the different nations’ bounties as he narrates. “I think if you take a good long history of brewing pretty modest ales and then you add those qualities in, it’s something that’s very good for the future of beer in this country.”

And the Scots, with their unique newcomer vantage point, are just wild about using them all. “We don’t have our own hops, really”, says Hoss. “So a lot of people are doing like Transatlantic IPAs where they just take, you know, a little bit from each place and just throw them all together and just make a big kind of melting pot of awesome hops.”


The other tactic, one that extends beyond hops, seems to be aping classic styles from other countries, with a Scottish twist. What that twist is varies. Brown and Hoss set about showing us examples in the bottle room. One Scottish brewery, Fallen Brewing, makes a smoked porter that’s essentially a German Rauchbier, or “smoked beer” — but its smoky, “bacony” flavors are imparted by smoked peat from the Highlands. Six Degrees North is so named because they’re located six degrees, latitudinally, to the north of Belgium, and makes their beers in the Belgian style; their Chopper Stout is a direct challenge to Guinness, which they say has a head that matters more than its body. Alechemy makes a heavily hopped saison. “It’s not a particular traditional Scottish style at all”, Hoss says. “So it’s really nice to see people doing all sorts of styles from all over the world, you know?” Hoss himself is taking advantage of DryGate’s studio kit and the network of Scottish brewers around him to start making and bottling his own beers, the first of which is an IPA brewed with Amarillo hops from the Williamette Valley in Oregon, Hersbrucker hops from Hollertau, Germany, and others.

Breaking through a dearth of hops was only one step for the Scots. Finding and plying this creativity was another. Now the Scottish face the challenge of gaining popularity among citizens who currently favor large-scale-brewed beers, like Tennent’s lager, which has a hold on about 60 percent of the Scottish lager market. Craft brewers don’t seem too concerned — it’s a battle that’s been won pretty much everywhere craft beer has shown its head.

“People drink beer to get drunk”, says Brown. But, he adds, there’s a social component. “With such an interesting topic, it’s easy to talk about it at length. You’re drinking good beer; I don’t understand why you wouldn’t.”

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