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Great Scot

The Caledonian Brewery is the last brewery in Edinburgh and after some tough times it is in fine form. Dominic Roskrow visited it

They’re a modest bunch at the Caledonian Brewery in the heart of Edinburgh.

Ask them how they have managed to succeed as a brewery when so many others failed, and how they have survived against the odds and outlived 40 other beer makers in the city and you’d think they would take a bit of credit for their business acumen, perceptive trading and insightful marketing. Not a bit of it.

“We consider ourselves to have been incredibly lucky,” says marketing manager Marie Moser. “We’ve definitely had more than our fair share of luck. The brewery was founded in 1869 at a time when there were 40 other brewers. If you had to pick one that would survive you most certainly wouldn’t have gone with this one.

“It wasn’t the biggest or the most successful. It does back on to a railway line which is good, but it was built on a slope.”

C a l e d o n i a n came into being almost as a young man’s folly, a rich man’s hobby horse at a time when beer production in the city was thriving.

“Back then the only means of transport was horse and cart and so breweries didn’t serve their beer very far away, probably to half a dozen pubs or so,” says Marie. “Beer volumes were substantially higher so there was a demand for so many breweries. And that was because people didn’t trust the water back then and preferred to drink beer. There would have been a lot of low strength 2% ABV beer.

“With all those breweries and a few distilleries as well, imagine the smell in the city. I know Edinburgh wasn’t called Auld Reekie for this reason but it must have played it’s part.

“The brewery was founded by Robert Clark and George Lorimer. George’s father was a major character in the city and he was killed in a big fire at the Theatre Royal. George inherited his money. His hobbies were beer and golf so he invested in a brewery. That was the sort of thing rich young men apparently did at the time. It’s not as if he could buy a Ferrari, is it? So that’s how Caledonian Brewery was set up.”

Fires feature regularly in the Caledonian story, and while it would be a tad cruel to suggest that the tragic demise of Mr Lorimer’s sense was fortunate for the brewery, it did bring it in to existence. And luck certainly played a part in subsequent fires threatening tragedy on the brewery and its employees.

Fourteen years ago an electrical fault in the old maltings most probably caused by the run-down state of the brewery threatened to destroy it completely.

“It was a huge blaze,” recalls Marie. “They had Edinburgh Scotland to move people out from the nearby flats and 13 fire crews fought it all night. But although it caused a lot of damage it stopped short of the central part of the brewery.”

The fire completely destroyed the old maltings, but there was an upside.

“Before the fire we were still shovelling in the malt by hand. Afterwards we got a modern machine that not only automatically feeds the malt through but selects the amount of malt that is needed.”

The second fire occurred four years later. One of the copper vessels turned itself on when empty.

“It burned through the bottom of the still and burned the roof, but it did not destroy the other two copper vessels. They threw a tarpaulin over it and were back in production within the week.”

Caledonian has had a charmed life, then, but it has been circumstance that has played it its kindest hand. When other brewers were falling by the wayside, for instance, the brewery seemed to regularly stumble into good fortune.

“Vaux in Sunderland had about a 50 per cent stake in the brewery and when it started to produce Lorimers Best Scotch it took it on and it was sent down from here to Sunderland. Vaux decided it needed Caledonian rather than build a new brewery. That carried on until the 1970s but as people started to drink less and became aware of the danger of drink-driving, the take home market grew, and Vaux didn’t need us any more.”

Once more, though, luck would work in the brewery’s favour. Just when the position was starting to look grim, in stepped Russell Sharp. He had a background in whisky and saw the potential for a local Edinburgh brewery producing premium local beers for a niche market.

“But the other thing that helped us was the nature of the site here,” says Marie. “The brewery could have been sold off for houses or flats but the brick is red and that’s very unusual for Edinburgh. If it had been sandstone it may well have gone. In any other city it might well have gone. But instead this is a grade two listed building and it has survived.”

So a strong case it would seem for the luck argument, but enough of the modesty. A more thorough appraisal of Caledonian reveals a brewery team quick to capitalise on its breaks with skill and foresight. And as they say, you make your own luck.

From the outset Caledonian Brewery employed Victorian ingenuity to produce fine beer. Take the copper vessels. They are dimpled at the bottom and covered with a ‘Chinaman’s hat’ style hood. This ensures that the centre of the vessel boils hotter than the edges and this makes the liquid violently move in the vessel, effectively stirring itself. The vessels are open and are direct fired, giving the brewer extra control and improving the fermentation. The three vessels are different shapes and sizes, allowing the brewery to make different sized batches of beer.

Then there is the effort that the brewery team puts in to maintaining quality. No hop oils or pellets are used, and the atmospheric and cool hop room is packed with hop types from across the world.

“We use only the flowers because we take the view that the Victorians didn’t design the brewery to use oil so we shouldn’t use oil,” says Marie. “But it’s not just a sentimental thing. The brewers feel that this is one of the reasons the brewery produces such soft beers.”

The malt and water are fed into big copper fermenters in a thick porridgelike mix for 40 minutes before the hops are added and left for a further 40 minutes. Fermentation takes place during three days in 16 open stainless steel fermenters.

The process leaves considerable scope in the whole process for flexibility and experimentation, ideal for a brewery searching out niche recipes. That flexibility provided the platform for the final piece of good fortune that secured the brewery’s future. For the brewery produces McEwans to a special recipe for Scottish & Newcastle, giving it the financial security to invest in modern equipment.

“When Scottish & Newcastle knew that it was going to close the Fountainhead Brewery it wanted to keep producing McEwans in Scotland. This place had become quite run down so a deal was struck by which S&N bought a 30 per cent share in us and we were given the money we needed to improve the brewery. But they do not own us and we remain fiercely independent.”

McEwans might be the brewery’s bread and butter, but of course the real star here emerged from the experimentation. Deuchar’s was, and is, a phenomenon, beer’s answer to U2. It may still be outstanding now, but when it first appeared on the scene it was truly groundbreaking, an energetic burst of youth and zest that launched a whole new category and spawned scores of imitators. Caledonian succeeded in getting the beer into all sorts of venues not normally associated with an ale. I first tasted it in a city centre night club where it was served chilled. An ale in a night club. In Scotland. Wow.
“Deuchars is our absolute star,” says Marie. “Russell felt there was a gap in the market for a beer that was tasty and refreshing but not strong – a beer you could drink two or three pints of on a work night. But it rapidly became a beer for a new generation. It took nine years to win the Supreme Champion Award from the Campaign for Real Ale and we have never looked back.” It’s won a host of other awards too, of course, including the ultimate award – the Brewing Industry International Awards chosen by international brewers in Germany.

These are good times for Caledonian, and the brewery is going from strength to strength. It now brews the beers of Harviestoun, the artisanlike microbrewery which was handed over to Caledonian for safekeeping by the owner when he retired. The brewery has a special tie-in with Ian Rankin, and it is reaffirming its strong association with Scotland’s capital with a new pub book. For the time being at least, its advances are all the result of strong business performance and some wonderful beers.

That’s not luck, that’s raw talent. But if circumstances change again in the future, let’s just hope the dice keep rolling in this wonderful brewery’s favour.