Tastings School - Scotland's true new Irn brews

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Scotland's true new Irn brews

Scotland has undergone a real ale revolution in recent years. Dominic Roskrow reports

What a difference a decade makes. At least in the story of cask ale it does.

In the mid 90s there was more chance of seeing scantily-clad rah-rah girls doing the conga on Scotland’s beaches than finding a good selection of real ale in its bars.

My, how times have changed.

On one occasion way back a Carlsberg-Tetley rep led a small press party to a waterside pub in the port of Leith in the days when it still attracted some of the area’s more colourful characters and not every city resident with an income of more than £100,000.

The purpose? To taste draught Tetley’s because, she said, cask ale was taking a foothold north of the border. A fledgling pub company called Wetherspoons had recently opened its first Scottish outlet and intended to promote real ale, we were told, and the Scottish branch of the Campaign for Real Ale was growing.

How we scoffed. Leith was nearly Edinburgh, we reasoned, and Edinburgh wasn’t Scotland.

Scotland was a land of lager and of heavy. Its tastes were sweet, not bitter.

There were breweries in Scotland then, of course, a few of them very good. And once upon a time, before industrialisation, commercialisation, lageration and rationalisation, beer had positively flourished.

And when you think about it, it would have done – after all, Scotland is the home of whisky, and how do you make whisky?

But like many other parts of Britain a traditionally plentiful and vibrant nation of local brewers had been swallowed up by bigger companies, some national and some international.

Choice had dried up and although the odd brewery light shone out in an ocean of corporate darkness, the 80s and early 90s represented bleak times.

And lager was all but the final nail; few areas of Britain took to it with more relish.

And yet looking back now, that Carlsberg-Tetley rep was spot on. So what went right?

The impact of the Beer Orders worked in the same way summer does in Scotland; it gets there but it just takes a bit longer. Companies such as Wetherspoons impacted on the major student and city outlets in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee. The new pub chains duly brought their formulas – and beer ranges – with them.

But there were other Scottish heroes making up this picture, too.

The first was the original Scottish membership of the Campaign for Real Ale, which kept the fire alight when there seemed little hope, and played a crucial role not only in championing cask beer but reminding anyone who would listen that once upon a time Scotland produced a rich and diverse collection of beers made with a wondrous array of natural and homeproduced ingredients.

The second were the small number of independents who continued to produce and support quality homegrown beers while balancing the demands of traditional drinkers with the new world of themed and concept pubs. One such was Belhaven Brewery, situated 30 miles from Edinburgh and arguably Scotland’s oldest independent brewery. It survived when others didn’t and was regularly competing with the finest English breweries in British trade awards.

That perseverance paid off in the 90s, when consumer interest in local ale was revived, and with it came an explosion in new breweries. Go through the list of breweries at the end of this feature and you’ll find that four fifths of them have emerged in the last 10 years, most of them in two waves: one in the mid to late 90s, the other between 2001 and 2004.

And it’s not just the quantity that is impressive. It’s the diversity of beer styles, some classic, some truly innovative, and the emphasis on high quality. By the time Caledonian Brewery picked up the award for Champion Beer of Great Britain for Deuchars, breweries across the country had won over a sizeable number of real ale drinkers.

For lager drinkers the future was never in doubt. Scotland produces world class lagers such as Tennents, and while these drinkers aren’t considered ‘sexy’ by drink aficionados, they add further weight to the value of Scotland’s beer producing capabilities. Indeed, there are now American microbreweries producing what they describe as ‘genuine Scottish lagers’.

Overall, then, the future for Scottish beer is rosy. Having survived through the grimmest of periods it is branching out and is riding on the back of the same Scottish patriotism that has ensured world respect for whisky.

One of the oldest breweries anywhere in Britain, with commercial brewing records stretching back to the early part of the 18th century, and evidence that beer was brewed in the monastery that previously occupied the site for many years before that. Belhaven was Scotland’s biggest regional brewer and had more than 275 pubs but inevitably it attracted predators and it was bought by Greene King just over a year ago.

It produces a wide range of beers including a low, medium and stronger ale under the traditional Scottish ‘shilling’ names 60/-, 70/-, and 80/-.

Greene King stated then that it would maintain the brands and identity of Belhaven.


Broughton was founded in the late 70s but floundered in the mid 90s and went in to receivership. It was taken over by Giles Litchfield and Alastair Mouat and they have turned it around.

It has been successful in sending its bottled beer to English supermarket and department store outlets and produces a wide range of beers including a 5% lager, various seasonal ales and an oatmeal stout.

Perhaps its most popular product is Clipper, a clean and crisp Indian pale ale, but if you can find it, try the Black Douglas, which includes roasted maize and barley in its recipe.


Cairngorm is most famous for its Trade Winds speciality beer, which has won countless awards and is popping up in good bars across Britain.

But the brewery isn’t a one trick producer, and it has a healthy stable of other quality beers including Black Gold, a stout that has picked up its own fair share of accolades.

Cairngorm was created in 2001 after merging the Tomintoul and Aviemore Breweries. It operates a core range of beers covering various strengths and including a lager, and the aforementioned stout. But it also produces an impressive array of seasonal beers including a wheat beer (White Lady), a beer made with thistles (Blessed Thistle) and a porter (Red Mountain Porter).

The brewery has expanded every year since it was created and now boasts a fermentation capacity of 90 barrels and a conditioning capacity of 120 barrels.


Once owned by English north-eastern brewer Vaux, the Caledonian Brewery was bought by a management team when it was set for closure and it was from then that it developed its own quirky characteristics. There was even an artist in residence. In 2004 it was bought by Scottish Courage, which closed its other Edinburgh Brewery, but the existing management team was allowed to continue making Caledonian beers including Deuchars, which was CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Great Britain and is now enjoying wider distribution.

The brewery now produces some of Scottish Courage’s other brands including the McEwans range as well as organic Golden Promise.


Another brewery not afraid to break out from a core range of beers and to try new and exciting products, and it has picked up accolades as a result. In particular it won Champion Beer of Britain in 2003, and its Bitter and Twisted won Supreme Bottled Beer Champion in 2004. In the past it has produced seasonal beers on a monthly basis and its range includes wheat beers and European blonde lagers.


Formed three years ago by two key members of the management team that bought out the Caledonian brewery, Innis & Gunn has made its name on the strength of one beer – a bottled product that is matured in whisky barrels from William Grant, producers of Glenfiddich.

It’s a beer that splits drinkers a little – there is no Innis & Gunn brewery and the beer is made by another brewer - but there can be no doubting its quality. It has 77 day production cycle and it was good enough to be chosen as Supreme Champion in the 2004 International Beer Competition.


Formerly Highlands and Islands Breweries, the company incorporates the Atlas Brewery in Kinlochleven, Argyll and the Orkney Brewery.

Atlas Latitiude Cask Pilsner was recently awarded ‘best in class’ at the Great British Beer Festival. Orkney produces Skullsplitter and Dragonforce, both of which have started to appear south of the border.


Scotland's other breweries

An Teallach, Dundonnell, Little Loch Broom, Ross-Shire Growing range of ales from husband and wife team in North West Scotland Tel +44 (0)1854 633 306

Arran, Cladach, Brodick, Isle of Arran Increasingly respected island brewery that has grown to about 200 barrels a week. Available in bottle. Tel +44 (0)1770 302 353

Black Isle, Old Allangrange, Munlochy, Ross-shire Based in the middle of the Highlands, this brewery sells bottle-conditioned beer by mail order across Britain and has organic, vegetarian and vegan approved beers including a wheat one.
Tel: +44 (0)1463 811 871

Bridge of Allan, Bridge of Allan, Stirlingshire Its varied and growing range includes bottle-conditioned beers and a wild oat stout. Won Scottish champion bottle conditioned beer in 2004.
Tel: +44 (0)1786 834 555

Clockwork Beer Co, Glasgow Microbrewery producing large range of interesting beers including fruit ones.
Tel: +44 (0)141 649 0184

Cuillin Brewery, Sligachan Hotel, Sligachan, Carbost, Isle of Skye Only launched two years ago but already experimenting with styles such as stout.
Tel: +44 (0)1478 650 204

Devon Ales, Sauchie, Clackmannanshire Has produced hand-crafted beers for some 15 years now.
Has a couple of pubs. Tel +44 (0)1259 722 020

Eglesbrech, Falkirk Part of the Ale house, this brewery brews only for its tiny estate.
Tel: +44 (0)1324 633 338

Far North, Melvich Hotel, Melvich, Thurso, Caithness And it is – Britain’s most northerly brewpub. Has grown and produces a quality bottle-conditioned ale called John O’ Groats.
Tel +44 (0)1641 531 206

Fowler’s, Prestonpans, East Lothian Only a couple of years old but runs brewing courses and you can brew your own beer there.
Tel + 44 (0)1875 819 922

Fyne, Archadunan, Cairndow, Argyll Brewery in a farm’s old milking shed. Has built up a loyal following since it opened five years ago.
Tel +44 (0)1499 600 238

Hebridean Brewing Co, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis Bottles beer for its own off-licence and is available across the Gaelic North West Isles and at the region’s traditional singing festivals.
Tel +44 (0)1851 700 123

Houston Brewing Co, Houston, Renfrewshire Supplies a range of pubs and offers tours, dinners and tastings as well as beer gift packs.
Tel +44 (0)1505 614 528

Inveralmond, Perth Now 10 years old the brewery doubled in size last year and is a runaway success, with a large range of quality beers.
Tel: +44 (0)1738 449 448

Islay Ales, Bridgend, Isle of Islay Two Englishmen and a German producing a range of real ales for the island and its neighbours.
Tel: +44 (0)1496 810 014

Isle of Mull, Tobermory, Mull Produces for the island with bottled version planned.
Tel: +44 (0)1688 302 821

Isle of Skye Brewing Co, Uig, Isle of Skye Has grown significantly and made Skye a beer drinkers’ mecca. Range includes a wheat beer and a stout.
Tel: +44 (0)1470 542 477

Kelburn, Barrhead, Renfrewshire Award-winning brewery launched four years ago. Range includes bottled beer.
Tel: +44 (0)141 881 2138

McCowans Brewhouse, Edinburgh Part of The Spirit Group. Produces the Donhul ale range.
Tel +44 (0)131 228 8198

Moulin Brewery, Pitlochry, Perthshire Scots Pub of the Year and houses one of Scotland’s first micro breweries.
Tel: +44 (0)1796 472 196

Peelwalls Ltd, Ayton, Borders New brewery launched last year. One beer is called Bruin Broon.
Tel: +44 (0)1289 308 855

Stewart Brewing
, Loanhead, Lothian Specialises in high quality international beers and cask ales.
Tel: +44 (0)131 440 2442

Stirling Brewery, Stirling Set up a couple of years ago in an old torpedo factory. Establishing itself with cask ales.
Tel: +44 (0)1786 817 000

Sulwath, Castle Douglas, Dumfries & Galloway Sells beer across Britain, having been launched more than 10 years ago. Tel: +44 (0)1556 504 525

Tryst Brewery, Larbert Only started brewing in 2003, but its award winning range of beers continues to grow.
Tel: +44 (0)1324 554 000

Valhalla, Baltasound, Unst, Shetland Grown substantially since it was formed in 1997, and has its own bottling plant.
Plans a new visitor centre. Tel: +44 (0)1957 711 658

Williams Brothers, Kelliebank, Alloa The brothers took over Forth Brewery and are achieving success with specialist beers. Tel: +44 (0)1259 725 511