It’s easy to look at the British brewing scene through craft-tinted spectacles, claiming that now is the best time there’s ever been. As we romp towards eighty breweries in Scotland, with new arrivals every week, keyboard superheroes* like myself get to make bold proclamations that we are living in the moment; that it doesn’t get any better than this. Of course, we’re completely wrong. Back in the mid-nineteenth century, Edinburgh itself supported forty breweries, shrouding the Forth in spuming clouds of smoke and steam. That was the moment – imagine taking half of the producers operating in the country today, and relocating them all to a single city (which was far smaller then). Edinburgh was a beer town. I still think it is – and so, it was high time I visited the one survivor of that era – the Caley.
* the internet’s answer to armchair experts
That visit took place on a typically horrendous Scottish January afternoon, after dodging the pillaging sleet along Slateford Road. The Caledonian Brewery looks a little forlorn, to be honest, squashed between road and rail, lone chimney protesting skywards. They are still remarkably prolific, however, producing around twenty different cask beers a year alongside the flagship Deuchars IPA (and, also, brewing for other labels under contract). The Caley began operations in 1869, with the present buildings dating from 1892 – then on the outskirts of Edinburgh. It’s an odd thing, but despite living a few minute’s walk away, I’d never actually been – only a visiting Guild of Beer Writers’ tour gave me that impetus to look round. I never even knew about the sample cellar, for example – a cosy wood-panelled ground-level bar, overlooking the ranks of casks awaiting dispatch outside.
The tour was conducted by Ross, currently seconded to the Caley from Heriot-Watt, and Operations Manager Craig. Standing in the milling room, in front of the schematic diagram that represents the grist flow, the tour got off to a jovial start, as they immediately defended themselves against cries of ‘that’s not craft’ from one of the assembled writers (not me). “This is fundamental – it’s vital to get those fundamentals right,” replied Ross “There’s nothing to be gained from crafting at this stage.” I was wondering when that particular c-word would come up – right in the first room of the tour, as it happened, as we were still adjusting our fetching red reinforced safety caps.
As a brewery, Caledonian don’t have a hugely hop-forward reputation – I don’t know (and didn’t ask) what they would consider themselves as. A session brewery? Despite this, they still use a huge amount of hops – mostly Styrian Goldings – but augmented with Fuggles, Super Styrian, WGV and Challenger. The sheer scale of their operation means they are one of the biggest hop users in the country – so are undoubtedly affected by market shortage. Even their flagship, Deuchars, has had the recipe amended on occasion, when one of the hops used in the mix ‘wasn’t performing’ – which, I imagine, would make for nervy Monday meeting.
The crowning glory of the Caley, the signature of the entire brewery, are these three burnished kettles. The last of their kind, it’s believed there are no working direct-fired open coppers like these anywhere else in the country (and very few globally, other than maybe in the odd museum). Each has a gas burner underneath, and roars the heat into the bronzed cauldron, creating a rolling boil the likes of which I’ve never seen before. Usually, the boil length is around 65 minutes before the hop addition, and although they don’t boil more than one of the coppers at once, most brews use at least two – the results being mixed in the fermenters.
Up a small staircase and over a gantry are the fermenters. It seems that all of the gantries at the Caledonian are see through, sturdy lattices of meshwork, not for the faint-hearted. There are fifteen open squares – yet another old-school touch – all of different sizes (from around 160-210bbl). It’s something of a juggling act, knowing which can take what amount when a brew has been completed – like a giant version of one of the puzzles involving transferring liquid into and out of three beakers. Huge amounts of Carbon Dioxide are created in the FV room, which has a low, arched, ceiling – so filters rip the air through, and a CO2 alarm stands by, blinking quietly.
Peeking through the viewing hatch into the copper, as the beer roils away. On our visit, they were brewing Newcastle Bombshell, a relatively new release for distribution in the States through Heineken US. The Caley brew all of the export specials for Newcastle (everything, it seems, other than the famous Newcastle Brown Ale, now produced in Tadcaster). Bombshell is apparently an ‘English style blonde ale’, to be bottled and kegged.
This is the copper hood, after use, streaked with stains following the completion of the boil. Sitting in the middle of the bowl-shaped cauldron, the hood points down and keeps the roaring liquid rolling back into the body of the copper. It’s fascinating to watch – and massively ironic when you realise that if it wasn’t for Vaux’s lack of money (the Sunderland-based brewery owned the Caley for most of the mid-twentieth century), these antiquated bits of kit would very probably have been ripped out and upgraded. As Vaux eventually sold the Caley on, the coppers remained, and are now the brewery’s unique feature.
Underneath each of the three coppers, are the furnaces. Ringed by bleached brickwork, the gas flames power the enormous coppers each time a boil is done. It’s not without risk – many traditional pieces of machinery come with some kind of peculiar quirk. The heat created draws the bricks in, sucking them very gradually away from the edge of the column. Back in 1994, one of the burners activated when there was no beer in the copper, causing a devastating fire that destroyed half of the brewery. Since rebuilt, the copper was replaced by the same company, still in business all those many decades later.
Edinburgh became a centre for brewing for several reasons – having a stable water source was one. The cluster of breweries around the Royal Mile and Holyrood benefited from water there – but the Caley had to sink a well to gain what was needed. Here it is, closed up since 1911 due to an early (pre-tabloid outrage) Health and Safety decree. The water is still there, under the iron lid – today, though, the Caledonian use water from the mains. The other reason why the brewery was built in Slateford (as well as the availability of land, I assume) was the railway. On the stairway down to the sample cellar is a fantastic black and white photograph of the old wooden barrels being loaded onto a steam engine, for transportation to parts south.
Spent hops slither out of the brewery into a skip. The spent malts are sent for animal feed, in that neat circle-of-life mentality that works into modern brewing. All of the brewery buildings are below the raised level of Slateford Road, and after going past on the bus for many years it’s going to be interesting to be able to pick out what the various buildings and pipework do, as my bus sails past on future commutes.
As a blogger and beer writer, I like to concentrate on the new – what’s happening in Scotland right at this moment, the new breweries opening, the latest Edinburgh pubs, bars and beer festivals. The Caley is undoubtedly a throwback – the oldest brewery in the city – for years it was the only brewery in the city. Due to their success over that time, they have grown to a size where, for example, producing small batch runs of something ‘craft’ is both impractical (the smallest run they can do is 60bbl) and implausible (owners Heineken may baulk at paying duty on something high-abv, for instance, which is why their Imperial Stout was brewed at 6.5%). But are they still a craft brewery? If you subscribe to the phrase (which I don’t, really), then they must be.
Having seen the operations first hand, it’s hugely impressive. Working with the old coppers and open squares, the Caledonian has that consistency to continue in the city-wide niche they have held for decades. I still, admittedly, struggle with Deuchars – it’s just not for me. But, it’s massively successful, and with S&N’s (and now Heineken’s) backing, will become even more popular south of the border. Despite being bought and sold several times, as they approach 150 years of operation, the Caley are still here – undoubtedly one of Scotland’s success stories.
Many thanks to Craig, Sue, Ross and all at the Caledonian Brewery for the tour. The next stop on the Guild tour was Alva, and the Harviestoun Brewery – blog post up towards the end of the week