Now we’re past the summer solstice, the Edinburgh Festival looms large, just around the corner. But, before then, time has come for another of the city’s annual happenings; this year’s Natural Selection Brewing release is set to hit the shelves and bar counters. The project, involving a handful of students from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University, gives the assembled team a chance to design, produce, market and sell a beer – the whole process, from start to finish. The first iteration was four years ago, when four then-students created a beer called Finch. The following year, it was Anorak, last year Origin, and now – Mutiny on the Beagle, a 5.8% British-hopped IPA. I caught up with this year’s Natural Selection team, to find out how their involvement in the project came about, what the latest is before next week’s launch, and where they hope to end up, eventually, as a result…
So, what stage have you reached, at the moment?
Ben – “All the beer’s ready, conditioning in bottle and cask, for the launch on the 9th of July in the Summerhall courtyard, so we’re just trying to get people excited and get people there. Tickets are selling well. It’s a new thing for it to be a ticketed event, it makes it a bit more special, more of an occasion.”
Doug – “It’s quite nice, because originally we were supposed to finish the production a few days before the launch, but our dry-hopping schedule – sticking whole-leaf into the DPV – was something hardly anyone does. We came up with a system; we welded a chain-link into the top of the lid – a big chain, ten nylon bags – and weighted it down to the bottom for ten days. So to fit everything in we had to go two weeks earlier.”
Being the fourth version of Natural Selection Brewing – does that make it harder?
Doug – “Yeah, well I think it’s always going to be more restrictive that it was the previous years [because the options are narrowing]. I think Bruce did a cracking job with Origin, a saison was a great pick and right on-trend at the time. I think we made the right call going down the path we did. On the surface, it’s an IPA, but the more we looked into it, no-one is doing a British-hopped IPA. We emailed brewers and asked them what they were putting in their English IPA’s and they said ‘Summit and Amarillo’, y’know, we were going ‘well, that’s not quite what we had in mind’.”
In terms of sales, then – are people more open to you based on those previous years?
Craig – “Yeah, it’s done very well; we started doing the rounds on the 1st of April, I’d say about two-thirds of the people knew what the project was about, which was encouraging, that the project is making some headway. And then once they’d tasted the beer they were very happy with it, I started getting phone calls saying please, let’s get some in and that was pleasing. The markets outside Edinburgh are a bit different, originally we set out to get into St Andrews/Glasgow/Newcastle. Glasgow had a couple of bottle shops and pubs that had Origin on, but they were the only ones in the city, it turned out. Newcastle, it turns out, is up and coming, they have a huge scene down there. They didn’t know about the project but were keen to listen.”
So what are your roles within the team?
Jonny – “I’m marketing, labelling – so liaison with the artists – website, social media.”
Craig – “Sales, so I’m getting around the city.”
Doug – “Brewing. There’s an expectation to improve on previous years, so we’ve got a fair whack of beer coming out in July.”
Amaey – “Quality Control. Most of my job comes on the back end, so right now I’m in the lab at Uni.”
Ben – ” I do events, PR, communications. Having said that, everyone’s got involved in every aspect of the process. The whole nature of the project is to give us experience of putting a beer to market, and we’re all interested in seeing how each department worked.”
How was the selection process, to be a part of Natural Selection Brewing?
Ben – “Everyone on the course has to do a project, Natural Selection Brewing happens to be one of the project choices, however it’s a very popular one. The majority of the course put forward a CV and cover letter to apply for the project, as a job. We all had interviews off the back of that.”
Doug – “It was crazy. They wanted people who would make the time for this. We put in a lot of hours.”
Why did you decide on an IPA, and how did the final beer come about?
Craig – “It’s a much more accessible style. The people who know about beer know about different styles, but then you’ve got the other people going in who have no idea what a saison is, but people who haven’t heard of beer know their IPA.”
Doug – “It’s a beer drinkers beer, isn’t it? We always had the feeling that if we whacked in US or Australian hops into an IPA we’d be finished in two weeks. We had to really work on tweaking it to get it right. It was mainly all about the hops; we tweaked the malt bill a little later, once we’d established how the hops were working. We were getting all these nice orangey notes from the First Gold and Pilgrim, so we tweaked the malt bill to take advantage of that, then we got a developmental hop from England…”
Jonny – “…In April we hit a wall, we’d got 2 or 3 of the hops we liked, had some disasters with others, and we even thought ‘as there’s three of us from the UK, there’s two of us from America, maybe we would just do an Anglo-US Pale Ale, go down that route, chuck a bit of Amarillo in’…”
Doug – “…Yeah, so we nearly buckled, really.”
Jonny – “I tried Moors’ Empire Strikes Back, and really liked it. So I knew there was a hop out there we could use. Being picked for this project in December isn’t good in terms of hop choice. But I started emailing brewers and most got back saying ‘sorry’ until one came back saying they had a developmental hop, like Moor’s Jester, and they had some we can use. We got exactly what we needed.”
Do you think, at the end of the day, the actual final beer doesn’t really matter? Is it more about what you learn along the process?
Doug – “It matters to us!”
Amaey – “Yeah, making sixteen batches shows that we really pushed to make a good beer; it wasn’t just about selling the project on it’s own name, the beer was front and centre and then once that was there, everything could come around it.”
Jonny – “We were also aware that we could have easily done the same size batch [as last year’s group] and sold it to Edinburgh; we deliberately didn’t want people to say ‘the name has built up so it must be easy for you.’ We wanted to get a significant amount of beer in places other than Edinburgh.”
Do you feel a responsibility for next year’s project, in a way, to leave it in a good place and maintain the name of Natural Selection Brewing?
Craig – “I do, yeah. Especially because – going into pubs, I had my pitch – when people know about it, it was so much easier. Plus I think we are all concerned with making this project work, and making good beer; that’s why we’re at Heriot-Watt, after all.”
Jonny – “I drank my fair share of Origin last year. Some of the first quotes we got on Twitter were ‘I hope it’s as good as Origin’, so there was definite pressure.”
Ben – “It’s a great community. it feels like we’re representing the course. It’s an esteemed course, and if we made a terrible beer and terrible decisions, we’d end up besmirching their reputations!”
Finally, where does the future lie for you all? Where do you want to end up, personally?
Ben – “I want to be making beer; this is a constant debate in my own head. I’d like to work with another smaller brewery, getting hands-on day-in-day-out experience. Long plan; I’d like to be doing something of my own, whether that be a brewery or something within the food and drink industry, which I love.”
Amaey – “I’m looking at starting a couple of companies, hopefully one in the States and one in India; distilling in the States and using the knowledge gained about whisky for the Indian market, which is untouched in terms of Scotch. I never thought, never even considered, I’d want to do anything involving whisky before I came here.”
Doug – “I want to get some solid experience in a good brewery. We always find there’s a lot of bandwagon stuff with everyone opening a brewery, I feel you need to take the time to get the skills, and then go into it.”
Craig – “When I set out onto this path I was keen to get into the Scotch whiskey industry. I’m now interested in flavour development, sensory analysis. I’d like to get into the production side, building up my experience, learning about the kind of things people want in beer and whisky and the kind of things they don’t want, and then get to blending stage in the future.”
Jonny – “The end-game is always to work in a small brewery and gain some experience, then maybe move back to Northern Ireland and open something if the market goes that way. If things go halfway well working with a brewery, I’d be happy to carry on. The market knows what it’s talking about now, it’s not the case where you can just flog crap to people.”