Edinburgh is a city built on its traditions of brewing, and yet new institutions are added to the roster all the time. For example, one of the newer of these additions is celebrating its fifth anniversary this very week. It was that long ago that the collaboration project between the Institute of Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University and Stewart Brewing first began, and it has been marked in customary fashion by the release of the latest Natural Selection Brewing beer. Last night at the New Amphion room of the University of Edinburgh the latest team of NSB’ers unveiled the fruits of their labours – Bitter Descent, a 5.1% ESB brewed with American hops.
If you’re unfamiliar with the project the IBD degree course offers to its students, Natural Selection gives them the chance to develop a beer – and brand – from scratch, covering all aspects of the process. They design, trial, brew, market and then sell their beer, gaining crucial insight into the whole panoply of related careers that they will hopefully go on to enjoy. And that certainly is one of the more regular outcomes – previous Natural Selection Brewing alums are working at a number of UK and North American breweries now; testament to the project and how much it gives to those who get on board. And that’s no done deal – a high percentage of the IBD students apply to be involved, understandably – particularly now the scheme has been so well received.
This year, the four students who got the chance are Reade Huddleston (Brewing), Sarah Brown (Project Co-ordinator), Sam Fleet (Marketing) and Richard Hamer (Sales). I managed to sit down with them about half an hour before the official launch of Bitter Descent. Whilst posters were still being tacked to walls and the band were soundchecking, we spent a while chatting through the genesis of the beer. After running a number of trials for different styles, they settled on an Extra Special Bitter – the style that has grown out of British Best Bitters and has taken on a new prominence in North America. Reade – who is from Texas – elaborated; “ESB is one of the most quintessential balanced styles. Bitters are not something I got into, but Extra Special Bitters I really got into. That’s probably an American thing – everything has to be extra special! So as we’re in summer, we wanted a balanced beer but also something that speaks to my American heritage and yet is accessible to the UK public.”
They were at pains to develop a beer that worked on both keg and cask – and for the first time in the five-year history of the Natural Selection Brewing Project, it has also been bottled and canned. So four different dispense methods to choose from. Having tried both draught formats, the cask is understandably softer and more lightly floral, whereas the keg version had the bitterness level raised by the carbonation – although as expected neither overwhelmed the palate. The team were after a balanced, drinkable beer for summer – and that is exactly what they have achieved.
A series of events have been planned for Bitter Descent – of which 10,000 litres has been produced, and all of it sold. As Richard said; “One of the things I really wanted to do was target new markets. It’s very big in Edinburgh but we want to keep that focus and get it out to new markets. We sold out last week, so we now have nothing left. It’s been great fun, talking to people about your beer. It’s an awesome feeling, it really is.”
What possibly wasn’t fun was the required twenty-two hour bottling shift. Also, the 9am delivery run this morning following the launch last night, which was scheduled to end at 3am (a time I long ago pushed beyond the limits of my bedtime). From what I hear the beer was really well received – but, as I always say, at the end of the day the final beer really isn’t the most important thing. Of course they want it to turn out well, and it’s a nerve-wracking time – but the lessons and experience learned along the way will count for far more down the line.
And that is why the Natural Selection Brewing project is truly invaluable, and something I hope continues for a long time to come.
Natural Selection Brewing Bitter Descent will be available for tasting in all Edinburgh Vino Wines and branches of Oddbins (the latter beginning today), as well as appearing on draught in several city pubs. They are also planning events in London, Glasgow and Aberdeen – for details on all these events, check out their Twitter Feed.