Good vs Bad: Scottish Breweries

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I speak to a lot of new breweries; even now as I’m finding less time to blog because of the day job, I am contacted by upcoming producers almost on a weekly basis. And it’s great; it shows that more and more people are wanting to get into the brewing industry, and for us as consumers we will gain evermore beers to try, wider interpretations of styles and more variety in dispense methods. Being a ‘pint is half full’ kind of person I usually focus on the aspects of breweries that I feel are working well – or breweries themselves that I’m really appreciating. After all, my interest in beer drives this blog so I’m not likely to plough through dozens of beers from a producer until I find one I like, just so I can write about it. But then neither am I going to rip into a beermaker unless they have done something entirely heinous to deserve it.

But this tweet I saw yesterday made me step back a bit and think whether or not I agreed with it.

The first thing to say is that, of course, this is all subjective. Well – up to a point. You can define ‘bad’ however you like in a wider context, but an important distinction to make here is than Iain is a brewer, and his comment relates to the technical skill of the breweries themselves. There are a handful of breweries whose beer I really do not like, but I wouldn’t classify them as a bad brewery. That’s simply personal preference. Likewise, you can’t equate ‘bad’ with ‘new’; people are learning the ropes and have to be given some degree of slack. Now I know this is an entirely separate argument – either you believe this like I do or you think someone professionally creating a product should get it right first time or not let the public near their product otherwise, but often it’s not as black or white as that.

There’s one extremely up to the minute Scottish brewery who I really didn’t like their early beers. At all. Would I say they were ‘bad’ in the sense Iain tweeted? Yes, I probably would. Now though, they are one of the favoured beermakers of the moment in the country. It’s a natural progression. But we’re not assuming here that the pigeon-holing is static – breweries classed as ‘bad’ can get better. Indeed they have to, otherwise they are going to lose money and disappear very quickly. At least, so you would think. Anyway, so if ‘bad’ can’t be seen to be an equivalent of ‘new’ or ‘what I like’ – how can we quantify it? How bad does a bad brewery have to be? One duff pint? Three consecutive bad releases? Massive inherent bacterial spoilage of all tanks?

Well, let’s have a go. Iain went on in another tweet to say there are ‘maybe 10 good breweries in Scotland’ – let’s crunch the numbers and see if I agree…

According to my magic spreadsheet, there are currently 109 breweries in the country (a figure that includes production facilities, brewpubs and contract breweries). A scan of the list reveals 42 of those breweries from whom I have never tried a beer – or if I have, it was just the one and so long ago I can’t judge their standard. That’s a fairly amazing number, way way higher than I would have thought. And many of those are the smaller, newer microbreweries that Iain was probably referring to in his tweet. Almost 40% of Scottish breweries have not passed my lips – a number symbolic of both the recent boom in the industry here, and also the reducing amount of time I have to partake of their products!

So if we filter the remaining 67 breweries into four different categories, let’s see how they fall. Firstly, we have GOOD breweries. These are those from whom I have never had a bad pint, or since their grace period have grown into standout producers in Scotland. And that number for me is higher than 10, at 32. From new trusted small micros to industrial giants, these are the ones I feel truly confident in. Just under half of the total of breweries I am familiar with, then – but maybe I do grade above the mean, who’s to say? Next up are what I’ve classed (for want of a better phrase) as DULL – largely the long-established, mid-size producers who brew well, but don’t excite me. There are 10 of these.

Then there are the 15 breweries who sit on the fence. As PASSABLE beermakers they haven’t won me over yet – either they are in that new period where I’m still waiting for a true standout, or over the years I’ve had the odd beer that just didn’t work. Either way, these are pump clips or bottles that I approach with caution. And so, right at the end, that leaves those who I believe to be BAD. Breweries who are consistently poor (in my eyes) and make beer that is just unpleasant to drink. And that number is 10. So 15% of the breweries I am familiar with, and 9% of Scottish breweries as a whole, in this far-from-scientific study. And to counter Iain’s point that there are more bad breweries in Scotland than good (we will have to compare lists sometime); I would say there are three times as many good breweries as bad…



It’s an interesting exercise- but one in which you need to be reasonably careful – even with all the rough working and subjective descriptions of terms in inverted commas. If you have a few beers that are objectively bad from a brewery – i.e. infected, or overly brewed and imbalanced, or not befitting the style then that’s an easier way to put those breweries on the ‘bad’ pile. But for that you’d have to drink as many releases as you could from each – and persevere with a brewery that falls down, repeatedly. But then what about the variation introduced by storage, contract bottling, micro-canning and the biggest of all – cellarship? Can you quantify this with so many variables? Well, no, not really. But it at least results in a list of breweries to veer towards, and a list to veer away from…

7 thoughts on “Good vs Bad: Scottish Breweries”

  1. Steve — genuinely curious: have you ever not tried a beer because you read somewhere it was terrible?

    I guess if you’ve got a choice between one you’ve heard is good and one that’s meant to stink, it might make a difference, but wouldn’t most beer geeks want to find out for themselves?

  2. One question that springs to mind is whether these stats are in any way shameful or just par for the course?….maybe both. Without looking too much in to it, when I think about England as an example, I’d say the number of great breweries that I’d seek out vs the number of breweries that there are in England, is probably in line with Scotland. I’d say there’s an abundance of mediocrity out there across the board. Plenty of garbage in Belgium, plenty in America. Without being in a position to have sampled a fair amount of beers from a fair amount of breweries, I couldn’t say for sure if our stats are any worse or much worse than in other countries. I think that when we think about the beer from another country, it’s usually the best of what that country has to offer that springs to mind. It’s easy to forget about Mongozo in a country that brings us 3 Fonteinen, or Figueroa in a state that sends us Stone and Firestone Walker. How many breweries are there in New York and how many of them are what we’d consider good? I’ve rambled on and I think I’ve lost sight of the point I was trying to make. I think what I’m saying is that at face value this stat seems to put Scottish beer in a poor light when in actual fact we’re doing alright or maybe I’m saying that everywhere is rubbish too πŸ™‚

  3. I agree that no one ever actually says “microbrewed beer is automatically better”, but I also think that people have an overly rosey picture of the state of beer in the UK. I remember a prominent blogger a while ago writing an amusingly Panglossian post, roughly to the effect that beer couldn’t get any better than it is now in the UK.

    I think it’s fair to say that English beer is a lot better than Scottish beer. London has more good craft breweries than the whole of Scotland, for example, and no one in Scotland is even in the same league as The Kernel.

    Then there are the regional, more traditional, breweries in England, which don’t currently have equivalents in Scotland (please no one suggest Caledonian). Breweries like Harvey’s and Fuller’s, to name just two, make fantastic, distinctive stuff with their own house cultures. I can’t think of a good brewery like that in Scotland.

    I love a pint of cask ale from Fyne and some others, but (with one or two exceptions) I don’t really drink bottled or kegged Scottish beer, because I find it, at best, decent but uninteresting, and at worst, technically-flawed and ill-conceived. Most of it seems to me either hoppy pale ales that aren’t as good as those I can get from other breweries, like The Kernel, or even good home brew, or beers from brewers who realise they can’t distinguish their products by their quality and instead try to do it with stupid ingredients. So they’ll make an incompetently-soured beer with some obscure berry in it, or a cheesecake stout, or a bloody cabbage and bacon saison or something. Yawn.

    There are also a depressing number of breweries, often well-established ones, releasing beers with obvious flaws, like diacetyl, or DMS, or acetaldehyde. If you’re serious about producing the best beer you can, there’s just no excuse for that.

    I’d love to see some new craft breweries open in Scotland, run by experienced, talented brewers, with great palates, intent on focussing on one or two styles of beer, with straightforward ingredients, and trying to make them the best examples in the world (e.g. doing only pale ales and using sufficient quantities of hops, fermenting properly, nailing down proper dry-hopping techniques, refusing to filter and pasteurise, and so on). Preferably with house yeast cultures.

    Until then, if you have a wide selection of beers at hand, and you want to drink the best, most interesting beers available, I think there are, at best, a small handful of brewers from Scotland whose beers you’d consider drinking. You’re much more likely to want something from Belgium, England, Germany, or the U.S. (though I’d probably want less of the last one than most).

  4. “I think it’s fair to say that English beer is a lot better than Scottish beer. London has more good craft breweries than the whole of Scotland, for example,”

    Population of England: 53 million
    Population of London: 8.5 million
    Population of Scotland: 5.3 million

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