Category Archives: Scottish Beer

Alechemy on the rise

Five years is a long time in brewing, and 2012 seems like an age ago. 86 breweries have opened in Scotland since, and the competition has increased dramatically as more people wake up to the idea of locally made beer (craft or otherwise). For those who have been in play for half a decade or so and want to move to the next level, these are potentially tricky times. But for one in particular, this week just got a whole lot more exciting. As we speak Alechemy are initiating the first test batches at a new brewery location, a mile from their previous home in Livingston. Thanks to investment from Glasgow-based Catalyst Drinks, the brewery founded by James Davies has taken that next step in a big way – and they are about to strike out for the craft beer trifecta – volume, cans and bars.

Its’ fantastic news for James and the team – Alechemy have always brewed great beers but to me the problem has been getting their names out there and then being able to increase production as a result. The move has brought with it five new vessels and more on order, with those set to arrive in the summer increasing capacity to an even greater extent. The new site is almost double the size of the previous one, giving the brewery more room to breathe and then expand into over time (their new unit is 6,000 square feet) and as the enlarged brewhouse comes on line the existing 12BBL kit can work overtime to fill the tanks and in turn, their order sheets.

The second part of that trifecta addressed by Catalyst’s input is the adoption of canning, with the investment being used to install a canning line in the new space (with a kegging line added as well). I get the sense that this isn’t the modern-day Damascene conversion as it is for other brewers (like Fallen, for instance) and more a testing of the waters – I spoke to James over email for this post and he told me that Alechemy will still be contract bottling for now – at Carmichael Mobile Bottling in Loanhead – and whilst the cans will serve the domestic craft beer market it seems likely that exports will continue to be sent overseas in glass rather than aluminium.

Covering all the bases is the best way to make things like this work which is why the final titbit that came out recently is so interesting. James confirmed that Alechemy are in the final stages of opening a craft beer bar in Glasgow’s Merchant City (it was originally planned for the end of next month but is now likely to open in the summer). Once you open a bar, things definitely change – it focuses the attention of production, gives your brewery a place to hold events and acts as the outward face of your entire company. It’s no small matter, but the key to this decision is not just the investment that has arrived but who it is that has provided it.

The Directors of Catalyst have years of experience in the hospitality industry, with other irons in their fire being a small chain of boutique hotels and a similar crossover with Drygate – plus a connection to the Fuller Thomson bars in Edinburgh and Dundee. I expect the Alechemy Bar to be very much along the lines of the last of these, which is great news for the drinkers of Glasgow (the site will be very near to BrewDog’s Merchant City site). I’m guessing if it does well there may be others in the pipeline for fellow beer fans towards the east of the country as well.

Having known the guys at Alechemy since they launched it’s fantastic to hear that this expansion has come to fruition. Whether part of an official Five Year Plan sitting in James’s desk drawer or not, working hard for half a decade and then taking that next step is perfect timing. Alechemy will be changing up their beers and branding, gaining new footholds and then showcasing what they can do in their own city-centre bar. That’s what investment can do, and it’s a brilliant thing to see for everyone who has enjoyed their beers to date.

Campervan Brewery on the Move

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the sea-change that took place in Scottish brewing during the course of 2016 – the flood of new brewery openings (35) being underpinned by the ever-increasing emergence of nano- and contract breweries. This smallness of scale and the inherent agility it provides makes it much easier to bring your wares to the market as it requires far lower overheads – but with the caveat that it won’t turnover a huge amount either. Those that make their peace with that fact can get their beers out there faster than ever before, without the age-old problem of scraping together capital to construct their own large-scale production brewery.

It’s an interesting shift, and one that maybe business or brewing students of the future may well look back on – depending on how things shake out. When they do, I think they could do far worse than look to one Edinburgh brewery in particular as a case study. Paul Gibson at Campervan Brewery has a unique story but one that fits into a narrative that will become increasingly familiar. Paul announced a couple of weeks ago that he has commissioned a 10BBL production brewery that is currently being installed on Bonnington Road in Edinburgh. This is one heck of a jump from the beginnings of Campervan – and yet, in feeling there was no alternative the move is the perfect model to take a closer look at.

Despite his beers being on the market for just shy of two years, Paul’s brewery has gone through several stages that chart the classic rise of a small-scale brewer and the moment when the Very Big Decision needs to be taken. The whole pathway revolves around economies of scale, and as I see it has run something like this:-

– Start Small (live within your means)
– Develop a USP (in Paul’s case – the amazing 1973 Type 2 Volkswagen)
– Grow and increase awareness
– Reach Ceiling 1 and contract-brew
– Have concerns about contracting
– Want to regain control of the process
– Reach Ceiling 2 and the Very Big Decision

Which is Paul’s case, resulted in this…

It is fantastic news too – that moment where the realisation strikes that in order to continue you either need to be satisfied with what you have or roll the dice must be terrifying and liberating at the same time – even for someone with the inbuilt liberation of being able to brew anywhere you like from the Campervan. But the difficulty of keeping up with demand from a mobile and garage-based 50L Brewmeister kit is obvious – Paul’s talent at brewing meant he reached the first ceiling extremely quickly and had to look to other facilities to create enough Campervan beer to fulfil orders and maintain the buzz about this new arrival on the scene. Trouble is, brewers are by nature perfectionists and control-freaks, so working in someone else’s kitchen doesn’t make for a satisfied chef.

Paul’s original plan was to ‘gypsy brew’ in this way for three years, to supply the order sheets and keep his beers on the shelves and bar counters whilst working on smaller-batch stuff from his garage kit in north-western Edinburgh. But he’s taken the jump already, prompted by the restrictions of not having total control and being unable to scale up the recipes as planned – a major strike against those contemplating contract brewing their beloved and much-honed recipes. When the time comes to produce far greater batch sizes, it takes a great deal of finagling to get everything working and tasting the same. So it was time to reach for the chequebook.

The new unit for Campervan is 2,500 square feet and sits just off Bonnington Road (a stone’s throw from Pilot Beer, as it happens). The 10BBL kit will be supported by two fermenters and a single conditioning tank, but with room to expand. When installed and operational within a month or so, expect to see more of Paul’s beer – and new ones at that – arrive very soon afterwards. It’s great to see someone taking the plunge in this way, even before they had planned to do so, and the new home for Campervan and the way in which they played out their first couple of years could well act as a dossier to how breweries evolve, for future students of the industry…

2016 – The Year Scottish Brewing Changed Forever

Last year was quite the twelve months for Scottish beer. Now that we’re almost nearing the end of the first month of 2017, the few weeks of looking back should probably end and the attentions turn to what is actually going to happen this year, in the now. But before all that, there’s one last chance to throw a glance into the rearview mirror and run some of the numbers for what actually happened in 2016 with regard to one of the key metrics in the industry – brewery openings and closures. That’s because I think 2016 will go down as the year that the brewing industry changed forever.

The long and the short of it? 2016 was a record year in modern times for both breweries opening and breweries closing.

But it’s the kind of producer that appeared with increased regularity in 2016 that really made it a keystone year. I keep a spreadsheet of brewers north of the border, with detail on when they opened (no, come back!) – it’s not 100% accurate but there are a few other sites who do amazing work on following this wave of new beermakers appearing in Scotland. The guys at Stravaiging and Brewed in Scotland – plus the regional CAMRA branches – have their noses to the ground much more than I do. Linking it all up and the comings and goings look quite amazing:- *

(* These numbers may be missing the odd brewery here and there, it’s not meant to be completionist)

    Breweries Opening in Scotland (by year)(since 2010)

    2010 – 6
    2011 – 10
    2012 – 15
    2013 – 9
    2014 – 22
    2015 – 20
    2016 – 35

I remember back in 2012 when those 15 new breweries appeared on the scene, thinking it was quite an astonishing figure. And now here we are four years on and that figure for twelve months has been doubled. At the end of 2016 we rounded out at 145 breweries in Scotland, a number not seen for many, many decades – centuries I guess. There are plenty of more qualified brewing historians who can place that figure into context. Anyway, here’s a list of the 35 new producers who started out life last year – and maybe in this list of names you’ll spot both the major caveat with these figures and the two reasons why I think 2016 will go down as being significant in Scottish brewing…

71 Brewing (Dundee), 7Brewing (Banchory), Abertyne Brewery (Abertyne), Angus & Oink Guerilla Brewing (Aberdeen), Appellation Wines (Edinburgh), Balnamoon Malt and Brewery (Keith), Beath Brewing (Cowdenbeath), Bellfield Brewery (Edinburgh), Brew Shed (Limekilns), Brewgooder (Edinburgh), Clan Brewing Co (Glasgow), Cross Borders Brewing Company (Dalkeith), Dalrannoch Brewing Co (Meikleour), Dead End Brew Machine (Glasgow), Exiled Brewers (Edinburgh), Eyeball Brewing (Cockenzie), Ferry Brewery (South Queensferry), Flavourly (Leith), Galloway Lights Brewing (Dumfries), Gallus Brewing (Glasgow), Good Spirits Co (Glasgow), Grunting Growler (Glasgow), Hawkhill Brewery (Dundee), Hurly Burly Brewery (Musselburgh), Hybrid Brewing (Grangemouth), Inner Bay Brewery (Inverkeithing), John O’Groats Brewery (John O’Groats), Out of Town Brewing (Cumbernauld), Park Brew (Brechin), Redcastle Brewery (Arbroath), Shilling Brewing Company (Glasgow), Stow Brewery (Stow), Strathcarron Brewery (Strathcarron), Two Thirsty Men (Grantown-on-Spey), Up Front Brewing Co (Glasgow).

So here’s the caveat – as you may have spotted with names like Appellation Wines and Flavourly, that list of 35 (and all the figures so far) contain contract breweries as well as those with their own mash tun and brewes’ wellies. If you remove the pay to play beermakers from the numbers, the brewery openings by year looks like this:-

    Production Breweries/Brewpubs Opening in Scotland (by year)(since 2010)

    2010 – 6
    2011 – 9
    2012 – 12
    2013 – 9
    2014 – 16
    2015 – 17
    2016 – 24

And the overall number operating today would shift from 145 ‘breweries’ to 120. You can argue which of these is more representative – for me I think the higher of the two is – and that’s down to the way the beer industry is heading. Look, I even did a graph to illustrate it! Aside from a blip in 2009 the two lines of production breweries opening per year (in blue) and those that include contract brewers (red) are moving farther apart as they grow:

This is indicative of where we are right now – there are around 25 ‘breweries’ who don’t have their own facility in Scotland. At Christmas 2013 there were 5. Yet all have beers on shelves and pouring from taps across the country, so to sideline them isn’t taking into account the real situation, I think. Having looked at who and where these new contractees are, you only need to glance in one direction – Drygate in Glasgow. Their programme of helping out would-be brewers has been hugely successful – and in turn, massively influential. Half a dozen new contractees appeared from their conditioning tanks last year alone. They offer a great service for those with the desire, but not the capital, to own their own facility. And there also lies the second point about where the industry is going.

In 2016, of the new brewers who opened their own production facility – and please correct me if I’m wrong here – only 71 Brewing in Dundee opened a brewery north of 10BBL (I’m not sure the size of the Cross Borders kit in Dalkeith). You have to go back to Keith Brewery’s 12BBL kit that arose from the ashes of Brewmeister in 2015 as the last to top 10BBL – and before that, the last true large-scale brewery to open was Drygate themselves, with their 24HL kit in Glasgow back in 2014. Whether there are some I’ve missed or not – the second overall trend in the Scottish beer industry is small-scale. Picobreweries. Get your name, and your beer out there, even if it comes from your kitchen or garage.

I personally think this is great – if you can guarantee the quality of what you are putting out there (and that’s a big if) then the more the merrier. It’s not going to make you money, churning out a 1BBL kit and a few kegs here and there, but it’s a hobby made good so I’m all for it. Of course, with the increased numebr of new brewers appearing on the scene, even playing small instruments, there may end up being too many musicians for instruments. That’s a terrible analogy – what I’m trying to say is that 2016 was also a record year for the number of brewery closures in Scotland:-

    Brewery Closures in Scotland (by year)(since 2010)

    2010 – 3
    2011 – 1
    2012 – 1
    2013 – 1
    2014 – 0
    2015 – 4
    2016 – 11

There’s the rub. Over the course of last year we lost the following – and let me know if any of them are still going – Andrew Usher & Co (I believe the kit has been removed), Ale House Rock Brewery, Bottle Cap Bar and Brewery, Carbon Smith Brewing, Beeches Brewery, Discovery Ales, Loch Ness Brewing Co, Argyll Breweries Ltd, Madcap Brewery, Houston Brewing Co, Fyfe Brewing Co, Abbot Brew House.

Some of them ceased for more positive reasons than others – Carbon Smith relocated to Manchester, John Reade left Abbot Brew House when it closed to the public, but has another venture that has just started. But more than a few of the names in that list went into liquidation or were brewpubs whose premises closed. Is this something that is going to become more prominent as we go on? Only time will tell.

The upshot of all this is that there has never been more choice for us as beer drinkers in living memory. But for those who start out their brewing careers, it can be tough to get a foothold. Maybe that explains the rise of contract brewing, as more and more would-be breweries start out that way before they can scale up to owning their own kit. And when they get there, how many of their fellow brewers will still be around?

Luckie Ales: Journey’s End and New Beginnings

One of the common themes in brewing is that of companies changing hands – in the modern era the attention is on smaller breweries acquired by larger players to be subsumed into a craft (fake or otherwise) empire. It’s a modern way of thinking, but mergers and takeovers have always happened of course – back in the 1840’s Scotland had a whopping 280 breweries – as opposed to around 130 today. Changing tastes, wars and the temperance movement did for some – but many were bought out and closed down. If you had to jot down a list of exit points for brewers, being bought out is right up there. But there are others of course.

The brewer could be the one who decides to pull the plug and sell. Ill health or personal reasons may intervene. The business could go belly up. Aside from the the first one the connection between many is that it’s not a pleasant end for a brewery that has maybe been trading for decades. Interviewing recently-freed brewers isn’t something I have done very much of, so I don’t know the anecdotes told about how many end up leaving on their own terms. These days with the news headlines in the brewing press it seems like either they leave when it falls apart, or drive away in their new Lamborghini (licence plate: B1G B33R).

But there is one exit strategy that comes around on the brewers’ wheel of life every now and again – one that hopefully we all will get to experience. Simple retirement. There’s probably a joke that old brewers never retire, but just last year one of Scotland’s finest did that, as Stuart McLuckie pulled down the shutters on Luckie Ales for the last time. Like much of what Stuart did, this was done quietly and without fuss, and rather than have the Luckie name hit that dead end like many others, he instead sold everything – including his recipes – so that the brewery could continue.

Stuart started out brewing as Luckie Ales in 2008 on a farm in central Fife, before taking up a small unit in the outbuildings of a crumbling distillery in Markinch. Brewing once or twice a week on a 1BBL kit, he drove the beers to local bottle shops himself. Brewing is a tough business, particularly on that scale – you have to do everything yourself; brewing and cleaning, the company stuff, the sales and the deliveries and returns (if you ever tried one of his cask ales at the Hanging Bat you’ll know his journey was worth it). I caught up with Stuart via email to find out why he had decided to call time.

“I wish I had started brewing 10 years earlier,” Stuart told me. “I would have been able to sell a five barrel brewery by now and had a few employees to do the grunt work. As it is I’ll carry on home-brewing – there are a lot of old ales to brew, especially the stronger ones needing a year+ to age, something that is commercially not yet viable. It’s a bit strange not brewing any more so I’ll need to get the garage decluttered and start brewing mini homebrew batches as there’s lots of styles – oak aged, Brett and old ales – that I would like to explore.”

I got the sense that the business had become too commercial for Stuart, which given the size is saying something. I guess the only regret he had is that he hadn’t got out of the gates earlier when the brewing scene was really in its infancy – starting out in 1998 would have given him more momentum, and got the 1BBL stage out of the way much earlier. I wish him all the best, and if his experiments with Brettanomyces come to fruition I will beat a path to his garage door.

Anyway, all Luckie Ales beers are now produced by Martin Doherty, ex-of Knops Beer, in an industrial unit in Leven, about ten miles down the road from the old distillery in Markinch. Like Stuart, he started out as a keen homebrewer and then left a career to pursue this with more regularity. After graduating from the Heriot-Watt Masters’ degree course in brewing and distilling that has become industry standard, he worked with Bob Knops for a year, before leaving to set up his own brewery in Fife. However when he saw Stuart wanting to retire, he stepped in.

“My intention for Luckie Ales is to follow a similar path to Stuart,” he told me, via email. “So brewing traditional and historic beer styles / recipes, whilst gradually introducing my own ideas. I have fairly traditional tastes myself, and I particularly love the malt (and yeast) profile of many of the existing Luckie beers – has been a treat getting access to Stuart’s recipe secrets. I want to build on this base and experiment to create some new recipes, perhaps with some more adventurous hopping to create some (hopefully) great beer.”

So the future looks in safe hands for Luckie – and equally importantly – for Stuart’s creations. After all, another way brewers used to exit the business was to hand it down to the next generation – with Luckie although the brewery was sold to a new brewer, it seems as if all the house secrets will thankfully pass on with it.

Breweries to watch out for in 2017

Here we are, staring bleary-eyed at another year having rolled around. 2016 saw lean times on the BeerCast in terms of writing, but there was more than ever going on in the world of brewing in the UK. As this is now the tenth year I have been writing about beer, that is more than reason to fire up the presses once again.

Time to kick things off in the traditional manner by taking a look ahead at some producers in England and Scotland to keep an eye on throughout the course of 2017. I’ve done this every year since 2012 and you can have a look at previous predictions here; 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012).

As ever, these are a few breweries who have interesting stories to keep an eye on and see how they progress – I’ll post a follow-up midway through the year to chart their progress…



SCOTLAND

Williams Bros – My overall pick to watch for Scotland would be the Brotherhood from Alloa. Williams Bros announced yesterday morning a planned expansion that’s short on concrete detail but includes a scaling up described as ‘radical’ and an overall aim of providing a bespoke packaging service for small-scale brewers looking to begin exporting. Williams Bros embraced canning last year, and waters thus tested they could carve themselves another niche pairing other can-curious breweries with exporters such as the Craft Beer Clan of Scotland (with whom they have an existing barrel-ageing programme). It’s barely two years since WB last expanded (to the tune of £1m); the fact that they are looking to re-up in 2017 is fascinating.

 

 

Bellfield Brewery – One of the increasing trends to follow over the course of the year could be ‘specialist’ breweries. The way the market is going, having a point of difference that works can boost producers into public consciousness way above (and irrespective of) the size of their business. Take Bellfield – Scotland’s first exclusively gluten-free brewery. The end of last year saw the Edinburgh producers secure their first UK-wide listing, charting a rapid increase in scope that their planned bespoke brewhouse will be able to supply. If this comes online and more beers are added to the portfolio (of existing Pils and US IPA) then look for both co-founders to use their media backgrounds to truly make Bellfield known up and down the country.

 

 

Fierce Beer – You may well have heard of Fierce Beer, but if you haven’t then chances are 2017 is the year in which you will. They blew onto the scene last year in a way not seen for a while – since the first brew in May, ex-oilworker homebrewers Dave Grant and David McHardy ratcheted everything up almost immediately. Within three months they had secured investment to expand into a brewhouse in Dyce, created a core line-up of ten different beers and launched into London by taking over the Rake in Borough Market. One of the great things about the industry at the moment is that brewers can create ranges with peanut/raspberry/habanero and it is in no way a gimmick. Fierce by name, Fierce by nature – look out, 2017.

 

 

Fyne Ales – One nugget that slipped out unnoticed towards the end of last year was the fact that the champions of Argyll had started a programme of spontaneous fermentation. Having obtained seven French wine casks a very special beer was encased within and is apparently going to remain there for at least two years. But instead of adding Fyne Ales to the 2019 brewers to watch list, they probably deserve keeping tabs on much sooner than that – their barrel-ageing programme is set to reveal all kinds of treasures (if you like Imperial Stouts, for instance) and when coupled with the fact that 2017 is the fifteenth anniversary of their first full year of brewing, expect one of the best breweries in the UK to get even better.

 

 

Dead End Brew Machine – Speaking of Fyne Ales, their sponsorship of the 2012 IBD Scottish Homebrew Competition resulted in Zombier, a porter created by Jake Griffin and Chris Lewis. Both now have microbreweries of their own, and to be honest either could be in this list. Jake’s Up Front had an amazing year last year – I can only hope that Chris’s concern has a similarly breakout twelve months. From debuting a passion fruit IPA (Dead One) in March, Chris brewed at a series of different places with every single result being outstanding. Glasgow has seen a surge of brewing talent arrive over the last year or so, which is fantastic to see. If Chris gets more brewdays in the bank over the next few months, be sure and track down anything he comes up with.





ENGLAND/WALES

Harbour – Moving into England, we start with Harbour Brewing Company. This time last year Eddie Lofthouse and his team were brewing on a 10BBL kit and pondering a few changes. That resulted in a new 30BBL kit, a new canning line and a new head brewer in Stuart Howe. A year of consolidation is far from on the cards however as they are soon to rip out that canning line for a larger one (a sure sign that aluminium is back and here to stay) and are planning on building an entirely new warehouse to free space for an enlarged brewery. Their second expansion in two years will see Harbour replacing almost their entire core line-up and refreshing the packaging to boot. So no signs of slowing down in Cornwall…
 

 

Camden Town – It’s just over a year since AB-InBev wrote the biggest cheque to be seen in British brewing for quite a while – the around £85m to buy Camden Town Brewery. Since then the packaging has been tweaked, fellow subsumers Elysian flew over for a collab (their shared AB-InBev parentage not making this ‘did you know?’ blog post), and new beers were released. Oh, and a colossal new brewery constructed in Enfield. Come the spring, the facility will be open and from then on it will be fascinating to see where Camden Town (and their beers) end up, both figuratively and literally. Only time will tell – but a lot of eyes will be turned to North London in the meantime…

 

 

Elusive – Andy Parker was on this list last year, and he’s going on it again. Back then it was down to the strength of his collaborations and the prospect of the upcoming brewery build in Finchampstead. Now, it’s because his brewery is complete and he has started production. Like Chris Lewis, I’m not quite sure Andy knows just how brilliant he is as a brewer (even with the homebrewing awards) – although a glance at a few Golden Pints roundups from across the beer writing world would make that immediately obvious. Andy is now advertising for a part-time brewer to join the team, and with more new beers hitting the shelves than ever, I’m genuinely excited to see where the next year is going to take him.

 

 

Lines Brew Co – Moving into Wales, the sudden demise of Celt Experience under Tom Newman was a real shame – but thankfully he bounced back pretty quickly with a new brewery specialising in Farmhouse Ales and with no beer brewed more than once. All of these things make Lines Brew Co worth watching, and their base in Caerphilly will undoubtedly be home to all manner of fascinating experiments in brewing, ageing and harnessing of the mighty yeast. With beers already out, expect word to similarly escape in 2017 about this particular Welsh brewery – certainly if the standard of beers they brought to IndyMan back in October are anything to go by…

 

 

Cloudwater – Finally, we have Cloudwater. They were the number 1 English brewery to watch on this list last year, and (although an easy pick) certainly came through to justify it. I wasn’t going to include them for 2017 – they are off on that upward curve already – but a few days ago the announcement was made that they are ceasing cask production and will be focusing on keg and bottle/can, with cans then taking a higher percentage of their beer. This is going to be one of the stories of the year to follow, as evidenced by the staggering outpouring of beer blogs that resulted. Have a read of the best of them here, here and here and then make a mental note to check back a few months from now to see if Cloudwater’s decision was a positive or negative for the industry.



And the place you can check back is right here, around June/July when I’ll be revisiting all of these stories to see how each of the ten breweries are faring. Let me know in the comments below if there are any other breweries who will have breakout years in 2017 or will have stories to follow!

Keith Brewery – moving on from Brewmeister

KeithBeers_1

Back in the autumn of 2012 I put together a blog post about the latest Scottish brewery I’d heard of at the time, a new operation from the tiny Deeside village of Kincardine O’Neil. That year was when the floodgates well and truly opened for brewing north of the border – fifteen new producers mashed in for the first time during 2012, a number far above anything in recent memory of the time (a number subsequently beaten only two years later, when seventeen breweries opened). The 2012 alumni stretched from Alechemy to Windswept, but that particular blog post was about Brewmeister, a two-man concern with one eye on German beers and the other on breaking a record guaranteed to get people talking – the BrewDog/Schorschbräu spat over the strongest beer in the world. Armageddon was to be Brewmeister’s entrant, and 65% the abv. The introductory post I wrote ended with the following casually flippant sentence…

They may not have the PR-power of the duo from Fraserburgh, but you’ll certainly be hearing their name mentioned very soon, it seems…

All these years later, their brewery name is still mentioned – so I guess the tactic worked, for what it’s worth. From coverage in the Sun and Huffington Post to the articles I wrote still sitting at or near the top of my page views, even now. But towards the end of last year, Brewmeister quietly changed hands, as the original co-founders were replaced by a group of venture capitalists from Tayside, the Discovery Investment Fund (who count amongst their investment members the former chairman of Dundee United and the current owner of Heart of Midlothian FC). Very quickly after that, the brewery was re-branded as Keith Brewery, and relaunched back into the Scottish market. I was cordially offered a meeting with their COO Andrew Chapman, and after telling as many people as possible where I was going in case it was an elaborate trap, I spent a couple of hours chatting to the affable Andrew about how Keith are planning to be different.

And they are – at least on one side of the coin. After a swiftly decisive and – I’ve got to say – very neat change of look, the Keith Brewery not only have moved down a very different path to the previous incarnation, but their beers certainly stand out on the shelves as well. Created by Leith’s Threebrand agency, the labels are up for a packaging design award at the Drum Roses Creative Awards (to be decided upon next week). It’s a far cry from Brewmeister Neon Blonde, that’s for sure. All Keith Brewery’s eggs are in this well-received basket, as they pulled keg beer from the lineup soon after taking over – although it might well appear back on the roster at some point in the future. Until then, it’s bottles all the way.

So how do they taste? Well, even during the depths of the Brewmeister goings-on, I thought the beers were improving (albeit from a very, very low baseline). Head Brewer Tony Kotronis was retained and the Pale Keith has long left behind any similarity to Supersonic IPA – with a rising lemony bitterness and pale malt backbone it is very good indeed. The other beers also bring flavour, but maybe not quite as successfully; the hefeweizen Herr Keith has a Germanic hum and a floral edge, whereas the Coffee Keith has gone in the other direction with a harsh coffee burn, and Sir Keith has a touch of the phenols about it. But there is nothing here that can’t be addressed – and these beers are a lifetime removed from what has gone before, no question. With a bit of finesse, the Keith beers could definitely make a go of it in the UK craft market (something never thinkable about Brewmeister).

TwoBeers

Whereas the upcoming future is on recapturing the domestic market, for Keith Brewery the current focus is somewhere else indeed – and this is the other side of that coin of their move away from Brewmeister. The content on the old Brewmeister web page no longer exists, but the url re-directs to the homepage for the Craft Beer Clan of Scotland, a strategic distribution supergroup with a prime goal of gathering Scottish breweries and distilleries under one umbrella to facilitate the export of their wares to the far east. Keith Brewery are part of this – along with an impressive stable of their peers – but it is the bottles of Brewmeister that adorn the website, not the newly-branded Keith beer. And this is because the old beers are now the export lines for Keith – including Snake Venom.

It seems the previous ownership of the brewery did such a good job securing publicity and contracts in China that the new management were loath to change it. And who can blame them when you read articles like this where a bar in Hong Kong sells their entire stock of Armageddon in a week for the equivalent of £88 a bottle, and were apparently going to sell Snake Venom for over £100? As DIF’s website says, ‘all invested money is smart money’. People know the brand there, it’s as simple as that. And in mainland China, it’s even more astonishing; the New York Times reports that a bar in Beijing sold a bottle of Snake Venom for over £280. And you think your local craft beer bar is expensive…

The management buyout clearly saw the only nugget in the murky water of the business, and are understandably making the most of it. The export funds have paid for a re-brand and a reset of the company, and the potential for future growth and employment of more people at HQ. That’s what happens when business brains take over a brewery (or any other company), they pare away what is not working and concentrate on what is. Brewmeister needed someone who knew what they were doing to step in – but has this maybe gone too far in the other direction? The new owners wisely removed all trace of the failing brand where it was recognised – but by the same token have stood by it where it has proved useful.

I had my run-ins with the previous ownership as anyone with a search engine can appreciate, but I like to think we have all moved on (aside from the Brewmeister Wikipedia page with its carefully scripted wording on the ‘controversy’). You’ve got to feel positive for the people who worked at the old brewery whose jobs were likely saved by the intervention of the new investors – and the beers themselves are definitely getting better. But the new owners are after a return, pure and simple – and the name built by Brewmeister thousands of miles away – however it was built and regardless of whether it is warranted – was too good an opportunity to pass up.

I wish everyone at Keith Brewery well, but I also wish it was the newly-branded beer forging ahead in China, rather than the legacy of previous mistakes.