Tag Archives: Natural Selection Brewing

Natural Selection Brewing launch Common Ancestor

Six years ago, I met up with a quartet of fresh-faced youngsters hoping to make it big in the world of brewing. The foursome were the first iteration of a project designed to become something much bigger as time went on – the debut of Natural Selection Brewing Co – the ultimate test-environment for prospective brewers. As part of the world-renowned International Centre for Brewing and Distilling (ICBD) postgraduate degree at Heriot-Watt University here in Edinburgh, 2011 was the first time the Centre partnered up with Stewart Brewing (itself founded by an ex-alum of the course) to give four of the students about to graduate a very real chance to experience what it would be like when they ventured out alone – design, brew, market and sell a beer of their own, from start to finish.

It’s a fantastic idea, akin to a Grad Show at the College of Fashion or Art – albeit with the slight difference that the brewers’ don’t merely display what they have created and have it critiqued, the entire lot is purchased and consumed by the public shortly afterwards. It is the perfect launchpad for would-be brewers as it gives them the additional must-haves of marketing, budgeting and PR. I assume they don’t fill out tax returns as well but if they do then it can’t be far removed from having an actual brewery of their own (see also: dealing with bloggers and beer writers).

The ICBD is already a global leader within the industry – aside from Steve Stewart such notables as Alastair Hook (Meantime), Rob Theakston (Black Sheep), Martin Dickie (BrewDog), and Stewart Howe (Harbour) have all come through the course, and many, many more besides. I wonder how many of them would have liked the chance to have a dry-run at getting a beer over the line before they collected their diplomas? A rhetorical question, I guess (aside from Steve Stewart, who told me years ago he would have loved to have been able to do it).

Anyway, the latest version of Natural Selection Brewing launches tonight, in a special event at OX184 in Edinburgh city centre. The sixth beer to break cover (if you exclude the multiple barrel-aged versions and specials the team usually create on the side as well), it is named Common Ancestor and is a 5.2% juniper California Common. Five thousand litres have been brewed and the team are going to be releasing it into several cities across the UK following tonight’s launch event.

The guys were kind enough to send me a bottle (full disclosure) and it’s a good beer; the juniper being far and away the most interesting component. It raises the classic Steam Beer profile of biscuity malt into an almost ginger biscuit flavour, which is really something. There’s a hint of red berry fruit and a creaminess to the mouthfeel that complement everything as well – I imagine it would be excellent on cask where the more floral aspects would also have a chance to come out.

You can discover for yourself exactly what the beer tastes like tonight (Thursday 29th June) at OX184 from 7:30 (ticket prices apply, but include beer and snacks). Check out the NSBC feeds for more details, as the latest iteration of this hugely worthwhile MSc project breaks cover.

Natural Selection Brewing launch Bitter Descent

Bitter Descent2

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.

Introducing Natural Selection Brewing, 2014

The NSB team, (L-R) Doug, Ben, Jonny, Craig, Amaey. Photo by James Porteous, used with permission

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.”

Mutiny on the Beagle launches at 6pm on the 9th of July, at Summerhall. Tickets are £5, and are available here. Thanks to the team for taking the time to sit down for a chat.

EIBF Wednesday – Crosstown Traffic


On paper, the Wednesday of the Edinburgh Independents’ extravaganza was always going to involve the most legwork – with a tri-pubbed Brodies mini-festival-within-a-festival, a Harbour event at the Caley Sample Room, and the (non-EIBF) launch of the new Natural Selection Heriot-Watt beer; it figured to be the night that most resembled last year’s format of bamboozling round the boozers (bamboozering?). Cue a lot of eyes-narrowed peering at chalkboards, and a quick flourish of the smartphone to work out what was what and what was where. Relentlessly, the wondrous weather continues, leaving Edinburghers out enjoying the conditions – a perfect set-up for a pub crawl, then!

First stop, the Caley. Being big fans of Harbour, it was the natural place to start, and would give me a chance to catch-up with Eddie Harbour, who I went to school with*. Surprisingly, upon entering Slateford’s finest it was almost entirely deserted, four people there and a quiet, slow-Sunday vibe going on. After a token Habour beer (the very nice East India Porter) and the always-excellent Cromarty Atlantic Drift, decisions had to be made. With another four pubs to visit, just as the pump-clips were being turned round and the lines cleared, we departed. You can’t catch everything, after all.

*clang shameless name-dropping

At the Hanging Bat, one of the trio of Brodies pubs for the evening, who should we bump into but the man himself, Eddie Harbour, waiting for the word to head over to the Caley to begin. After that catch-up, during which Eddie let it be known what happens when you overload a brewery van and attempt to drive over 500 miles (hint: something abrupt and expensive), it was time to get with the Walthamstow vibe and charge straight into the Brodies wackiness. You certainly know you’re at one of their events when it comes to weighing up whether pulled pork would go better with a blueberry sour or an oyster tea stout. A bit of both, it turns out.

The highlight here, other than the aforementioned sour, was Alpha State’s Neapolitan, a self-styled Sorachi Ace dunkleweiss, rumoured to indeed taste exactly like the three-flavoured ice-cream of Italian chain restaurant fame. You know what? It almost did. Plenty of chocolate, some sweet vanilla edges, and even (for some) a hint of strawberry. I usually tend to get coconut from Sorachi Ace, so that was my third flavour – and not a bad one, as it turns out (something to take note of, frozen dessert marketers). Anyway, after a short but sweet visit, time to head to the mighty Bannerman’s for some Origin, or £2 Jagermeister (your choice).

The third in the series of Stewart Brewing-backed Heriot-Watt student-created beers is a rye saison, and was launched at the brickway-arched metal venue on the Cowgate due to a tie-in with one of Edinburgh’s most promising bands. As with the other two Natural Selection launches (Finch in year one, Anorak in year two), the Origin launch was packed, and they fair flew through the beer. For me, though, it had hugely too much rye involved, which meant it was like chewing through a banana-decked Ryvita – not too bad at first, but something of a struggle later on. Maybe a bit more hop, or less yeast presence could round it out – but as ever with NSB, the process undertaken is far more important than the final product (and plenty of other people liked it, so what do I know?).

After that, a quick Saigon-shuffle along the Cowgate to BrewDog Edinburgh, now bedecked with a huge grinning blue hound on the outside (a party of bemused tourists were standing there looking at it, wondering what it was). More Brodies fun inside, with the massively Nelsoned Kiwi IPA, Hackney Red and the punchy Brodies Brett. A few people mingled about, the Fruits of the Forest sour went from £3.50 a third, to £3.50 for 2/3rds, before finally settling on £3.50 a half, in something equating to that bar which tracks beer prices like the stock exchange, depending on how much other people purchase. “Sell Sour! Sell Sour!”

The final stop was the Cask & Barrel Southside, two-time CAMRA city pub of the year. Walls groaning with old mirrors, posters and memorabilia, stories exchanged underneath; the C&BSS is and always will be a quality pub, for quality locals. The Brodies American Wheat was really rather good, as was the Hackney Red (again). The one take-home point of the evening was that none of the pubs were really busy, easy seat-acquisition, muted conversation in each. Was it the weather? The weekday? Or were we out of synch with the party, forever behind or ahead of everybody else? Crosstown traffic, ships in the night. Moons drifting slowly across the face of a wispy gas-giant. Only with beer, obviously.

Natural Selection Brewing launch Anorak

More than one pint was made available…

Time certainly flies along in the world of brewing – was it really twelve months ago that we ducked into the Guildford Arms for the debut of Natural Selection’s first beer? It must have been, as the annual project for MSc students at Heriot-Watt has come round again. Each year – in conjunction with Stewart Brewing and the ICBD – four are picked to design, produce, market and sell a beer of their very own – gaining valuable experience in how the industry works.

For 2012, those lucky young things are Kirsten Ewer (Quality Control), John Woodford (Lead Brewer), Shane O’Beirne (Sales & Marketing) and Denis Johnstone (drums PR and Brand Development). After a lot of thought – neatly captured on their blog, the decision was made to go for a 4.8% summer wheat beer – Anorak. A cheerful play on words regarding beer geekery and the Scottish summer (now eerily prophetic), it was launched last night at the Stockbridge Tap.

The team wanted their beer to be a little unusual, and not just the ‘banana and clove’ branch of the wheat family. So, they dry-hopped the bejesus out of it, ending up with a style-straddling version that leaned in a few directions at once. Of course, to be honest, the quality of the final beer is far less important that the process behind it – and what the foursome learned over the course of the year.

Unlike last year, that really isn’t an issue this time. Whereas Finch ended up very different from what was intended, having spoken to the team Anorak pretty much hit the nail on the head. Soft, wheaty – it reminded me more of an unfiltered lager, with a wispy, grassy edge to the finish. On cask, it was lovely – albeit with hardly any wheat beer-esque head. Very drinkable, easy to session – exactly as was hoped.

The guys also released a special version – Anorak Snozberry. After cornering Denis he admitted the lack of Wonka was offset by additions of blackberry, raspberry, blueberry and mango. Individually fruited versions of the beer are going to appear in Edinburgh pubs soon, but the Snozberry at launch had all four blended together. I actually preferred it to the original Anorak – it tasted predominantly of raspberry, the bitter sharpness working really well with the wheaty flavours.

You have to give a huge hand to the Natural Selection Team. After speaking to various people involved in the scheme, all agree they worked their socks off – and have certainly shifted far more beer than the previous students. Putting in the miles, talking to pubs and bottle shops, working on their recipe – and getting some great branding – have all paid off. Some might raise an eyebrow at the name – but it works. Plus, the pump clips are some of the best I’ve seen.

The first cask went in three hours, and within 4½ both the second cask and the Snozberry were done. Look out for the green-labelled bottles in off-licences across the city from this week, and also keep an eye out for the one-off befruited casks. To underline the work they have put in, the students have also secured a second launch for Anorak in London – to be held on Monday the 16th at the Rake in Borough Market, so if you’re in the other capital, head down.

Natural Selection Brewing launch Finch

Earlier this week we previewed the launch of Natural Selection Brewing’s debut beer – Finch, a 6.5% ‘robust red ale’. Four students of Heriot Watt’s Brewing and Distilling postgrad course have come together to design, produce and market their own beer – from scratch – using the pilot plant at the Uni, and then the brewing facilities at Stewart Brewing for the final run. Final being very much the operative word – the lads will soon be going their separate ways, and presumably Natural Selection Brewing will be no more.

Having chatted to them they clearly appreciate the grounding in the industry that the project has given them – it really is a fantastic idea. In fact, a previous ICBD graduate told me he’d have loved to have done something similar. Rumours are that the University is keen to make this an annual project, so hopefully next year a new batch of students will get to turn their collective hands to their own beer. Having that practical experience of bringing a product to market is invaluable.

But what about that beer? The launch took place last night at the Guildford Arms in Edinburgh – the guys having produced 15 casks and 3000 bottles. In some respects, the quality of the final beer probably wasn’t as important as the experience gained in formulating it – considering what they went through, there’s a fair bit of lee-way for a ‘first go’ (you should hear our first podcast, for example). But it does them credit that everything came out so well.

Finch was bracketed as a mix of the American and Scottish – a British take on something like Odell’s Red Ale. In truth, it tastes pretty much like a rich Scotch Ale rather than a red – the malt really comes out from the start. Maybe a closer comparison would be Odell 90/-. The hops really weren’t that noticeable on the cask version (we’ll try the bottles later). Smooth, caramel malt flavours with a pretty hefty sweet finish, it would be a great winter warmer.

It was good to see the Guildford busy for the launch – a mix of local beer notables (such as they are), student friends of the four guys, and bemused regulars. But everyone was going for the Finch – and the comments were universally positive. Hopefully they will use this experience and go on to long careers in brewing (or distilling). But preferably brewing.

Kenny at the Beer Monkey was also present at the launch, you can read his thoughts here. If you missed out at the Guildford, casks of Finch have been sent to the following Edinburgh pubs – The Blue Blazer, Bow Bar, Cloisters, Doctors, Holyrood 9A, Jenny Ha’s, Pear Tree Inn, Stockbridge Tap. Bottles should be available from Appellation Wines and other local outlets. Visit the Natural Selection Brewing website for more details…