Saturday, 3 April 2010

Caledonian Brewery

One of the mainstays of a CAMRA branch's calendar are brewery visits. As a loyal member, I thought it was time I took part in one of these outings. The only trouble was that I've never met any of my local branch before. However, using a combination of stereotyping and advance knowledge of their published travel plans, I scouted round the train, identified the CAMRA group who were going to the brewery and attached myself to them.

We were off to Edinburgh's Caledonian Brewery. Best known today as the brewer of Deuchars IPA, it's Edinburgh's only surviving 19th century brewery, founded in 1869 as Lorimer and Clark's. Survival has been a close call at times; the brewery has suffered several disastrous fires, one of which destroyed the maltings and another one of the coppers. Accountants proved even more dangerous than fire, with the brewery facing closure in the 1980s until it was saved by a buy-out led by Russell Sharp, now of Innis & Gunn and the seemingly inactive Edinburgh Brewing Company. Without him the brewery would probably be a car park or a block of flats now.

On arrival we were shown into the private bar and given some beer. Hooray! While waiting for the tour to start I was able to have a look at the display case of old bottles, mostly the successive iterations of 80/– and Deuchars labels since 1990, but some going back to Lorimer & Clark days. I like that sort of thing.

One thing I found disappointing is that the tour was led by a sales guy, not a brewer, so he asked us to refrain from overly technical questions. What's the point of a brewery tour if you can't ask nerdy questions about water treatment and what kind of hops they use? Is it just about free beer and pies? I'd like to think not.

But there were some snippets of information that I didn't know:
  • there is no keg version of Deuchars IPA
  • the beer is brewed with city water; the Edinburgh brewing wells were contaminated by Fife's heavy industry early in the 20th century forcing the brewers to switch.
I've been in a few fermentation rooms and they can be rather pungent places. I like the smell of fermenting beer but not everyone does. At Caledonian it's different. The fruity scent hit me as soon as we went in and it was only as we were leaving again that I figured out what it smelt like. Apples? No. Well, a bit. Blackberries? Not quite. Peaches! That's it, Caledonian's fermenting room smells of peaches. Which compound could be responsible for that, I don't know.

Caledonian's slogan is "Brewed by men, not machines". You can understand that at Caledonian; they don't have any choice, because the brewery is so old that there is nowhere to put the machines. It's really quite small and the tour only takes about fifteen minutes. It is, as Michael Jackson wrote, a living, working museum. That's not hyperbole. The brewery's new owners, Heineken, take his words literally. They apparently love the place and send their new brewers over to see it, more or less to let them see how things used to be done.

How did mega-gigantic super-modern global computer-controlled lager brewer Heineken end up with this antique brewery? Well, a few years before their demise, having run their ale brands into the ground and closed their own historic Edinburgh brewery, S&N bought Caledonian to brew McEwan's for the declining market of ageing jakeys who still drink it. Then Heineken inherited the brewery when they bought S&N's carcass. I know Heineken have a terrible record of buying up and closing other breweries in the Netherlands, but to be frank, an outfit the size of Heineken could afford to keep Caledonian open as a training school, even if it produced no beer at all, and I still think it's safer with them than it would have been with S&N.

Back in the bar, there was an experimental beer to try. Three Monkeys at just 3.0% is a boys' bitter with a pleasant sulphury aroma and a bitter finish to be relished. I asked for it without the sparkler and was firmly told that Caledonian prefer their beers served through a sparkler, but I could have it without if I drank a pint of it with first. So I did. Unsparkled, it had a slightly fuller aroma, but to be honest there wasn't much difference.

Another one-off beer available was Flying Dutchman. Last year one of Heineken's top boffins Henk Oexman came over to Caledonian to brew a special witbier for Wetherspoons' beer festival (the full story here). I missed this at the time and was quite surprised to see there was still some left, ten months after it was brewed. It's a good beer with a vibrant coriander-seed aroma and sweetish body. And you don't get cask witbier very often. Miles better than Hoegaarden (and also better than Heineken's own Wieckse Witte).

I was happy for the opportunity to taste Caledonian's two flagship beers at the brewery, served precisely as the brewery wanted them served. It didn't change my opinion of them. Back in the 1990s I'd be delighted to get a pint of Caledonian 80 (the shilling symbol seems to have disappeared completely from its name nowadays). Now, it tastes rich and vanilla-ey and isn't really the kind of beer I like to drink any more.

I'm also rather ambivalent about Deuchars IPA now. Up until two years ago I used to drink it regularly, love it, and even made a point of referring to it as "Wondrous Deuchars". Then I had a series of appallingly bad pints of it, which convinced me that the recipe had changed. It was still just about recognisably itself, but all the hops seemed to have disappeared. I stopped drinking it for a while. I tried it again a couple of months ago and thought it had regained some of its character, but still wasn't the beer it had been. Tasting it at the brewery led me to exactly the same conclusion. Maybe it's all in my mind, but I don't think it is.

It's a pity the regular beers are such a let down now. The guys doing the tour and bar were clearly passionate about beer and about the brewery, and of course the brewery is unique and irreplacable. I still dream about a pint of Caledonian Porter I drank in 2003. I've never seen that beer since. I hope we see more such interesting beers from them in the future.


  1. I love the open coppers at Caledonian, they must be amazing when they're going.

  2. I have similar feelings to the Caledonian Porter thing towards the sadly departed Gillespies Stout - loved that beer when I was in my late teens/early 20s, but what happened to it?

  3. Isn't a slight vanilla note part of the Caledonian house style? I had a bottle of 80/- recently (something you rarely see down here) and it was much as I remembered it from the 1990s.

    Deuchars may not be available on keg, but it is in cans ;-)

  4. I'd noticed that Deuchars had become a thin parody of its former hoppy self. This seemed to coincide with the time Deuchars ceased to be a beer and became a brand.
    Either, the old brewery couldn't cope with the volumes the brand push demanded and quality suffered or, more likely, the recipe was 'tweaked' to make it less demanding to the perceived common palate.