Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The legend of kettle caramelisation in Scottish beer

Recently I was listening to Fergus Clark from Inveralmond Brewery at a conference telling the audience about his new-build brewery. One of the advantages over the old plant, he explained proudly, was that they got less caramelisation of the wort during the boil.

I had to grin on hearing this, because, of course, there is a widespread belief that kettle caramelisation is a typical component of Scottish beer — yet here was Fergus saying that he wanted as little of it as possible!

I am pretty sure I know the origin of this tale. Michael Jackson often praised the beers of the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh. As the last remaining Victorian brewery in Scotland, it still has direct-fired coppers. Russell Sharp, then boss of the Caley, argued that the kettle caramelisation — “We are boiling, not stewing. This creates flavours you cannot achieve with steam heat” — was an advantage and part of the unique character of Caledonian’s ales.

After Michael Jackson repeated this story, thousands of American homebrewers started boiling down their first runnings to create a caramelised malt syrup, and adding it back to their “Scottish Ale”. The ironic thing about this is that if you are boiling wort in a converted keg or turkey fryer over a propane flame like these guys, you have already recreated a direct-fired copper on a small scale.

Like Michael Jackson, I took the Caledonian story at face value for years. But now I wonder if it was an early example of Russell Sharp’s gift for marketing, later to become evident in the spectacular success of Innis & Gunn? In reality, was he making a virtue out of necessity?


  1. I've heard the Innis & Gunn 'accidental discovery' story was a load of old tosh too and the first batch of oak aged beer tasted foul.

  2. The Innis & Gunn official story does seem a bit far fetched. Making whiskey in beer aged casks, oops the beer tastes good? Hmmm... as f you wouldn't have tried some of the beer before throwing it all away!

    Still, both are decent marketing stories and I'm sure they do there job

  3. A good example of how casual remarks can be transformed into historical fact by repeated retelling.

    The real history of Scottish beer is much more complicated. I realised how little I understood about it when I looked at William Younger's brewing records. What the hell were all those beers they brewed?

  4. Ron, I don't understand Scottish beer and I grew up here.