Wednesday, 19 October 2011

A visit to Tennent’s

Thanks to Doors Open Days I got the chance to go on a tour of Tennent’s Wellpark Brewery a few weeks ago. I was looking forward to it because although I’ve been round a fair few microbreweries, I’ve never been in a proper industrial brewery the size of Wellpark, and they don’t usually do tours. So all the tours were booked out a couple of weeks before the event, with people, presumably at least some of them keen Tennent’s drinkers, eager to see where the brew is made.

We cross the courtyard and our first stop is so that the guide can proudly point at the display that shows the number of days since the last notifiable accident on the site. It’s a four-figure number, which is good. Then we pass the laboratory and the rows of huge fermenting tanks before entering the brewery itself. Visiting a big place like this really makes you aware that big breweries necessarily must devote more space to warehousing than to production. It was a clever brewer who first hit on the idea of siting fermentation vessels outside, rather than having to build vast halls to contain them all.

The brewery itself is cramped and stairs lead up to the control room. There’s a bank of computer screens running fairly old-looking software, a huge mash filter and the top of a copper. Here we are told a bit about the brewing process of Tennent’s lager. It is brewed high gravity from a mash of malt, wheat and maize to reach around 7.5%.

Tanks and kegs

Fermenters outside
Fuzzy picture of the control room, from which surprisingly primitive-looking
software controls unimaginable amounts of beer

Mash filter

The oldest remaining part of the brewery, this building contains the lab

Real actual hops are used in pellet form, with iso-hop extract to top up at filtration stage. The lager is a little more bitter than its rivals in the standard lager sector with around 20 IBU.

Then it ferments quite warm, between 13º and 15º before getting an incredible two days’ cold conditioning. It’s filtered and liquored back to retail strength. At this stage it has around 2g/L CO2 which is topped up to ~5.4g/L.

Canning line
A new bottling line is awaiting installation and the bottling hall-to-be is still being cleared as we pass through it. Space is at a premium on the historic city-centre site, and this means the brewing and packaging are distributed over several floors; in particular the multi-level canning line is apparently quite unusual.

Despite the renown of the brewery for lager and the decades of neglect that Tennent’s ale and stout brands have suffered, there is still some ale brewed here. As well as Tennent’s Special, Ember, Copper 70/– and the like, there’s a lot of keg Bass that goes to Ireland, and they have recently started brewing for Innis & Gunn. This contract brewing — they also do a lot on the lager side — is presumably one of the reasons for the new bottling line.

I also found out that there is an unpasteurised version of Tennent’s Lager. If you are a super-ticker, you can taste this version only if you go to the T in the Park festival. It’s sold there for the simple reason that it’s delivered and used so quickly that there is nothing to be gained by pasteurising it.

Back at the brewery, we get shown round the Tennent’s Training Academy. This is a new venture, brought into life last year, to provide training facilities for the licensed and catering trades.

One feature Tennent’s doesn’t have is a pilot brewery. You would think they’d have one, but they are so big that any R&D for new brews can just be done at Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh instead.

Then, after a quick look round the lab, the work of which nobody really understands, we finish off with a complimentary pint at the Molendinar Bar. This is a bar on-site which is used for hospitality and not  open to the public. It’s fitted out in the kind of cod-Victoriana that new pubs used to get as a matter of course in the 1980s. Displays of old bottles and adverts make it a combination of pub and museum.

I keep hearing mumblings that Tennent’s are about to diversify with new products. The mumblings are never detailed enough to make any actual predictions.

But Tennent’s aren’t stupid. They know that their standard lager is a sector of the beer market in deep decline, and they know that the growth is in different kinds of beer. They also know that with 60% of the Scottish draught beer market, they have plenty of time to think about it.

With both Tennent’s and McEwan’s now owned by companies for whom they – for the first time in several generations – are an important part of the business, I’d like to think that these formerly ubiquitous behemoths of Scottish brewing will find their way back to making really distinctive beers.


  1. We had a good day there too, informative tour and was good to get into a local business to actually see what they do rather than locked out and not involved.

  2. Interesting stuff. Not surprised it is high gravity brewed though.

  3. That didn’t surprise me either, but the two days’ lagering did. I didn’t expect them to be giving it three months but two days?

  4. "I didn’t expect them to be giving it three months but two days?"

    Why do they even bother? What difference will it make?

  5. At the Viceroy they have that original picture , framed on the wall.