Sitting sipping a glass of Ka Pai (South Pacific Pale, 5.2%) today it’s hard to imagine Steve and Jo Stewart deciding where to base their brewery – it was a toss up between Edinburgh and Glasgow (rumour has it that an actual coin toss may have been involved).
Back in 2004, as they were starting out, the craft beer revolution hadn’t quite happened yet. The US and Australia were taking the lead, but we were still drinking big brand beer. Of course times change and the last ten years have seen huge changes in almost every aspect of life; nowhere is that truer than in brewing. Today the UK has a huge craft beer brewing industry, and Stewart Brewing is one of the leading lights in these parts. Walk into any half-decent pub in Edinburgh and the Lothians and chances are you will be able to order something from Stewart Brewing.
Why all this though? It so happens that recently I went to find out more on a tour of the very brewery. Accompanied by Fred, my beer-drinking partner in crime, we stood by the gleaming fermentation tanks, drinking a glass of Radical Road (Triple Hopped Pale Ale, 6.2%) talking about all things beer and Stewart Brewing with Emily, their marketing manager. They are very much open to the public – which surprised me, for some reason – with people very much being encouraged to come out to the brewery (it’s just behind Ikea) to learn about the company and the beer, and to taste some of their delicious brews (naturally we were happy to oblige).
The Craft Beer Kitchen is their latest venture – allowing groups to come in and brew their very own beer. It’s a guide through the entire process, from concept to the finished bottles, with groups getting to select the flavours and style for their beer, crafting the product and then coming back a few weeks later for their cases. With everything down to a custom label on your bottle it sounds like a lot of fun, whether you’re a novice or a total beer geek.
If this isn’t enough to draw you out to East Lothian, then their shop is going to be more than enough. Not only can you buy a wide selection of their own bottles there’s also offerings from other craft beer brewers; if you’re having a party (or are just really thirsty…) there are also mini kegs on offer. Most excitingly though you can now get Stewarts growlers. 1 or 2 litre sealable glass bottles, they are perfect as reusable beer storage, and better still there are a selection of taps in the shop where you can fill them up with a wide range of their beers. And, whilst you’re at the till, be sure to take a look at all the awards on the wall – they’re rapidly (and very reasonably) running out of wall.
Back inside the brewhouse, there seems to be a bit of a dichotomy going on between the ultra modern and the surprisingly manual. From the sleek steal and gadgetry on the ‘kettles’ (where the beer is made pre-fermentation) and fermentation tanks the production goes to the opposite end of the spectrum – everything is bottled, capped and labeled by hand. Yup, by hand.
All done in a corner of the brewhouse by hand there’s a personal element to it that we quite liked. I’m sure sticking labels on bottles gets dull fast, but the ‘machine’ that puts the caps on very much resembles the hand-pulled badge makers you had in primary school. The contrast between this low-tech approach and the complex machinery of the brewing is fascinating, but also shows both the company’s roots and the incredible speed with which it has taken off.
There can scarcely be a better example of this than the two fermenting tanks we’re standing by – there’s a squat one clad in black and towering behind it are the two glistening new tanks (brought in from Hungary a matter of days before our visit). The first is one of the originals Stewarts started with, and looks about the same volume as a bath; the new additions hold 15,000 litres EACH – or 264,000 pints to you and me.
Walking around the row of fermenting tanks and kettles is a bit of a maze of glistening tanks, pipes, levers and dials – about 80% of brewing is actually just cleaning, Emily tells us – it is clearly not all as glamorous as you might like to believe. It certainly is fascinating though. They’re bottling KA PAI as we were there, but now do batches of Edinburgh Gold and Pentland IPA almost every week – such is the demand from bars. What’s interesting though is that there’s clearly still an appetite for innovation. There are now six or seven limited edition beers each year, and I suspect a few more may appear as a result of the Craft Beer Kitchen.
What of the future then? Stewart Brewing is clearly not a company that’s lost its enthusiasm. The most immediate plans are a beer for Hallowe’en – which explained the cases of tinned pumpkin stacked by one tank – which should be hitting pubs any time now, but there’s more in the pipeline. Their new massive tanks will start to take care of the regular orders, meaning there will be more space freed up for the other ranges and new ideas, they are now in their fifth year of working with Herriot Watt’s brewing students bringing in the next generation of brewers, and there’s plans in the offing for more in the shop and maybe even a bar. After all that? Who knows, but after we’re finished drinking the pumpkin it will be time for Black and White Christmas.
The speed at which craft beer has started spreading into the market has meant a lot of big changes quickly, but after having celebrated their tenth birthday this year it looks like Stewart Brewing is only going from strength to strength. We will be keeping a close eye on their adventures, and no doubt tasting many of their beers and making more trips to their highly drinkable shop.
You can find out more about Stewart Brewing on their website as well as information on the Craft Beer Kitchen. We’d also like to thank them for showing us around the brewery and the beers they offered us.