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From Issue #29 November 7, 2013

Put a Head on It

Brewing the Pollokshields Steamer.

By Carolyn Roberts Twitter icon 

I drank beer.

I did not drink white wine and soda. I did not drink rum and Coke. I did not drink piña coladas or Babycham or any of the other light, fruity drinks that we ladies are supposed to enjoy. When I reached 18, Scotland’s alcoholic age of consent, I drank only beer.

It took some time to enjoy it. Eventually, I came to appreciate the malty, rich flavor of McEwan’s 80, my ale of choice, which my student union sold for the very reasonable sum of £1.30.1 I persevered because I thought it said something about me. Something like:

I’m not a girly girl. I’m not going to simper and shriek. I’m going to sit here, drink pints, and stomp about to the Sisters of Mercy. I can change my own tires, put up my own shelves, and debug my own code.

In truth, I could not then do any of those things, but I was creating an image.2 Beer helped me construct a persona when I was deeply uncertain who I was and what, if anything, I stood for. It let me convey a message when I did not always have the courage to speak. And though these days I am rarely to be found in a tenebrous student bar clutching a warm pint, there are still many stories to tell about Scotland’s relationship with yeast, hops, water, and malt.

Many years ago, long before I could credibly pretend to have reached drinking age, I used to ride the bus through the streets of central Edinburgh. We would pass near Craiglockhart, where the anguished war poet Siegfried Sassoon was treated for shell shock. We drove by the Athletic Arms pub, known to one and all as the Diggers, since for decades it was used by the gravediggers who worked in the gloomy cemetery opposite. And we would go through Fountainbridge, where the bus filled with a sweet yeasty smell as we passed the enormous McEwan’s brewery that created my future drink of choice.

The brewery was just one of around 40 breweries dotted around Edinburgh in the late 1800s. Beer was popular, and most of it was made within our own borders. Traditionally, consumers of Scottish alcoholic beverages were male, and they drank two things: beer and whisky — together, if funds allowed. Thus the classic muttered request to the barman for a “wee hauf n’ a hauf.”

But drinking habits changed, and gradually people began to disassociate themselves from the choices of their forefathers. The established Scottish beers — Tennent’s Special, Tartan Special, McEwan’s Export — started to look outdated and embarrassing. Ordering these beers was the equivalent of turning up for a party in a thick Arran sweater and breaking out the accordion and dominoes. We became aware of lighter, gassier, better-marketed alcohol, and for a while it looked as though we were doomed to drink imported lager forever.

Recently, this has changed. Craft brewing is taking off globally, not least in Scotland. There are now over 50 independent breweries in the country, alongside the many amateurs brewing for their own pleasure. Given my own highly emotional relationship with beer at the outset of my drinking days, I wanted to know more. Almost every product has a brand identity these days. The beer we drink, as much as the phone we use or the trainers we wear, is shorthand for who we think we are. But who are the brewers who make the stuff, and who or what do they think they are?

To find out, I began by asking an enthusiastic amateur.

Campbell Millar, maker of Pollokshields Steamer.

The home brewer

Campbell Millar is a busy man. When we spoke, Millar — an engineer and currently the COO of a semiconductor simulation company — was ironing shirts in preparation for business trips to Germany and the United States. His young son, Oscar, was curled up on the sofa watching How to Train your Dragon for the umpteenth time, and during our conversation his tiny daughter, Rose, toddled into the room, looking for some daddy time. As soon as our discussion was over, Millar had to dash across town and into the office. Why would someone so obviously short of time take up a hobby that demands hours of concentration?

The answer begins with a memory. Millar first made beer with his dad when he was 13 years old and living in Stornoway, the main town on the island of Lewis, in the northwest of Scotland. The elder Millar had studied in Edinburgh in the 1960s, when the city was stuffed with breweries. Upon arriving on Lewis, he found that the only place to buy beer was the supermarket Presto, not known for its adventurous range of ales. He therefore began to brew his own.

Using a simple kit from UK high street stalwart Marks and Spencer, Campbell Millar’s father would fill vats of beer that fermented behind the sofa for weeks, stinking out the house as it developed. The younger Millar remembers having his first taste of this brew, sitting alongside his dad watching a Scotland rugby game. Both the beer and the rugby remain a part of his life today.

Millar made his first attempt at brewing when he was a student living in university accommodation. The flavor was reasonable, but the beer’s public debut did not go well. “I probably shouldn’t admit this; I might still be liable for prosecution,” he begins promisingly. “Our flat was on the ninth floor and there was a party on the tenth. We carried the brew up the stairs — and dropped it. We didn’t stay to check the damage. We legged it. But I heard it ran all the way back down the stairs and clogged up the lift shaft.”

After that shaky start, it took around a decade for his interest to be piqued again, when he came across the step-by-step guide How to Brew, by the American brewer John J. Palmer. Millar and a friend decided to give it a go, and so their first beer — the Pollokshields Steamer — was born.

Asked to explain his interest, Millar put down his iron and looked thoughtful. “There are a lot of scientists who brew beer. You can easily construct an algorithm to make beer, and if you follow the process you will get a result, and then you can try modifying the process. It’s science.”

He compares homebrewing to baking bread, which is another of his hobbies. “You get sucked in and begin to appreciate the skills involved. Also, I like that you can make seriously good beer at home. At first I thought it would be either a massive chemical process or a bloke dicking around in a bucket, but it’s not. I like that most of the big brewers started as amateurs. The difference is just scale and consistency. It’s like golf: amateurs and professionals are playing the same game; they’re just doing it at different levels.

“It’s fun, and also it’s only in the last couple of years that it’s been possible to get decent craft beer in Scotland. In the UK, it was always CAMRA who talked about craft beer, and they really gave it a beard and sandals type of image.3 I think CAMRA did a lot of harm actually — they took the fun out of craft beer.”

Millar also cites a visit to the United States as a major influence on his brewing. This was the first time he encountered a truly hoppy beer, and he was thoroughly sold on the taste. “In Scotland everybody was making the same type of beer — export, heavy, mild. In the US they said ‘Wow, that’s cool — what happens if we blow it up?’”

Brewing is a hobby he plans to stick with, but he doesn’t see it going further. “There has been an explosion in craft brewing in Scotland. So there probably isn’t much room for another professional craft brewer right now. It will settle down: some will go to the wall; some will survive.”

Nige Tiddy and Al Read of Windswept Brewing.

The newcomer

One of those very much hoping to survive is Windswept Brewing. Based in Lossiemouth, in North East Scotland, the company was founded in late 2012 by two former Royal Air Force Tornado pilots, Nige Tiddy and Al Read. Having been stationed in the area for many years, the two were looking for a way to stay there after they left the RAF.

Tiddy says Read was already brewing and got him involved in the work. When Read started to talk of a brewery, Tiddy asked if he could sign on as a partner, and Read agreed. Like Millar, Tiddy is clear that the United States is a big influence on Scottish homebrewing. He and Read got their start by taking part in US-style contests with a group of local craft brewers.

“In the US they’re into competitive brews where they pick a type of beer — say, a Porter — and everyone comes along with one on the day,” Tiddy says. “There are blind tastings and scorings. We were doing well in the local contests, getting good feedback.”

Both are still working as flight instructors in aircraft simulators, and running the brewery in between times. How long they can do this is uncertain, since their growth mirrors the rapid expansion of the sector in Scotland.

“Initially we planned to start in a garage, but we realized we’d outgrow it very quickly, so we went for the biggest facility we could afford,” Tiddy says. “It’s a 10-barrel brewery and we thought we’d have about two years before we needed to expand, but demand has been beyond all our expectations. We’re about to take delivery of a new tank that will increase our capacity by a third.”

With greater capacity comes the ability to do things differently, and Windswept has just taken on its first professional brewer, Adam Gray, who holds a degree in brewing from Heriot-Watt University. Adam is already experimenting with new flavors: his latest venture is a smoky tea beer, made with Lapsang souchon.

Tiddy agrees with Millar that brewing is a science, and one that takes a great deal of care and attention to get right. In the beginning, he and Al were determined to identify one yeast that they could use as the basis for all of their beers, to help them operate economically. But this turned out not to be possible: the taste of each yeast is so distinctive that it would have been impossible to create the flavors they sought. Instead they use two different types, and they have developed a process to propagate yeast from almost nothing — an ability that Tiddy believes is unique among brewers of their size. Not that they intend to stay small for long.

“Our ambitions are to go international,” he says. “We want to grow by word of mouth, but we have tentatively started looking for a North American partner of a similar size and mindset. We thought we’d try to find one in Chicago. It seemed appropriate, since it’s the Windy City.”

James Watt and Martin Dickie of BrewDog.

The punk brewery

Such ambitions might seem excessive for a tiny company perched on an island at the edge of Europe, but Tiddy knows it can be done, as he’s already seen it happen. BrewDog, born just down the road from Windswept, is trampling all over the accepted wisdom about small companies. The firm is fascinating both because of its commitment to craft beer and because of its highly unusual approach to commerce. Describing itself as a “punk brewery,” BrewDog was established by James Watt and Martin Dickie in 2007, when both were still in their early twenties.

Tiddy speaks highly of them: “BrewDog have made a real difference: craft beer isn’t seen as an old man’s drink now.” Their way of doing things is certainly different. BrewDog’s escapades include:

  • Their battle with a German brewery to produce the world’s strongest beer. BrewDog’s contribution began with a 32% alcohol-by-volume (ABV) imperial stout called Tactical Nuclear Penguin and culminated with the End of History, which was 55% and packaged in a taxidermied squirrel.

  • The company’s habit of marking major announcements, such as new BrewDog bars, by driving a tank down the local high street.

  • Their “Equity for Punks” share-issue scheme, which transferred ownership of the company to over 10,000 shareholders and raised over £1 million on the first day of its most recent share offer in June 2013. They describe it as an “anti-business business model.”

  • A recent Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruling that their Web site ought not to have described BrewDog as a “post-punk apocalyptic motherf-----r of a craft brewery.” The ASA also expressed the view that the other language on the page, such as “corporate beer whores,” “rip you straight to the tits,” and “drill the bastards,” was also likely to cause serious offence to some people.4

But are these exploits just a cynical business tactic to set BrewDog apart from other brewers? Watt says no. “I think it’s important to stand out, and we’ve always aimed to challenge perceptions and change the way people think about beer and alcohol, so it was a natural approach for us, and the punk attitude that runs through our activities is a reflection of that. We also really like tanks.

“At the time [when BrewDog started], there was very little in the way of amazing, hoppy craft beer in the UK. There was a lot of the old-fashioned CAMRA favorites and plenty of mainstream, monotonous beer, but there was little to no awesome craft beer available. We were influenced by the incredible craft beer scene in the USA and started brewing beers that we wanted to drink, and we wanted to share them with more people and try to instill a change in the beer scene in the UK.”

With 12 bars across the UK and the recent launch of their own US TV show on the Esquire Network, BrewDog seem happy that their approach is working. “It’s so rewarding and exciting,” says Watt. “There’s a total shift happening in the UK craft beer scene at the moment, so it’s an incredible time to be a part of it.”

Like my long-ago teenage self sitting on a barstool and stubbornly supping a drink that I knew was not meant for me, craft brewers seek to define themselves and resent anyone trying to do it for them. Craft brewing offers the opportunity to create something that is entirely your own, and then to share it with other people. It’s a badge of unorthodoxy, worn proudly by people who do not wish to conform.

Or perhaps I am over-complicating matters. At the end of our chat, Campbell Millar paused to consider whether there were any other points that needed to be made. Tipping his head to one side, he picked up the next shirt in the ironing pile and concluded, “Anyway, beer is tasty.”


  1. The full name is 80/, where the / symbol means “shilling.” The name refers to the beer’s historic cost per barrel, and the price increases with a beer’s strength. So 60/ (known as “light” or “mild”) is weaker than 70/ (“heavy”), which is in turn weaker than 80/ (“export”). 

  2. I still can’t change tires. Or put up shelves. 

  3. CAMRA is the Campaign for Real Ale, a European consumer group that promotes the creation of genuine cask-conditioned beer. 

  4. BrewDog’s official response included the phrase, “Those motherf-----rs don’t have any jurisdiction over us anyway.” The ASA can force changes in some, but not all, advertising. 

Carolyn Roberts lives in Scotland and works in mental health. Her work has previously appeared in Oh Comely magazine and on BBC Radio Scotland. Currently she spends most of her time making silly faces at her new baby daughter.

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