The Minto Hotel’s huge neon sign bathed the row houses in a garish pink cast. It stood in a residential neighborhood on the south side of Edinburgh, and I stood in front of it, hunching my shoulders against the biting wind and shifting my weight from foot to foot. Night had fallen and I was loitering like some pusher on his first day on the job. Occasionally I snapped photos at moving traffic, pedestrians draped in Irish flags (it was St. Patrick’s Day), and my own chilly mug to stave off boredom. I’m sure it was only a matter of time before the police came screaming down Minto Street looking for “the creepy weirdo” in front of the hotel.
Thankfully, John Edwardson came first. He was the fast friend I made at the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) meeting a scant week earlier, and he’d kindly offered to give me a ride to the Stewart Brewery tour. Stewart Brewing is the brainchild of Steve Stewart, a man with a long and interesting history of beer making. Barred from getting into hotel bars by his brother, Steve started concocting home brews at the age of 16. Stints at Bass and Boston’s Harpoon Brewery ultimately led Steve to open his own brewery. Stewart Brewing opened in 2004 in the old mining town of Loanhead, just a 15-20 minute drive south of Edinburgh, and their beers have steadily gained popularity and notoriety throughout Scotland. Steve’s a friendly guy, his beer is excellent, and the brewery’s star is rising.
We arrived to a nondescript industrial building, and I thanked John’s wife for the ride. I was led to believe there would be copious amounts of Stewart’s libations free of charge, so John and I weren’t driving. You heard that right: FREE BEER. The thought still gives me a thrill. I had enjoyed some of Stewart’s ales in the preceding weeks so I was amped up to see the brewery and meet the maker. This particular event was put on for CAMRA’s Edinburgh branch and there were some surprises in store for us.
The interior of the brewery was basically one very large room with equipment towering to the ceiling. A small office was tucked away next to the entry and holy crap was it cold in there! You’ll notice everyone wearing jackets in the photos. Whether it’s a distillery or a brewery, I’m always struck by how little space and how few people are needed to create their product. That said, Stewart Brewing has outgrown their current space and can hardly keep up with the demand for their beer.
Steve kicked off the event by standing on a chair and going over the history and values of Stewart Brewing. I’d already drank a pint or two of No. 3 by this point (yes, the event just started) so I’m sure a stupid grin was plastered on my face as I took in the story. I suspect he was preaching to the choir though – CAMRA generally praises Stewart’s beers and they’ve become a big proponent of the brewery. Steve’s wise to this fact, and he treats CAMRA well in return.
Surprise number one? The limited brew Coconut Porter was one of the beers we had free reign to enjoy. If you’re like me, you immediately thought, “Coconut? Eww, too sweet.” But it wasn’t sweet in the slightest. The porter took on the creaminess of the coconut and the slight toasted coconut aroma was more savory than sweet. It was an easy-drinking, deliciously dark porter though the temperature inside the brewery made the beer a bit too cold.
Steve went on to announce a second surprise: that tonight we’d be doing hop trials for a special beer he’s brewing specifically for CAMRA. Don’t worry, I didn’t know what that meant either but I was still strangely excited. Hop trials are the way brewers determine which variety of hops to use in a beer. In general, a brewer will make the same base beer and use a different hop in different casks of the beer. The beers are made anonymous and tasters make their circuits, tasting each brew, and taking notes. Steve had set up four mini-casks labeled A, B, C, and D, and each one had a light golden beer with noticeably different hoppy aromas. Honestly, what could be more fun than helping a brewer of excellent beers make another excellent beer?
I took the task very seriously, so seriously that I had to go back and try the beers a second and sometimes third time. There was little consensus among the tasters other than that they wanted a darker beer (ha!). Periodically throughout the night I was referred to as the “beer writer” or “The Journalist,” wholly unearned and grandiose titles I might add, and Steve called for me as he began the tour of the brewery. I’ve mentioned it’s small, so we pretty much stood in one spot as Steve explained their processes and principles. He’s a freak for cleanliness in his brewery and that’s an excellent neurosis to have if you’re a brewer. Cleanliness leads to delicious beers with consistent flavors.
The night at the brewery wrapped up with a platter of steaming hot sausage rolls and other salty snacks. I think most of us silently thanked our personal gods for something to soak up the 60-odd ounces of ale in our stomachs. I thanked John, Steve, and all of CAMRA for making me a part of this special event. There was a lot of passion warming that cold brewery, and passion generally leads to good things. I’m looking forward to returning to Scotland next week and enjoying more of Stewart’s beers. I have a feeling they’re going to be looking for yet another, even larger building in the near future.
Have you tried Stewart Brewing‘s beers? Have a look at their awesomely redesigned site and order some (note: they don’t ship to the USA)!