MENTION the word “brewery” and it conjures up images of giant copper kettles in red-brick buildings, with bearded men in blue overalls wandering around, sipping their frothy wares.
Stewart Brewing’s premises on the edge of Edinburgh are somewhat different. Nestled in the corner of an industrial estate, the company’s warehouse unit is bursting at the seams with casks, kegs and the 101 pieces of kit that make a small business tick.
But managing director Steve Stewart has plans. The firm is due to move into a £1.25 million purpose-built brewery after Christmas, allowing production to increase over the next two years from 500,000 litres of beer each year to 2.5 million litres.
“I don’t want to have to move brewery again,” jokes Stewart, who founded the business with his wife, Jo, in 2004. “We’ve bought far more land than we need to so that we can expand over time. We’re turning over about £1m a year at present and, once the new brewery is up and running, we’re aiming to grow into a £5m business.”
Those ambitions have been boosted by a string of contract wins, including with Jamie Oliver’s new restaurant at the Assembly Rooms on Edinburgh’s George Street, which is stocking the firm’s Edinburgh Gold beer on keg, and a listing for its 80/- tipple with giant pubco Mitchells & Butlers’ Scottish branches, which include Deacon Brodies in the capital.
The firm, which also has a listing in some Punch Tavern outlets, is already supplying pubs from Pitlochry down to Berwick-upon-Tweed but Stewart now has his eye on exports.
“Selling our beers abroad is where the real growth will come from,” he explains. “We’re getting enquiries all the time about the beers but so far we’ve been restricted by the size of our brewery. Soon that will change.”
Overseas demand for the beers is already rising, with repeat orders from Italy and Japan and shipments heading across the pond to Canada. The firm’s international profile has been boosted by its Hollyrood beer – which evolved from its Pentland India Pale Ale (IPA) – being named as the “world’s best pale ale” at the World Beer Awards for two years on the trot.
Stewart will have to build a bigger trophy cabinet at the new brewery after his Embra amber beer was last week named as the “champion bottled beer of Britain” at the Great British Beer Festival organised by the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra).
He praises the work Camra has done for the cask ale industry, but thinks the success of Scotland’s growing number of micro-breweries extends further than traditional styles of beer.
“Customers are very knowledgeable these days so you have to always be innovating, whether that’s with cask beers or keg,” Stewart says. “Developing new beers is still one of the best parts of the job.”
Stewart has been sharing that passion with students at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, where he gained his brewing degree. Four masters students from the university work with the company over 12 weeks to create and sell their own beer. This year’s effort, Anorak, sold twice as much as last year’s attempt, Finch, and Stewart says he could have sold many times more.
Having left university, Stewart spent a spell with Williams Brothers, the Alloa-based brewery famous for its heather ale, before joining brewing giant Bass. But it was a six-month placement at the Harpoon brewery in Boston that sealed his destiny to set up his own brewery.
“We had been dreaming of setting up our own company since 1997 when I came back from America,” he says. “Then my brother died from cancer when he was just 36 and so we thought that the only things you really regret in life are the things you don’t do, so we knew we had to go for it.”
After creating some sample beers in their garage and testing different recipes, the couple opened Stewart Brewing in 2004 and haven’t looked back. Their repertoire now includes five cask ales and six bottled beers, along with an ever-changing mix of special editions, including Coconut Porter, Edinburgh Festival and Hefeweizen, a Bavarian-style wheat beer.
“The new brewery will allow us to keep on experimenting,” says Stewart. “We’re looking to offers fans the chance to invent their own recipes and then come in to make their beer in a small batch.”
About £500,000 for the new brewery – which will be a stone’s throw from the current site – is coming from loans, with Stewart praising Royal Bank of Scotland for its support.
The firm has also secured a £150,000 regional selective assistance grant from the Scottish Government and £50,000 from the East of Scotland Investment Fund with help from Midlothian Council. The rest of the cash will come from profits retained in the business.
Building the new brewery capacity will also help to grow staff numbers, which are expected to rise from about 12 workers at present to 16 next year and then on to about 20 over the next two years.
So is there anything that can hold the company back? Stewart lets out a deep sigh.
“The lack of joined-up thinking from politicians on alcohol is a worry,” he says.
“Although we’re way above the level for minimum pricing, it will still add another layer of red tape. When you drill down into the legislation, it will make it hard for me to sell single bottles, for example.
“We make quality products, most of which are drunk in pubs by responsible adults. But to hear some of the comments by the politicians, you’d think we were making the demon drink.
“Scotland’s craft beer sector has the potential to grow into one of the most respected parts of the global industry.
“It’s about time politicians realised that and stopped trying to lump us in with the supermarkets. You can’t have a one-size fits all policy.”
Scotland is already well on its way to forging a place for itself in the pantheon of world craft beers. Bruce Williams, who founded Williams Brothers Brewing in Alloa, spends three months each year in the United States promoting his firm’s beers but also helping America’s brewers to master new techniques.
Innis & Gunn, the Edinburgh-based beer company that ages its brews in whisky and rum barrels, is also breaking into the US after tasting success in Canada and Scandinavia. Fraserburgh-based BrewDog, which is also building a larger brewery to cope with demand, has also enjoyed international success.
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Monday 20 May 2013
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