WHEN William McEwan opened the Fountain Brewery in Edinburgh in 1856, no one would have predicted the huge success he would come to enjoy in exporting Scottish beer around the world. For a start, McEwan had to scrape together the money for the business, borrowing from his mother and his uncle. The small scale of his initial brewing operation was reflected in the size of the first wage bill of just 30 shillings.
The Fountain Brewery also had some stiff competition from a string of breweries that had sprung up across the city. By the end of the 19th century, there were 30 in operation, and visitors to Auld Reekie could not have failed to notice the pungent smell of hops and malt in the air.
The breweries stretched in a line from Fountainbridge, just west of the modern city centre, to Holyrood - where the newly built Scottish Parliament occupies a former brewery site owned by Scottish and Newcastle - and then east of the city centre to Craigmillar. The locations were determined by the need to draw on an underground vein of water – known locally as the Charmed Circle – that flowed underneath the city from the Pentland Hills.
The breweries were a constant source of activity. Horse-drawn drays were used to transport the barrels of beer to alehouses and taverns around the city and north to the port of Leith for shipping across the globe.
Despite the competition, McEwan rose to the challenge. He set his sights on conquering not only the lucrative home market but the tastebuds of overseas beer drinkers. By the time William McEwan & Co Ltd became a public company in 1889, trade had clearly flourished – the business was valued at 1 million, a huge sum for the time. At the start of the 20th century, McEwan had captured almost 90 per cent of trade in the north-east of England and he was exporting his brands to Australia, New Zealand, South African and India.
When McEwan died in 1913, he left a thriving operation which was to become key to the success of one of the biggest brewing companies in the world. In 1931, William McEwan merged with William Younger's - also founded in Edinburgh, in 1749 - to become Scottish Brewers. In 1960, the company merged again, with The Newcastle Breweries, to form Scottish & Newcastle (S&N). Yet the Fountain Brewery, and the advanced technology developed there, was at the heart of the company's success, says Geoff Palmer, professor at Heriot-Watt University's world-renowned International Centre for Brewing and Distilling.
"It was an important site where beer-canning technology operated at the highest level, making McEwan's Export one of the best known canned beers in the country," Palmer says. "Among all this high technology was a very special microscope which Louis Pasteur, who was a close friend of the Younger family, is reputed to have used."
The brewery's historical importance to the Scottish industry has not been in doubt, but its future viability in the modern global market would come under increasing scrutiny. Last year, S&N announced the closure of the Fountain Brewery and the acquisition of its Edinburgh neighbour, the Caledonian Brewery.
The company said the site's high fixed operating costs and its city centre location meant the brewery was no longer commercially viable. Production of its famous McEwan's and Younger's beer will transfer to the Caledonian - the last remaining significant brewery in Edinburgh. Founded in 1869, Caledonian is famed in its own right for its Deuchars IPA and Caledonian 80/- brands.
A spokesman for S&N says a final closure date in June has yet to be agreed, but he adds: "The majority of the brewing has now transferred to other sites, including Caledonian up the road."
The brewery site, which occupies land on both sides of Fountainbridge, and reaches the banks of the Union Canal, is to be sold to developers. It is expected that the redevelopment will include some 500 new homes, plus offices, restaurants and bars.
Palmer says the closure of the Fountain Brewery represents the end of an era for Edinburgh, which a century ago was second in UK production to only Burton-on-Trent. He adds that he will miss – like many others – the "characteristic aroma of hops and malt" emanating from the famous city landmark.
"The Fountain Brewery was a wonderful old big-city brewery, the likes of which Scottish culture will not see again."
But Edinburgh remains at the heart of the industry - if only because the Centre for Brewing and Distilling is regarded among the best training schools in the world for aspiring brewers.