How Herriot-Watt is creating the next generation of brewers and distillers

Dr Annie Hill, associate professor of Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University, takes some necessary measures. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Dr Annie Hill, associate professor of Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University, takes some necessary measures. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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In just over three decades, what started as a small university course on brewing in the capital has grown to become a wellspring of talent that has produced distillers and brewers who have gone on to become some of the most successful of their ilk, not just in the UK, but in countries all across the world.

The International Centre for Brewing and Distilling (ICBD) was first introduced at Heriot-Watt University in 1989 after a push by Professor Sir Geoff Palmer saw distilling added to the old brewing course in a bid to modernise and prevent it being closed. After a funding drive by the renowned professor, over £1 million was raised and led to the instalment of a pilot brewery, 
distillery and maltings.

The student base at the time was around 50-strong, with research aimed at highlighting the qualities and molecular genetics of cereals, yeast and fermentation processes, beer and spirit stability and flavour.

However, as both of the brewing and distilling industries have grown dramatically over the past decade and a half – entwined with the success of the craft beer, gin and whisky categories – so has interest in learning the skills that are used to create these popular artisan drinks.

Indeed, the rise of craft breweries and their success in competing with the established brands within the market was quickly mirrored by the craft spirits sector, with the number of distillery businesses in the UK increasing by just over 20 per cent in just a year to 205 in 2018, up from 170 in 2017, according to data from accountants UHY Hacker Young.

Entrepreneurs who have spotted the trend in consumers wishing to move away from traditional mass-produced and homogenous products have moved quickly to provide an alternative, and now it seems starting a craft brewery or distillery has never been more accessible.

This in turn has seen many seek out those courses which are best equipped to provide them with the education they need and, with our rich pedigree for producing some of the world’s top spirits, many are looking to Scotland and, in particular, its capital for the skills they need.

“The draw of students to our campus from around the world is well known, but the number of students working full-time and studying the postgraduate programme overseas is quite staggering,” states Dr Annie Hill, associate professor of brewing and distilling. “We now have students in places as far away as Tasmania, Eswatini and St Lucia – we are reaching all around the globe.”

Dr Hill, who has worked at the centre for nearly two decades, says they have gone from around 50 registered students in total across their programmes to over 300 within the last 20 years.

“Our graduates have been the best ambassadors, working hard and succeeding in their own right, but also sharing their knowledge and ‘giving back’,” she says. “There is a great 
culture within the industry to continuously improve, and this includes promoting learning, collaboration and inquisitiveness. The seeds of this are sown at the ICBD – it is such a unique place.”

And what a roll call of ambassadors they have, with many of the world’s top brewers and distillers having cut their teeth on the ICBD’s MSc course, including the likes of Martin Dickie, cofounder at BrewDog; Dr Michaela Appelbee-Miedl, global director of product technology for Anheuser-Busch; Kirsty Black, head distiller at Arbikie; David Wilkinson, head distiller, Edinburgh Gin; Ross O’Hara, who became the world’s youngest master brewer at Green King in 2018; and Bhavya Mandanna, master brewer with drinks giant Carlsberg.

“Many graduates return to give talks, help with projects or become part of our advisory board,” says Hill. “It is great that there is such a feeling of warmth towards the ICBD and a desire to help the next generation of brewers and distillers.

“The degree courses cover a wide spectrum of disciplines, from raw materials and microbiology, to chemical engineering, distillation, packaging and also business management.

“The combination of teaching and research allows our students to get fully immersed in all aspects of brewing and distilling, teaching more than just the ‘how’,” adds Hill.

It’s this understanding of the need to adapt their programmes to service this new-found desire in students to be educated in these production techniques, both practical and theoretical, that has seen the academic staff at the centre able to move quickly to adapt and accommodate the growing numbers of applicants – and to better provide innovative ways of offering the education needed to put this new crop of producers at the forefront of the industry.

“Our students learn not only the fundamentals of the processes, but also how they are all connected and how they may be improved. Through research projects students are encouraged to be curious and to think about where their work fits with what is already going on – this helps them to think more widely and also find out more about the industry that they are entering.”

A perfect example of this integration with the wider industry at large and working with former students comes in the form of their Natural Selection Brewing (NSB) project, a collaboration with Edinburgh-based alumni Steve Stewart, who co-founded Stewart Brewing in 2004 with his wife Jo, shortly after graduating.

Speaking about his time on the course, Jo explains that Steve described it as hugely rewarding and desired to give something back if he could.

She says: “Steve absolutely loved the degree and thought it was very thorough in terms of the technical aspects and science of brewing. However, he felt that if he had some more practical experience of bringing a product to market, it would have been really beneficial for when it came to starting our brewery.”

From these discussions, NSB was born, with the idea being to allow a team of postgraduate students to set up their own beer company, develop and test different recipes through small-batch test brews, and create a 5,000-litre run of their final recipe.

Now in its ninth year, this year’s group have just successfully launched their beer in several major cities across the country, giving the four Heriot-Watt students that were successful in their applications to the project – which are handled like real job interviews – vital hands-on experience in working within the industry.

The Stewart team confirms that they also learn a lot from the project, with Jo stating that this year’s drive for sustainability by the NSB team in a bid to create a carbon-neutral brewing process has challenged the Loanhead brewery to also look at how they can reduce the carbon footprint of some of their production processes.

It’s the circular nature of this connection with students and former students that Dr Hill says makes working at the centre so appealing.

“One of the best things about being part of the teaching staff is to see graduates succeed. It is particularly nice when graduates get back in touch – often they do when recruiting, so we regularly receive requests for our newer graduates,” she notes.

“Our principals tend to make a joke at graduation that if any of the students ever find themselves in a faraway place needing help, that they should just go to the nearest brewery or distillery, as they are likely to find a Heriot-Watt graduate there who will be willing to assist.”

Heriot-Watt University’s student clearing application service can be found at https://www.hw.ac.uk/study/clearing/important-information.htm

This article first appeared in The Scotsman’s Food and Drink 2019 supplement. A digital version can be found here.