Edinburgh is a city of two towns. There is Old Town, which is the chaotic mess of narrow streets and impossible inclines that follow the Royal Mile downhill from Edinburgh Castle, dating back to the 1200s. Across what was a lake and is now a train station lays New Town, a classic example of Edwardian precision with its designed, geometric streetscape and elegant grey stone buildings.
As it works out, the beer scene in Edinburgh is similarly bipolar. I spent a few days in the historic Scottish city this past summer and had ample opportunity to soak in the city's beer offerings. Overall, the brewing industry is relatively small in Scotland, easily dwarfed by the thousands of breweries found in England—there are fewer than 90 breweries in all of Scotland. But don't let that fool you, there is some world-class brew to be found.
On the old side, Edinburgh displays some of the best of traditional British and Scottish ales. You could see it in many of the pubs—and without question one of Edinburgh's highlights is its pubs. Just like England, Scotland abides by the traditional pub: small, quiet (meaning no TV or music) and emphasizing local cask ales. Cask ale, for the uninitiated, is a traditional process where the beer is finished in the cask, unfiltered, served warmer and consumed fresh.
I spent a fair bit of time in Edinburgh pubs (surprise!). My favourites were small and friendly. In Old Town the Halfway House (halfway up a steep close) is a cozy, family-run pub where I felt like if I came back a couple of times they might let me run the bar (they let me pull a pint on my first visit). On the other side of the Royal Mile sits Bow Bar which, on the surface, is a non-descript local, but serves some of the best cask offerings in the country.
The traditional approach to brewing in Scotland is well represented by Caledonian, the last standing of the 19th century breweries. Its brick brewery, unique copper kettles and open fermentation system harken a visitor back to the heyday of British Ale in the 1800s. It offers a line-up of classic Scottish and British Ales. Some of the highlights are its Scottish Export (called 80/-, which reflects historic pricing) and its English-style Bitter, called Deuchars IPA. The brewery is about the size of Big Rock, yet two-thirds of its production is sold locally as cask ales. The place itself maintains the aura of the 1800s.
And then there is Williams Brothers, who may epitomize historic Scottish brewing. Their primary beer use ingredients used by the Picts and the Celts hundreds of years ago. Heather, pine, elderberry, gooseberry and even seaweed make their way into the brew. They also produce a line of more modern ales, but their flavourful, interesting historic ales are their signature.
But then in the midst of all this history and tradition you can find beer that rivals some of the most outrageous American craft brewers. Scotland, as you might know, is home to BrewDog, a punk-influenced, boundary-pushing brewery with a worldwide reputation. It has a pub in Edinburgh, which has the same edgy feel as its beer. I sampled a couple of beer not available in Canada, plus a couple standbys. They all have the intensity you would expect from BrewDog.
As exhibit B, The Hanging Bat is the anti-pub. Modelled after US craft-beer bars, it has a longer tap list than most (about 20) and highlights British brewers who take more inspiration from BrewDog than Caledonian. I tasted saisons, double IPAs, steam beer and barrel-aged stouts that I would have expected to come from California.
The “new” in Scottish brewing can be best seen in their bottled product. Breweries like Alechemy and Natural Selection are working to produce innovative beer that either bend traditional styles or aim for newer North American styles.
For example, there is Cromarty Red Rocker, a Rye Pale Ale that might rival the best offered in the US. This deep amber ale offers a lovely combination of toffee-like malts and a spicy hop bite. Williams Brothers, as part of their more edgy line, produce Profanity Stout, which offers an impressive American interpretation of the deep black style. The earthy hop bitterness combines with a light coffee roast to create a memorable finish. Tempest, from tiny Kelso, offers an interesting smoked oktoberfest that nicely balances bready malt and woody smoke.
Edinburgh might not be the first place one thinks of when considering classic beer cities. Munich, London, Dublin might all place higher, but trust me, if you are a beer fan and you find yourself in Edinburgh, you will have no trouble finding good beer. Remember, this is Scotch country, and basically Scotch is just distilled beer; that means they likely know a thing or two about making good beer, which is exactly what I found during my time there. V
Jason Foster is the creator of onbeer.org, a website devoted to news and views on beer from the prairies and beyond.