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A Brief History of Scottish Brewing

Enjoy this tour of Scotland’s oldest operating brewery, Belhaven, hosted by Dig it! TV’s Saga as a part of the Uncovering East Lothian series. Although most people tend to associate whiskey with Scotland’s drink of choice, the brewing of beer has an over 5000 year history, beginning in the Neolithic period.

The earliest evidence of beer brewing in Scotland dates to the Neolithic period, coming from Skara Brae on Orkney. Archaeologist Merryn Dineley examined pottery for residue which would indicate cereal production, including malting, mashing, and fermentation. Her research concludes that brewing activities were taking place. Brewing during this period was taking place in the same living spaces as other activities such cooking and minding children. So while we have evidence of the production and consumption of beer, there was not a designated beer production site, such as a brewery or pub as we know of today. This earliest evidence seems to indicate brewing as a small scale, local operation that was a simply of a part of community activity.

While the creation and consumption of beer originates with some of the earliest peoples, many of the brewing traditions we are familiar with today began in the medieval period with monastic orders. For example, in the 12th century the monks at Holyrood took advantage of the spring water to brew their ale. Other sites, such as Belhaven at Dunbar and Wellpark on the East side of Glasgow began as monastic brewing operations.
While brewing began as small local operations, as we move into the Industrial Period of the 19th and 20th centuries, advancements in technology and transportation caused an explosion in the industry. Edinburgh, due to its good water sources and access to transportation, began to be one of the largest producers of beer in Scotland, at one time hosting 38 breweries. By the late 19th century, the process of beer creation had been revolutionized, partially resulting from the work of Louis Pasteur. It became necessary for each brewery to have a chemist on staff; this led to the partnership of famous brewer William Younger and William McCowan in 1877. It was through this partnership that lager was pioneered in Scotland and commercially produced on a large scale. The exportation of beers from the Edinburgh breweries also began to grow and were, at their peak in the 19th century, were exported across the empires, as far as India and Australia.

Following the Second World War, the brewing industry took a hit, and the scale of exportation was diminished. Many breweries closed or merged. However, while the scale was greatly reduced from Industrial period, Edinburgh today, still hosts a thriving beer industry with as many as 11 microbreweries in the city and brewing is taught at Heriot-Watt University. Across Scotland there are a myriad of breweries to visit, taste at, and tour, including Belhaven.

For those wanting a closer look at Belhaven and the brewing process, the brewery will begin running tours (including a tasting!) for their 300th anniversary in March!