Based in Loanhead on the southern outskirts of Edinburgh, Stewart Brewing is one of the leading lights of Scotland's craft brewing scene. Founded in 2004 by Steve and Jo Stewart, the brewery has grown from a husband-and-wife cottage industry to staffing 25 employees and operating a large custom-built facility, which includes an 18 tap Growler Fill Station (allowing customers to take home beers straight from the keg) and the UK’s first experimental brew-it-yourself Craft Beer Kitchen. If you're anything like us, you'll have pricked up your ears at the phrase 'brew-it-yourself', which is why we were thrilled when Stewart's very kindly invited us along to try it out.
The day began promisingly with some beer-drinking in the Growler Fill Station. This wasn't just an attempt to stage the mythical piss-up in a brewery - we were sampling various beers in an effort to find some inspiration for how we wanted ours to taste. If you're a craft beer aficionado, you may already have some points of reference or even a preferred recipe ahead of time - indeed, some local microbrewers, such as Natural Selection Brewing, team up with Stewart's to make their own beers for retail. If you consider yourself more of a novice though, the best practise is to taste a few beers, pick out a couple of favourites and say, 'I'd like it to taste a bit like that'.
Sampling duly completed, we headed through to the Kitchen with our pro brewer, Craig, for a leaf through the Craft Beer Kitchen recipe book. There are over 50 recipes to choose from and, given that there's some wiggle room in measurements and mixtures, the final product will almost certainly be unique to you. Based on our tastings, we opted for a light, summery ale.
Now for some beer science. Traditional brewing requires the boiling of barley in order to extract the crop's natural sugars (yeast will feed on this sugar during the fermentation process, creating alcohol). In order to fit the process comfortably into an afternoon, Stewart's gives you the option of running an extract brew (as opposed to a full grain brew), which uses a pre-prepared malt extract instead of waiting for the barley to boil. The malt extract is the dense, treacly liquid we're measuring out above - after selecting the right variety and making sure we had the right amount for our brew, we poured it into the water in the kettle and gave it a good stir.
With the extract prepped, it was time to add in our hops. There are three varieties of hops to add in at specific times during the boil. The bittering hops, which give the beer its bitterness (duh), go in at the start; they're followed by the flavour hops, which, you guessed it, give the beer its core flavour - they're added 45 minutes into the hour-long brew, meaning they're boiled less and therefore retain more of their flavour. Finally, once the boiling is done, the aroma hops are added - these aren't boiled at all, instead stewing in the brew and therefore retaining all of their flavour and aroma. Some hops had been processed into pellet form, meaning they dissolved in the brew; hop flowers, on the other hand, are cooked in an oversized teabag to be easily fished out later.
After an hour, which we filled with more beer tasting (all in the name of research, of course) and a tour round the brewery, we watched as our beer was rapidly cooled and yeast added. We were even able to have a taste of the beer in its raw, pre-fermentation state (and out of a nifty scientific test tube to boot). Fun fact: there's a reason bars don't sell raw beer. It's minging.
Our day at the brewery complete, we made our unsteady way home to wait a few weeks while the beer was fermented, conditioned, bottled and labelled for us. While Stewart's offer a standard template label, you're welcome to design your own - which, in accordance with historic beer-making traditions, must (a) look horrific and (b) contain some sort of groanworthy play on words. Owing to an unfortunate combination of misplaced emails and a camera phone memory wipe, our nightmare-inducing label design is the only evidence we have the final beer existed (the bevvy itself having mysterious disappeared down our gullets). May we present: the Hair of the Dog summer ale!
If it makes you feel any better, the contents of the bottle were much better than the label would suggest.
Fancy making your own beer? Stewart Brewing's Craft Beer Kitchen is open Wednesday-Sunday, with prices starting from £185 for 40 litres to £240 for 80 litres/ This works out to about £1.70 a pint, and includes everything from your tour round the brewery to the beer you drink on-site. Visit the Craft Beer Kitchen website for more info and booking.