My last trip had been to one of the newest breweries in Scotland, Bute Brew Co. - this time I was heading to the oldest brewery in Scotland, Belhaven Brewery just outside Dunbar near the East Lothian coast. Now I'm not the biggest Belhaven fan (to-be-honest I really don't like their flagship kegged Belhaven Best at all), but since they only provide formal tours on weekdays (not normally the best time for me) and I had this Friday off, today was the perfect opportunity to book-up, see how a relatively large, more commercially-orientated, brewery operates in Scotland in the 21st Century, and possibly change my opinion of (at least some) Belhaven beers.
Outward travel was as follows:-
Train: Glasgow Queen St to Edinburgh Waverley (every 15 minutes)
Train: Edinburgh Waverley to Dunbar (18 on the hour + others)
It was a bit of a dreich morning when I got off the train at Dunbar station and headed up into the town centre. That and the Scottish Independence Referendum result definitely gave the town a somewhat quiet, sombre atmosphere as I wandered around some of the small shops & cafés. Definitely worth a visit in Dunbar is the small museum which encompasses the 3-storey building of conservationist John Muir's Birthplace - inside there's a lot of information regarding his work in California (where he emigrated) and also of the now fully opened coast-to-coast route of the John Muir Way, stretching between Dunbar in the east and Helensburgh in the west.
Because of the mizzle I wasn't sure about whether to stay around Dunbar until the Belhaven tour, take the bus to East Linton or cycle to East Linton, but in the end I decided some physical exercise would be a good thing. I therefore headed out of town along Belhaven Road until I came to the Jet petrol station which also houses Belhaven Bikes.
It's a very professional setup they have here with all the bikes coming equipped with panniers full of maps, a toolkit and (a first for this) a spare inner tube. With raincoat and reflective top on I therefore set off due west passing Belhaven and West Barns until the Beltonford roundabout. Here I did try to find South Belton Farm and Thistly Cross cidery, but with no Google Maps connection I failed miserably (I now know why, I should have gone down to the next roundabout - fool!). Instead I decided that best idea was to continue along the cycle-path along the A199, passing the junction to North Berwick, until I came into the town of East Linton. At the outskirts of the town there's a small, but high bridge over the fast-flowing River Tyne, which was used for mill work in times gone by, with nearby Preston Mill still surviving as an NTS attraction.
I headed towards the centre of town (the Square) where there is a closed pub (The Drovers), a number of small shops, some council buildings and a distinctive fountain, complete with four cherubs and ornamental lanterns.
For food and (good) beer there's a choice of two really well-presented places in East Linton, the Crown & Kitchen opposite The Square...
...or The Linton just after the bridge over the river. To-be-honest, there wasn't much in it from a food point-of-view (both had tempting lunch-time menus displayed outside) but I decided on The Linton due to its specials (and the fact that I could see that they had 3 beers on).
I walked in through the door on the right-hand side of the building (the left-hand door wasn't open yet), went through the more formal restaurant (it also has a number of en-suite rooms) and into the main lounge/bar. It's a nice, welcoming place with a central 1/4 rectangular bar, lots of hanging glasses & tankards, plenty of malt whisky bottle sleeves, numerous small pictures & photos on the walls, a few tables dotted around and a couple of great painted glass windows - you can certainly tell that the place used to be called The Red Lion.
On the 3 hand-pulls were Scottish Borders Flower of Scotland, Allendale Golden Plover (old pump-clip) and Alechemy Starlaw, so I ordered a pint of the latter (full of decent lemon-citrus bitterness for the abv) and my lunch, sat down and chatted with the various staff who flitted in-and-out of the bar. They take beer from all over Scotland and northern England, and have had deliveries from Loch Lomond, Tryst, Tempest and even the Kinneil Brew Hoose in recent months - great to see. The tables have different 'small games' on them (mine had a couple of packs of playing cards, I didn't really fancy playing patience), but there were also loads of things on the walls to keep my attention from wandering too much.
I'd ordered the Ploughman's Fayre and the full plate came with bread, 2 different types of cheese, a pork pie, salad and loads of pate - it was very nice (and very filling) indeed. There was also the addition of a cheeky wee soup (cucumber & cumin) which was welcome and a bit different, although I think I could have used a smaller spoon to get at it.
I was on a pretty tight schedule and needed to head back to Belhaven straight away rather than try a beer at the Crown and Kitchen, and so took the same A199 route back in the direction of Dunbar (it definitely seemed more downhill going back). There's a pub just at the entrance to the road to Belhaven Brewery, The Masons Arms, and although I could see from a quick look through the windows that it was serving Knops' lovely Musselburgh Broke on cask, I didn't think I had time to stop for even a quick half.
The main entrance to Belhaven Brewery is set back only a hundred metres or so from the main road; I had to press the intercom at the gate and then head to the main visitor's reception where I locked up the bike.
Rather than let my fellow tour attendees 'bask' in the presence of my sweaty cycling top I decided I had better get changed, and when I got back I found out that we were going to be slightly delayed by the tardy arrival of a party of 4 (drats - I could have a had a beer in the Mason's Arms after all). In total there were 9 of us - 2 from the USA, 2 from Russia, 4 locals and myself from Glasgow - according to Tom, our tour guide, that was a pretty representative group of people for a brewery tour. We first of all walked past the old brewhouse & maltings to the small museum...
...where Tom showed us the Historic Building plaque which means that very little is allowed to change about the old brewhouse buildings without extensive discussions & agreement with Historic Scotland.
The small museum was originally put together for the visit by Princess Anne early in 2013 when the new state-of-the-art brewhouse was opened.
There were a number of boards describing & depicting the history of Belhaven through the ages and Tom went through these pretty quickly with us. From possible brewing by monks in the 12th century (supplying the Monastery on the Isle of May in the middle of the Firth of Forth), to the official establishment of the brewery in 1719 with lots of different shilling type beers being produced, the change in emphasis to a more maltings orientated business in the late 19th & early 20th centuries, to Sandy Hunter developing a range of modern beers after 1945 and then the selling off the family business in 1972. This allowed a significant investment in modern brewing equipment and capacity, with the (in)famous, best-selling Belhaven Best appearing in 1991. A management buy-out occurred in 1993 and then a stock market float in 1996 before Greene King of Bury St Edmunds bought the company in 2005 for £187Million. Although Greene King sold the in-house bottling line, with Belhaven beer now being transported to their own large line in Bury St Edmunds for bottling, Greene King have continued to invest at Belhaven culminating in that new brewhouse. Whilst Tom was looking for exhibits for the museum a number of interesting things were unearthed, including various old beer bottles, mirrors and beer barrel branding irons...
...but the exhibit that everyone looks at is the framed photo of a beaming Sandy Hunter (middle) pouring a beer for Miss World 1981 (Pilin Leon from Venezuela). The reason for this being that Miss World impresario Eric Morely was also Chairman of Belhaven from 1979 to 1984.
Tom then took us to the entrance of the brewhouse where there were is a flashing graphic of the brewing process (slightly out-of-date now for what happens in the new brewhouse) and proceeded to give us an overview of this...
...and there was also an exhibit of sturgeon fish-bladders which I'd never seen before (obviously they're a bit more microscopic when used as finings in beer)...
...and also the plaques commemorating the visits by Princess Anne in 1988 and 2013.
*Beware - there are lots of photos of brewing equipment from here on*
We then followed Tom into the brewhouse, initially past the old copper mash tun. This wasn't removed when the new brewhouse was installed, it would have been too disruptive and in any case it makes a great visitor attraction. It was around here that the Belhaven brewers seemed to cluster monitoring the readouts from the all equipment sensors coming from the brew that was happening.
This then led into the new brewhouse, a 2-level modern, glass & metal structure in complete contrast to the previous building and which cost over £1Million. It's pretty low due to those Historic Scotland requirements and when we were walking around the upper level I managed to bang my head on sloping roof - ouch!
It's a 140BBL German-made plant (although it can do 35-40 barrels runs for a 'smaller' batch of 'craft' beer), and they are currently brewing 4 times a day, 5 times a week. This equates to ~140,000BBLs a year and with maximum capacity of close to ~200,000BBLs, that's really a lot of beer. It all starts at the new mash tun with malted grain fill chute...
...and there's a similarly sized lauter tun to maximise the yield from the malt. They were still brewing late on a Friday afternoon, with *shock* Old Speckled Hen actually being brewed here (which seems to be the norm for the last brew of the week).
In between the 2 huge stainless steel tuns is a sampling station where colour & gravity is checked.
Also up here are the chutes for the hops - there are 3 of these for the 3 different times when the hops are added to the boil in the copper. Because of the size of the brew-run only hop pellets are used.
The final vessel in the new brewhouse is the new copper - this is set behind a perspex screen since it can get seriously hot when boiling all that wort.
There are 6 huge fermentation tanks where the hot, bitter-sweet wort is cooled and then the yeast is pitched.
In addition there are another 28 more 'standard' fermentation & conditioning vessels (these are still pretty huge). 18 of them are here as they disappear off into the distance with the other located 10 in another building.
Their conical bottoms taper off the further down into the building they go with mostly rounded conditioning tanks at the far end. Cask beer is taken out from here quite early in the fermentation process and put into another section of the brewery (which we didn't see).
For kegged beer Belhaven puts an emphasis on absolute clarity and so filtration is highly important - in this part of the building are a couple of centrifuges and a large plate filter (similar to the one I remember seeing at Tennents Wellpark Brewery.
All kegged Belhaven beer is produced and shipped from this brewery so there is a large kegging line. It was being cleaned with caustic late this afternoon so we could actually chat away - normally ear defenders are needed in here.
As we headed outside and back to the old brewhouse we passed the collection point where the spent grain is collected. In days gone by this would be collected by individual farmers bur nowadays, with such a large amount of grain, this is now subcontracted out. This was also about the best photo I got of the old malting chimneys.
*Photos of brewing equipment are now finished*
Finally we headed back into the old brewhouse buildings and to the in-house Belhaven bar, the Monk's Retreat.
It's a fairly small place (nothing like the in-house Molendinar Bar at Tennents), but still has a nice old-fashioned feel with lots of dark wood panelling, rounded hanging lights and some Belhaven Brewery mirrors...
...a display of old and new style bottles...
...and also the well-stocked main bar. Today there were a number of kegged beers (standard and 'craft'), lots of bottles in the fridge, but no cask beer (sob!). For some reason the cask beer tasting panel hadn't convened that morning which meant there were no cask beers to try (sob again!).
Pulling myself together I decided instead that it would be a worthwhile exercise to try some of the new Belhaven bottled 'craft' beer range. Some of these are just re-branded versions of current beers, for example the St Andrews Ale (and I'm not sure why would you change such a distinctive label/pump-clip), but some are completely new beers. First of all I tried the Oak Aged Speyside Blonde - upfront it was quite tangeriney sweet, there was a bit of an alcohol hit with a smooth oaky, peaty finish - it was pretty good. Next a few of us shared the single bottle of the 90/- Wee Heavy that was available. For some reason this is only going to made available for the export market (a real shame) and was full of sweet sugar toffee, quite malty, with lots of burnt Christmas Pudding spices and a bitter chocolate finish - it was nice from the bottle but I'm sure would be great on cask, which supposedly it has been on before at the Monk's Retreat (still sobbing!).
I then tried the Craft Pilsner from keg, supposedly with different noble hops than the standard Scottish Lager, and although there was some smooth dry bitterness in the finish, there still wasn't enough for me. However I finished off with the Scottish Oat Stoat, another high abv 'craft' beer with lots of liquorice, dark chocolate, smooth from the oats and a bitter dark chocolate finish - again this was more than drinkable. All of these (bar the Pilsner) were very tasty, and I rated them quite highly on untappd, but when I think back on them outwith the context of a great afternoon out, they might just have been a bit too crisp, maybe a bit too one-dimensional without the full melding of sweetness, bitterness, aroma & texture that some of the outstanding British micro/craft-breweries (oh - just say breweries) have been doing for a number of years. Maybe I'll just have to take the tour again for a 2nd time to be sure about this. What I can say is that the afternoon was informative, great fun, I was surprised by the full access we had to the old & new brewery buildings, and I could have stayed for a long, long time in the Monk's Retreat - really great stuff and thanks to Tom and my fellow tour attendees for making it that way.
Thankfully it was only a few hundred yards along the road to Belhaven Bikes where I apologised for being late ("I can think of worse places to be on a Friday afternoon" said the owner of store) and I then headed back into the centre of Dunbar. I only had a short time before my train (for some reason the rush-hour trains are not as frequent as the mid-morning ones), but I was able to get down to the fantastic harbour-side area of Dunbar with its RNLI station and old castle.
On a prominent position overlooking the harbours (there are 2 here, with a 3rd near Belhaven) is the distinctive looking Volunteer Arms (not to be confused with the Volunteer Arms/Staggs in nearby Musselburgh).
The place was really busy just after work on a Friday afternoon, with loads of people standing in & around the doorway and around the bar (possibly fishermen & harbour folk). I was able to squeeze in a very quick half of Broughton Dark Dunter, and sit down at the back away from the scrum at the bar, but it'd be great to come back when it's not so busy, have a look around the nautical-themed interior and try some of their fresh, local seafood.
Train: Dunbar to Edinburgh Waverley (02 on the hour + some others)
Train: Edinburgh Waverley to Glasgow Queen St (every 15 minutes)