Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Aitchison's last days

Bored of Younger (William and George) and Calder? Let's find another Scottish brewery to talk about. I know, what about Aitchison?

The brewery was founded by William Kerr in 1730. At that time, it was located in Peebles. William Aitchison bought the brewery in 1810. In 1830 he built a brewery in Edinburgh and brewing stopped in Peebles. The Edinburgh brewery was on the South Back of Canongate, now called Holyrood Road. It was transformed into a limited company called John Aitchison & Co. Ltd. in 1895. In the early 1900's the company bought a bottler and several pubs on Tyneside. It was bought by Hammonds United Breweries in 1959 and closed in 1961, with all brewing transferred to the Hammonds' other Edinburgh brewery, John Jeffrey & Co. Ltd.*

There's the potted history out of the way. Now let's hear what Hammonds found when they ventured north to their Scottish outpost:

"Aitchison's brewery was at the end of the Royal Mile; it straddled the main street. The beer was brewed on one side and barreled, and then the traffic halted whilst it was rolled over to the keeping cellar on the other; the cellarmen were often quite nonchalant about this practice and sometimes would manoeuvre barrels between the moving traffic. Bill Aichison had nominal charge of the brewery. He was an introverted man, whose main interest in life appeared to be the study of brewery boiler temperatures. He lefty the running of the brewery to the brewer, a man of weak character who did not get along with Matthew Armstrong, who had been brought in to liven up business. As stated, the brewery was a problem, infected and lacking any form of quality control; which showed in the constant troubled with the beer sent south to Tyneside.

. . . .

Jim Collinson, who had been thrust by unregulated chance into the role of company trouble-shooter for brewing matters, was sent north to investigate, to propose, and implement change. First he went around the Aitchison public houses on Tyneside, and was horrified by what he saw in the way of cellar management. Cleaning and stock control procedures in the public houses were established with the licensees, and for the first time in the Aitchison company history. Gradually there was an improvement at the point of sale of the beer; at the same time procedures in the brewery had to be tackled. Inspection there revealed that the yeast was heavily infected, and was the essential cause of the cloudy beer. The brewing routine ensured that the infection continued, as beer returned from trade was tipped back into the fermenting vessels. Drastic hygiene rules were introduced, but as soon as Jim Collinson came out of the brewery, the Scottish sense of economy made the brewing staff put the infected yeast pressings into the bottled beer conditioning tanks, rather than lose them. So whilst the draught beer had been improved, the bottled beer had become infected and cloudy. The resident brewer, unable or unwilling to exercise his authority, had to go; and he went. Things looked up thereafter. Whilst the crisis lasted it was a nightmare for those involved; Jim Collinson declared it was the only time he had ever been in a brewery which had not one barrel of saleable beer in any of its pubs.

. . . .

Aitchison's small estate of sixty eight houses was in poor order; those I inspected in England were bad enough, but were palaces compared with those in Edinburgh. They were literally drinking holes with no shred of comfort, which was true of most licensed premises in Scotland then; and the north of England was not much better. In Scotland the bleakness had been turned into an art form - bare wooden floors with sawdust, spittoons, zinc counter tops, the customers almost entirely men, outside toilets, and beer slopping everywhere; a silent, brooding atmosphere, as though something was about to happen."
"The Brewing Industry 1950-1990: Reflective Essays 1950-1990" by Anthony Avis, 1996, pages 70 - 71.
The problems at Aitchison's weren't unusual. Many brewing companies were in a similar state after WW II. A combination of years of underinvestment and apathetic management left them barely able to brew stable beer. When the owners lost interest as well, they were easily persuaded to sell up.

Aitchison's were on the extreme end. If they were tipping ullage back into the  fermenters it's little wonder their yeast was buggered. How long had things been that bad? And how on earth could they still manage to sell their beer in such an undrinkable state? Not one barrel of saleable beer in any of its pubs. That's sad.

Though it reminds me of the last days of Home Ales in Nottingham. When they couldn't track down the infection source in their new brewhouse. Their beer went from being amongst the most reliable in the country to awful. Every batch, to one degree or another, infected. Eventually they sold out to S & N. A sad end.

Were Aitchison's pubs as miserable as described? It's all a matter of taste, I guess. Knowing mine, I'd probably have found them delightfully unspoilt. Most of the pubs I drank in as a youth had outside bogs. They were bog standard. I can't see anything wrong with that. Nor bare wooden floors. Not sure about my stance on spittoons: I've never come across one.

You know where that description reminds me of? The Giblet. Though obviously that's in Glasgow.

Know what? I think I'll run with Aitchison for a while. I feel a table coming on . . . .

*"The Brewing industry: a guide to historical records" by Lesley Richmond and Alison Turton, 1990, page 39.

1 comment:

Gary Gillman said...

Interesting as always.

There are a number of comments in 19th century literature about mixing stale beer or returns with fermenting wort or of course mild beer. It was said when done with mild beer, a slight fermentation would start and an "expected flavour" would result. See Thomson & Stewart in particular on this and IIRC, they linked the origin of porter to similar practices done by the publicans.

I would think something similar would happen when combining fermenting beer and ullage and the expected flavour was likely a skein of tartness in the malty profile.

But one can also envisage a kind of Frankenbrew resulting and I wonder if the experience at Aitchison's was an example. Perhaps though it was just a strange taste to a larger brewer's lab - just as today the appearance of cobwebs in some Belgian breweries raises similar eyebrows.

In Ontario I recall reading 20 years ago that one large brewery at least tipped "old" bottled beer received back from the Provincial distribution system into racking tanks. This beer would not have been sour because it was pasteurized, but it might have been a little oxidized in some cases!

I believe this was an echo of old practices from the U.K. done partly for economy, partly (at least originally) for palate. I've added small amounts of "sour" beer to a fresh one of the same kind and it really can improve the basic palate, but you have to do it right. I think Combrune said, don't add more than 1 part old beer to 7 (or 8 maybe) of new. He was right, IMO.