Thursday, 26 January 2012

Aitken's Old Brewery

Alfred Barnard - where would I be without him? Having to make do with poorly-written newspaper reports draughted by journalists with no understanding of brewing. Barnard's writing is joyful and his eye for detail uncanny. It's not just the quality of his brewery reports but their quantity that make him such a crucial figure. He really did visit just about every significant brewery in the UK. With one inexplicable exception: William McEwan. Strange that he didn't merit an entry in the Oxford Companion to Beer.

A bit annoying, that. Because, while I have decent enough descriptions of William Younger from other sources, I've none of McEwans. Judging by the profits it generated, it must have been in at least the top 20 UK breweries and probably the top ten.

But I'm wandering away from my theme like a concussed man with 10 pints in his belly. Which, funnily enough, is precisely how I feel. Aitken. That's the theme. His old brewery.

The timing of Barnard's visit was unfortuitous in some instances. Several of the breweries that interest me he visited just before major rebuilding works. Like Hole's. Aitken, too. Within 10 years the brewery Bernard visited was abandonned and searching vainly for a new owner. While progress progressed in the new brewery on the opposite side of Newmarket Street.

Let's get started. Oh, the new brewhouse he talks of is the old new brewhouse, if you see what I mean. Barnard says that he was shown around by the senior partner. That was presumably John Aitken, who died in 1898.

"Entering the brewhouse yard, we passed up a long arched passage, when we found ourselves in a paved courtyard, in the centre of which a tall chimney shaft rears its head. Facing  us, as we entered the enclosure, is the old family residence, in which the grandfather and father of the present partner were born, a part of which is now appropriated to the business, and the remainder used as a dwelling house for the foreman of the works. The original brewhouse, built by the founder, is on the right of the yard, the ground floor of which is now used as a yeast store, and the floor above as the hop loft. This building is fronted by the more modern brewery, which faces Newmarket Street, and extends back a distance of 150 feet. Entering the new brewhouse, we passed up a staircase to the grist room, to which place the malt is hoisted by a block tackle, and delivered into the receiving hopper. The mill room is below, and occupies a recess of the mashing stage. It contains a pair of steel malt-rolls, capable of grinding twenty quarters per hour. Over the mill there is a screening machine, by which the malt is finally cleaned before being crushed. To the mill room succeeds the grist loft The grist travels upwards by a set of elevators, which deliver it to the malt hoppers over the tuns.
"The Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 2" by Alfred Barnard, 1889, pages 192-193.

It was typical for some staff to live, or at least stay overnight, on-site. Most breweries had a head brewers house, which had often started life as the owners residence. Of course, at one time it was common for the one of the owners to be head brewer. This became less the case towards the end of the 19th century when the partners tended to become full-time managers and employ a head brewer.

"Ascending the staircase, we passed through a doorway into the copper room, the highest place in the brewery, where is to be seen a domed copper of 140 barrels content, which is heated by steam coils, accelerated by fire. From the windows we saw, on the other side of the valley, the Forth gleaming in the distance and glimmering through the trees, having for its background our old friends, the Ochil hills. Amid a dense mass of steam we could discern from this stage, the mashing proceedings below, and inhale the delightful odour of malt and hops.

On the same level we were shown two open coppers, each of eighty barrels content, with parachute fountains therein, to control the boiling. We peeped into one of the coppers not in use, it was as clean, bright and shining as a new pin. The roof of this brewhouse is open to the rafters, and, in addition to the windows in the wall, is lighted on one side by a skylight On the other side there is a capacious cold liquor tank for supplying the coppers. Descending a few steps, we reached the brewer's room and laboratory, the walls and ceilings of which are lined with pitch pine. The sides of this pretty room are fitted with shelves for specimens and samples, they also contain all necessary scientific apparatus used by brewers. Below this and the adjoining rooms is the hop-loft, occupying what was once the chief suite of rooms in the old house. The windows are darkened with blue glass, and the room is capable of storing 250 Pockets of hops.
"The Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 2" by Alfred Barnard, 1889, page 193.

Now that's confusing. They've three coppers, one domed and two open. The larger one sounds like the coppers that were common in England, enclosed and heated by steam. Though "accelerated by fire" implies that it was also directly heated. Unfortunately we're not told how the smaller coppers are heated. Damn. I'd been hoping to put another nail in copper carmelisation's coffin.

Having their own lab shows they were taking the business of brewing seriously. True, most large breweries had one by this time, but Aitken wasn't really all that big. An 80-barrel copper implies quite a small batch size. When we look at the mashing department in the next instalment we'll see confirmation of this.

Barnard's tour was in an illogical order, in terms of brewing. Surely you should look at the mash tun first, then the copper. Never mind. I would have swapped it around but, you know, I like, can't be arsed. I want to save my brain power for something more important. Like selecting lunch.

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