Monday 14 October 2019

Scottish brewing 1840 to 1880

Scottish brewing was transformed in the second half of the 19th century. As brewers grasped the opportunities offered by Empire. Scottish brewers had an established trade with England, but after 1840 they turned their eyes further afield.

Shilling Ales, the Scottish equivalent of Mild Ales were still brewed in large quantities. Often to stupidly high gravities.

They were able to boost their output far above what the Scottish market could ever have supported. But not all brewers profited. Only those in the right location: readily available raw materials, good quality water, access to railways or the sea. The industry was increasingly concentrated in a small number of towns in the Central Belt, most notably Edinburgh and Alloa.

At the start of this period, Scotland still boasted an impressive number of breweries, over 500 in total. Though this looks tiny compared to those in England:

Brewers & beer retailers in 1838
England Scotland Ireland
No. No. No.
Brewers of strong beer not exceeding 20 barrels 8,996 62 29
Brewers of strong beer exceeding 20 but not exceeding 50 barrels 8,520 24 1
Brewers of strong beer exceeding 50 but not exceeding 100 barrels 10,445 28 11
Brewers of strong beer exceeding 100 but not exceeding 1000 barrels 18,306 211 55
Brewers of strong beer exceeding 1000 barrels 1,597 114 145
Brewers of table beer 14 90
Retail brewers under 5 Geo. IV. C. 54 18 20
Total brewers 47,896 549 241
"A Cyclopaedia of Commerce, Mercantile Law, Finance, Commercial Geography and Navigation", by William Waterston, 1863, page 79

Even the largest Edinburgh brewers, William Younger and William McEwan, couldn’t compare in scale to the giants of British brewing such as Barclay Perkins, Guinness or Bass. In the early 1840’s just 195,000 barrels were brewed in Edinburgh . 

To put that figure into context, total UK beer production was between 14 and 16.5 million barrels a year in the 1840’s.  While the four largest London breweries made more than 1 million barrels a year in the same period .

By 1880, publican brewers, never as widespread in Scotland as in England, almost totally disappeared. In 1888, there were just 36 remaining . Brewing was dominated by a few dozen brewers, mostly within spitting distance of each other. "The London and Suburban Licensed Victuallers' Directory" of 1874 lists 130 Scottish breweries . This is a breakdown by region:

Scottish breweries by region in 1874
north central west coast south
27 79 17 7

The industry was becoming very concentrated in the central lowlands and Edinburgh, with 26 breweries, was by far the biggest brewing centre . Tiny Alloa boasted six breweries, not that many fewer than the ten of far larger Glasgow. Aberdeenshire, with 14, was the only other region with a decent number of breweries.

The above is an extract from the best book ever written on Scottish brewing, my Scotland! vol. 2:


Barm said...

But William McEwan didn't start brewing until 1856 so how could he have been one of the largest Edinburgh brewers in the 1840s?

Ron Pattinson said...


the McEwan reference ia about the whole period 1840 to 1880. Not specifially the 1840s. The output number from the 1840s is just the one I happen to have.