THERE was a time when the idea of a beer festival in Scotland would probably have evoked images of cheap lager, killer hangovers and a mudbath.
Those days are long gone. Thanks to Brewdog and a host of other tech-savvy independents as adept at using Twitter hashtags as they are at fermentation, craft beer is thriving and transforming negative perceptions of Scotland’s other national drink.
The Independents festival, which kicks off next week, marks a new milestone in the expansion of independent beer, with never-before-seen brands set to make their debut on the Capital’s competitive drinking scene.
Organisers Chris Mair and Bruce Gray are calling the event a first for Edinburgh – a festival focused on quality, featuring highly innovative products and taking place in eight bars across the city.
The beers, ranging from Magic Rock Bourbon Barrel Aged Bearded Lady to Hawkshead Bladnoch aged Brodies Reserve Stout, are specially sourced and incredibly rare. Many will be available to taste for the first time in Scotland.
“This will be the best craft beer from some of the very best breweries in the UK,” says Chris, who is also director of Craft Centric, a beer-focused consultancy and branding firm. “Some of these beers haven’t been drunk before anywhere.”
From concept to nuts-and-bolts organisation, the festival has been put together in short order. The idea for a collaborative event serving the best independent beers throughout the Capital only emerged in June during discussion between organisers and the city’s bar owners.
Getting his hands on some of the rarest beers in the world in a matter of weeks was, says Chris, something of a challenge.
“The fact we managed to get any beer at all in some cases was a bit of a miracle,” he laughs. “If you order beer from Buxton, for example, you are usually on an eight-week wait. These brewers are mental busy.
“But the producers generally were incredibly compliant and very keen to be involved. They’ve all made an extremely special effort to allocate the beer from their normal production capacity and some of them have even put beer into kegs rather than cask, which they haven’t done before.”
According to Chris, the festival has come at an opportune moment for independent brewers and bar owners, both in the Capital and further afield.
With disposable income squeezed by the recession and margins hit by the government’s recently introduced high-strength beer duty, he argues it has never been more important to promote quality to consumers.
“There’s one rare beer which people will be able to buy at this festival – JJJ IPA, by the Moor Brewing Company,” he explains. “It’s 9.5 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV). It’s an outstanding IPA.
“But when the government introduced the beer duty, the producers said the beer would never be sold in the UK because of the tax. We’re really proud that we will be able to get them to send us a cask of this beer and that this will be the first time it’s drunk in the UK for years.
“The duty is killing our industry and it’s killing creativity. It was introduced to tackle binge drinking, but binge drinkers don’t binge on nine per cent beers.”
The sheer range and combination of flavours at the festival should certainly draw in drinkers. Bourbon Barrel Aged Bearded Lady, a stout produced by Huddersfield-based Magic Rock Brewing, will be one of the rare beers on offer.
Matured over five months in a bourbon barrel, it has appeared at a beer festival in Norway and select venues in London, Brighton and Leeds, but is otherwise unknown among British, and certainly Scottish, drinkers.
“There will be something like 700 breweries in the UK, with maybe ten, 15, at most which have ever done this sort of beer – matured over such a long period,” says Stuart Ross, Magic Rock head brewer. “Beer is normally matured over a couple of weeks but this way the flavour comes out far more rounded, with spicy bourbon notes.”
He adds: “People are being more cautious with what they spend their money on at the moment – they want their money to go on something better and this festival is catering for that.
“It’s the more progressive brewers that are involved in this, and the festival as a whole is organised around a group of really good beers, with different brewers taking over individual bars.”
One of those bars is the Caley Sample Room, whose manager, Darren Blackburn, 37, came up with the idea of a beer festival taking place on July 4 and embodying the spirit of American independence.
He says the Independents festival will be a departure from the norm as he will collaborate with rival bar owners who normally provide him with competition.
“We are all pretty competitive. We’ll drink in each other’s bars but if a new brewer comes up, we’ll be fighting to get their beer first,” he laughs. “So it was nice sitting down with other managers and businesses in Edinburgh and talking about how we could help each other.”
For Chris, the festival marks something of a coming of age for a sector of Scotland’s food and drink industry that, only a few years ago, was barely on the public radar.
“Brewdog made a huge impact,” he says. “They changed the way people in the industry viewed marketing, PR, and they launched themselves very quickly into the public consciousness.
“Now more and more people are realising there’s a market for craft beer and that’s what this festival is capitalising on.”