The Beer Necessities of Life: a brief history of brewing in Edinburgh

October 15, 2021

photo shows the History of Brewing in Abbeyhill mural on the side of the Bellfield taproom wall painted by artists from Colony of Artists

by John D. Martin

The history of brewing in Edinburgh goes a long way back, though perhaps not as far as the evidence found in ‘paleofeces’ (ancient poop) in a salt mine in the Alps this week!

Brewing began as early as the 12th century, when the religious orders came to Scotland and King David I granted land to the monks, to build an Abbey at Holyrood (now ruined). 

By the 15th century, brewers, along with bakers and ‘fleshers’ were regarded  purveyors of the necessities of life. 

Brewing at that time was mostly practised in the home, by women.

In 1596, the ‘Society of Brewers’ was established to regulate all aspects of the trade, including grain supply, malt, water for brewing and pricing policies.

Although Edinburgh had an abundance of water thanks to rivers, springs and lochs, due to poor sanitation it was unsafe to drink.  

As a result, people turned to beer as a means of liquid intake and nourishment.  

It wasnt until the the Georgian era in Edinburgh (1714-c. 1837) that brewing evolved from being a domestic craft, into commercial enterprises.   

Edinburgh was expanding rapidly with the building of the ‘New Town’ and by 1770, men and materials were pouring into the city as construction got underway.

It was a good time to be brewing beer.

Demand for accommodation, food and beer soared and, as a result, brewery businesses flourished.  

At that time when you visited a tavern, you didn’t ask for a pint of beer, you asked for a ‘chopin’ (1.5 imperial pints).

Or, if you were a bit less thirsty, you’d  ask for a ‘mutchkin’ (0.75 imperial pint).

Robert Burns, on his regular visits to Edinburgh, frequented several taverns.

One in particular, Johnnie Dowie’s, was renowned for its ale brewed by Archibald Younger at Holyrood (a stone’s throw from Bellfield). 

The beer at that time was said to be “so potent it almost glued your lips together”.   

In the 1800s, the number of breweries in Edinburgh grew to over forty, mainly due to the excellent, underground water supply, which became known as the ‘Charmed Circle’ and a good supply of locally grown barley.  

The Canongate and Abbeyhill areas of Edinburgh alone, had as many as twenty breweries.

photo: courtesy of the Scottish Brewing Archive Association (SBAA)

Thanks to the sheer number of breweries in the city  in the second half of the 19th century, Edinburgh became known as the brewing capital of Britain.  

At their peak, Edinburgh ales were more famous than Scotch Whisky and were renowned the world over. 

Today, Scotland is - once again - experiencing a brewing revolution, with growing numbers of breweries offering a wider range of beers and styles than ever before.

The main aim of the SBAA is to promote the history of brewing in Scotland. SBAA gives talks, presentations and walking tours.  

The Abbeyhill walking tour (one of three SBAA offer in Edinburgh) starts at the Palace of Holyroodhouse and ends at the Bellfield Brewery.

Team Bellfield can vouch for the Abbeyhill walking tour: we did it last year and it was a blast!

Visit the SBAA website for further information.

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