Scotland’s Influence on American Beer
Shortly after Bert Grant filed incorporation papers with Washington State in 1981 to open the nation’s first brewpub since Prohibition, he and the critic Michael Jackson were talking about the inaugural beer produced at that brewpub, which was carved out of an old opera house in Yakima and named after the city.
“Isn’t this on the hoppy side for a Scotch ale?,” Jackson asked Grant.
“Yes,” Grant replied, “all beers should be hoppier.” Grant himself was given to walking around with a vial of hop juice so as to spice any beers deemed insufficiently bitter.
The world’s leading beer critic pressed his host. “Is it really fair to sell it as a Scotch ale?” Scotch ales were traditionally lighter on the hops and heavier on the malts.
“It is Scotch ale because I created it,” Grant said firmly. “I am Scottish.”
He had Jackson on a technicality: Grant was born in Scotland and spent his first two years there, before the family decamped to Ontario, Canada, where he grew up; he had been in the United States, working in the hops-growing and brewing industries, for years. But the Scottish bit never left him, down to Grant’s penchant for kilts and a claymore sword to enforce his brewpub’s smoking ban.
Grant, who died in 2001 and whose brewpub went a few years later, is just one example of Scotland’s influence on American brewing in the last few decades—something to remember and to celebrate as Scotland votes on independence Sept. 18.
Around the same time Jackson and Grant were parsing Scotch ales, David Geary was contemplating unemployment, after the company he sold medical supplies for went bankrupt. The Portland, ME, resident could not stomach, at age 38, sending out resumes. So he contacted the 20th Laird of Traquair.
The laird, Peter Maxwell Stuart, had in 1965 revived the brewery at his family’s Scottish estate, a dictatorially ornate number dating from 1107, complete with a hedge maze and priest holes. Geary knew Stuart’s American importer; and the two met when the laird visited Portland. Before he left, Stuart told Geary he should contact him if ever wanted to learn the brewing trade.
Geary did just that when he lost his job. And, shortly after incorporating the D.L. Geary Brewing Co. with the State of Maine in late 1983, Geary split for three months in Scotland and England to learn how to make beer. A lot of that time was spent at Traquair, which Michael Jackson, in his World Guide to Beer, described as “the most Scottish of breweries.”
Indeed, Geary found the whole affair charming—to a degree. “At one point the laird called my name from outside,” Geary would recall of a tea break with his fellow brewery workers, “and I could see George and Ian become tense about the prospect of being caught away from their duties. It surprised me somewhat. I guess I thought this whole estate was a storybook affair, but it’s clear that it’s a business, and a large one at that.”
Jack McAuliffe’s brewing apprenticeship, as it were, started at nothing as grand as what’s now Scotland’s oldest inhabited house. Instead, his began in late 1966 at a Boots convenience store in Glasgow. He was running errands during his time off as a U.S. Navy mechanic on the Polaris nuclear submarines in Holy Loch about 35 miles to the west.
His tour there was dwindling; McAuliffe would eventually ship Stateside, which created one particular concern. How would he ever get the flavorful, fuller beers he had gotten used to in Scotland? His native land was increasingly dominated by Americanized pilsners such as Budweiser.
It was during the Boots run, after spying a display of rudimentary homebrewing kits, that the idea hit him like a thunderbolt: He would brew his own. McAuliffe bought the makings of a pale ale; a homebrewing guide; and a plastic trash can.
Back at his cottage in Dunoon, a town near Holy Loch, McAuliffe stoked the kitchen’s coal-burning fireplace and got to work boiling the admixture of water and syrups from the kit. While the wort, or unfermented beer, cooled, he cleaned out the trash can; he then poured that wort into the can, added yeast, and let it ferment. The final product wasn’t terrible; even the local Scots liked it, never mind McAuliffe’s fellow service members.
McAuliffe imported this newfound homebrewing prowess to the U.S., and eight years after he left the Navy in 1968, he opened the New Albion Brewing Co. in part of an old fruit warehouse in Sonoma County, in California wine country. Gravity powered the brewhouse, which contemporaries and McAuliffe himself described as basically a homebrewing kit writ large—similar to the one he’d gotten in Scotland.
Note: In my last column, about the roots of North Carolina’s recent beer boom, I got something wrong. The state’s first new brewery since Prohibition was not the Stroh’s in Winston-Salem, but a Charlotte branch of the Atlanta-based Atlantic Ice and Coal Company. That brewery opened in 1936, and lasted into the 1950s. Thanks to Daniel Anthony Hartis, author of Charlotte Beer, for pointing out the omission. It’s especially egregious for me—I grew up in Charlotte. See, dear reader, beer history is all around you.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.