Vignette 24, George Howell (Belhaven)
I visited Belhaven in Dunbar, Scotland in 2011, at the tail end of George Howell's career there. Like all of the old-school British brewers, he was well-dressed and courtly. He had been head brewer--what the Brits call their brewmasters--for a decade and a half, and had overseen the transition when Greene King purchased Belhaven in 2005.
“I think it’s very important to have a brewery in Scotland—and so does our corporate department. Scottish people are funny people, you know. Jokin’ apart, they’re patriotic, as are most people, yeah? But it would not work, and we can see very, very clearly, it would not work for Belhaven Scottish products to be brewed down south and sold in Scotland."
"When you have the helicopter view, and you can see what’s happened in Scotland: Tennent’s, that I used to work with, half a million barrel a year brewery, gone. S&N Edinburgh, I would say 1.8 million barrel brewery, gone. S&N Newcastle, which is just down the road, another 1.8 million brewery, gone. And Belhaven is still here.”
In terms of beer, Howell struggled to distinguish Scottish from English. (He eventually allowed, after several moments' consideration, that it might be less bitter. "Because you know, when you're out with the lads drinkin' ten or twelve pints, it's got to be easy to drink.") The one, extremely fascinating comment he made, and I think it is a critical point of distinction from English ales, is the yeast. You won't make a cloudy New England IPA from Scottish yeast.
“We believe it’s Saccharomyces Carlbergensis [lager], but to be quite honest, nobody really knows where that yeast came from. I’ve been using it about 20 years now. The difference is, when I first came down here it was common practice—as it still is among the smaller operations—to get your yeast from other breweries. When I came down here and started we were getting yeast from Scottish and Newcastle, from Tennents—basically it was any yeast you could get.”