Malting, Brewing and Distilling in East Lothian
With a long agricultural tradition and a climate especially suited to barley (or bere) East Lothian has an equally long tradition of malting, brewing and distilling. All three industries continue into the 21st century and have left their mark on the physical fabric of the county towns.
Malting is the process of allowing the partial germination of barley grains, which initiates the enzymatic conversion of starch to sugars, before halting the process by drying. In the medieval period, when a large proportion of households ‘brewed their own’, malting was a semi-domestic activity. By the 18th century the East Lothian burghs and villages were liberally supplied with ‘malt barns, steep stones and kilns’ – small scale industrial units comprising a water supply, tanks to germinate the grain, a multi story building with open floors where germination continued, and an oven (or kiln) where the process could be brought to a halt. The process was industrialised throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and became concentrated on fewer but ever larger sites.
Brewing took the malt and fermented the extracted sugars for ale. Again, the pattern is of domestic work scaling up to commercial, industrial facilities. The process of consolidation began in the 18th century and left only one survivor by the 1970s – Belhaven Brewery at Dunbar. Prompted both by interest in ‘real ales’ and changes in legislation recent years have seen a modest revival with several craft or micro breweries appearing.
Distilling begins with the same processes as brewing but, instead of maturing the ale, the ‘wash’ (as distillers call their intermediate liquid) is processed further in a still (the essential difference between the two industries) which produces a liquid of around 70% alcohol by volume. After aging in a wooden cask for at least three years it is then bottled and sold. As with the other two processes it began on a semi-domestic scale; spirits are easier to keep than ales and take up less room. Taxation in the 17th century drove the trade underground: there are persistent stories of stills hidden away in quiet spots in the Lammermuirs. Legislative changes in the late 18th century brought production back into the legal fold and East Lothian entrepreneurs were quick to exploit the opportunity. Most of the first wave of legal distilleries lasted for just a generation; only five were operating at the time of the 1841 census; and only one traditional distillery has survived to the present day. Mind you, there are signs that, as in brewing, things may change: artisan gin came to East Lothian with the opening in 2013 of the NB Gin Company.
The resources of the John Gray Centre are an untapped means to explore the process of brewing and distilling from field to retail. Valuation rolls (from 1855) give a yearly account of every site. The pages of the Haddingtonshire Courier (from 1859) and other local journals provide highlights (and low lights: many of these places took fire at one time or another!). In the deeper past burgh records sometimes provide insight, particularly where the question of taxation and local industries came into question. Explore our online databases and visit the JGC to find out more.