Brewing in Dunbar

As the 17th century opened brewing in Dunbar was an everyday domestic activity: most well-to-do households brewed their own ale for family and servants.  By the opening of the next century the production of ale had become a commercial practice and specialist brewers were part of the town’s economy. To supply the breweries, locally grown grain was converted into high quality malt at several works clustering close to the Old Harbour,  and the combined output provided work for several coopers (barrel makers), carters and other specialist trades.

From 1719 the records of Dunbar town council provide a detailed and quantitative Account of beer brewed in Dunbar 1751insight into the industry. In that year the council applied a local tax (or impost), the proceeds of which were intended to maintain the town’s harbour.

The accounts of the impost show that as well as Dunbar’s leading merchants (e.g. John Pollock, merchant and provost) and innkeepers (e.g. John Lorimer, proprietor of Lorimer’s Inn, later the St George Hotel) there were several women brewers (brewsters, in Scots): in 1751, 5 of the 22 listed concerns were operated by brewsters.

Most of the outfits were small, producing for a single pub (like John Lorimer at the George) but six of the 22 in 1751 are clearly commercial, accounting for a full half of the output. By far and away most of the ale brewed was twopenny ale, then the drink of choice. Porter (stong ale on the impost) was more expensive and had a much smaller market.

A noticeable absence from the list is John Johnston’s Belhaven Brewery – the Johnson family had seen the writing on the wall and moved their  Dunbar based operation to a site lying just outside the burgh limit (where brewing continues to this day) to avoid the tax.

Closure of Dunbar Brewery, Haddingtonshire Courier, March 1865By the end of the eighteenth century Dunbar was malting around 1,700,000 litres of barley every year (then measured at 8000 bolls) enough, by some calculations, for 30,000 barrels of ale! A thriving export market in malt and ale developed.

In Dunbar itself, production was centred on fewer but larger sites. Even so, the itemised list of equipment at the Dunbar Brewery shows that most of the outfit could still be supplied locally. As the process of consolidation continued the number employed at each brewery increased to around 5 – 8 hands.

By the first half of the 19th century there were just four regular breweries left:

  • Pringle’s Brewery in the Common Close
  • Dunbar Brewery between Lamer Street and Coffin Street
  • Belhaven Brewery
  • West Barns Brewery

Only Belhaven survived into the twentieth century and it continues to the present day.

2 thoughts on “Brewing in Dunbar”

  1. George Thompson says:

    Are you sure the Johnston brothers moved their brewery to avoid Royal Burgh taxes? The site then and now has been brewing on and off since the 12th Century.

    1. David says:

      Hello George

      I agree. But…

      There is no documentary evidence from the time that is to hand now. Earlier brewery historians McMaster (I think) and McMartin base the date on the date stone and the impost; the structure of the maltings undercroft is assumed to establish an earlier tradition. But the previous proprietors, the Afflecks, are not recorded as brewers and John Johnston is believed to have occupied ground from the Afflecks as a market garden before 1719; again this needs documentary confirmation.

      Further than that there are several issues in the early history of the brewery that seem at odds with the established narrative. It really is a case where further research would be worthwhile.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *