A Visit To West Brewery
It’s a rare day in Glasgow that doesn’t see rain. The sun is out, however it has little effect on the chilly breeze gently rocking the trees. In Glasgow Green, the longstanding public park marking the start of the city’s east end, there’s work underway to prepare for the evening’s firework display. Temporary structures rise up alongside the more longstanding features dotted around the area. Of these historical buildings, I’m here to visit Templeton On The Green, a grand 19th Century building modelled on the Doge’s palace in Venice that, when its carpet factory was at its peak, saw its product in the Taj Mahal and Whitehouse. While the carpet industry may have frayed over the 20th Century, and with it the affluence from the east end, tucked into this majestic building is West, a brewery, bar, and restaurant that offers the British beer scene something a little different and, more importantly, something special.
West is a Bavarian microbrewery, established in March 2006 by owner Petra Wetzel and then husband, Gordon Stewart. Its range of beers, led by flagship lager, St. Mungo, are brewed to the Reinheitsgebot of 1516, making it unique in the United Kingdom. While the initial two years saw the West Brewing Company, as it was trading then, go into administration and bought out by Wetzel, the following years have seen the brewery gain in popularity both locally and further afield. It’s a far cry from the doomed appearance on BBC‘s Dragon’s Den, broadcast early 2005, where Wetzel and Stewart sought funding for their German dream and walked away without procuring investment from, as the programme might say, an influential business partner. Nowadays, with Stewart no longer involved in the business, West is going from strength to strength and is poised to grow considerably in the near future; great news for an industry in decline.
I’ve been to West many times before. Summers where the queue snakes out the building as thirsty drinkers wait to get their hands on Maßkruge for taking outside and, if the benches are too crowded, sitting on the grass. Winters where a bench is easier obtained as everyone is inside enjoying the festive warmth and bonhomie. During these visits there’s always the sweet tang of warm malt in the air, and it’s possible to look down, from a ledge in the bar, on two copper kettles. However, in all these visits, I’ve never taken the available brewery tour. But, West being a prime location from which to view the annual fireworks display on Glasgow Green, it made sense to make a day of it: a tour, some food and beers, and then venturing outside to watch the sky light up in a striking array of colours.
Acting as tour guide was Darius, a tall and thin young man sporting the first trimmings of Movember. Ensuring that all signed up parties were accounted for, he led us twenty-strong down into the bowels of the brewery. Back of the bar, couple of doors, and some stairs, and we were there, standing among a series of steel fermentation vessels. Here began the introduction to West and the the rapid delivery that ensued — a backstory eulogising Wetzel’s love of Scotland and mythologising her father’s disapproval of the native Scottish lager — suggested something learnt by rote rather than spoken of passionately and individually. The equipment used, all automated, was shipped from Germany and this sense of importation continued as the Reinheitsgebot featured in the obligatory history lesson for those unfamiliar with brewing. The artificial sense of the introduction is perhaps due to the need to recall a series of numbers and years for, these basics dispensed with, Darius’s delivery came across as more relaxed and nicely informal over the remainder of the tour.
It’s important to know where beer comes from and the non-specialised tours I’ve taken in the past specialise in this. West, here, is no exception. We have water, malted barley, and hops, with the yeast pitched later. The water is from Loch Katrine, the freshwater reservoir serving Glasgow’s taps. It’s a great soft water that lends itself well to brewing, we’re told, and, having lived off the water all my life, I’ve no argument here. Not everything comes so close to home, though, as the malts are imported from Germany. The malt store, a small side room laden with 25kg bags of various malts and a milling device is split into two sections — base and specialty malts — on a pallet each. Darius passes round a couple of handheld display cases showcasing an array of German malts in neat rows and also scoops a handful from some speciality bags and invites us to take a few grains and taste.
Standing amongst the malts is where it hits me how micro West actually is. The outside building, a temple of grandeur suggests a brewery mirroring this scale. While the remainder of the building is given over to offices, it’s silly of me to assume that the brewery is bigger than it is. Perhaps it’s the glimpse of copper kettles from the bar with stairs leading into once unknown depths now revealed. Or maybe it’s that I know Waitrose stocks bottled St. Mungo nationwide and, to meet such demand, it surely has to be bigger. Not when it’s contract brewed, of course, and I wonder why I hadn’t considered this before.
We move on to the next ingredient: hops. In a room off the main hall, with stairs leading up to the copper kettles, Darius first explains the concept of the mash tun and how, when the time comes to sparge, the automated machinery deals with the first runnings. Then, an imaginary wort assumed in the kettles, it’s time for the boil. Our guide passes round two glasses, one filled with whole hops and the other with pellets. Their role in bittering and aromatising the beer is explained and how adding the hops at different times during the boil affects the end product. With this, we are split into two groups and taken up a set of stairs to peer into the kettles. There’s no brew today, but captured in these vessels are the lingering scents of brews past and it excites most although a few casual tourists, screwing up their faces, don’t share in the appreciation.
After the boil, fermentation follows and we’re led back out to the fermentation vessels arranged sentry-like in two rows. Here the final necessity of making beer — the yeast — is added. So goes the explanation, coupled with the snippet that the strain used at West survives eight generations before being discarded for a fresher one. The tank we’re standing beside is storing a batch of West’s award-winning Hefeweizen, a delicious wheat beer that recently featured in a Shortlist article titled 20 Must Try Beers. The temperature in the tank is -1°C, and we’re treated to a sample, the liquid poured from a tap cheekily set between the legs of a cardboard Bavarian in lederhosen, as befits the stereotype, with pretzel in hand. It’s tasteless — not the beer! — but adds some character to what is an otherwise industrial setting.
Beyond brewing, there’s one last step to concern ourselves with, and that’s the kegging of the end product. As we’re led around the fermentation vessels to be view the machinery that assists in this task, there’s a host of West kegs arranged for delivery. Black in colour and branded with the distinctive West logo they are an eye-catching addition to the brewery’s image, even if they are likely to stay behind the scenes. The kegs we pass hint at a recent batch of King Tut’s Lager, specially brewed for local legendary music venue, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut. All these kegs reinforce something Darius said at the beginning of his tour, about the automation of the brewery: just because it’s controlled by machinery doesn’t mean that there’s no manual work. Transporting these will be back-breaking work.
The tour at its end, we relocate upstairs to the bar and conclude with a tasting session. Darius makes five trips to the bar and returns each time carrying a tray of St. Mungo, Munich Red, Dunkel, Oktoberfest, and Hefeweizen, respectively. Here I find a new appreciation for Munich Red, a malty tipple with a good caramel flavour. If there’s a reason I’ve overlooked it, it’s because my preference is for the Dunkel, a five-malt concoction with a delicious chocolate backbone. The Oktoberfest, being a seasonal is one that I’ve not tried before, and it’s a decent affair, an off-orange colour sporting some fruity hop flavours. The difference between Hefeweizen at -1°C and at regular serving temperature is noticeable. While the early sample was full of the banana esters expected of a wheat beer, the cold locked away much of its secrets. Served properly, and it’s a smooth, sweet beer that takes its aromas into the taste.
As he’s handing round the samples, I ask Darius about the range of beers. This follows on from something he said while still down in the brewery, as regards the growth of West. While there’s no official announcement yet, the last couple of years have seen talk of such expansion. First there was a £2m investment, upped to £5m a year later, and latterly increased to £6.5m. Now it appears that the expansion is finally happening, with visitors being told to ‘watch this space’ over the next few months. My question looks into the potential of a wider range of German beers appearing more regularly. Obviously, with things as they are, meeting demand is the most important factor. Though, with a new brewery to satisfy that demand the current kit would remain to serve as a pilot plant for future, smaller batch brews. Rauchbier, I enquire, and the answer is it’s certainly something the brewers, given the opportunity, would relish making.
Once the crowd dispels, I sit down with a pint of St. Mungo and order a meal of beer-battered fish with chips, followed by a bowl of Hefeweizen ice cream in a berry compote. The table staff are chatty as they make their way around the tables collecting glasses and checking that customers are happy with their food. A Canadian barman asks if I enjoyed the tour and shares his surprise at how small he also found the microbrewery. As I relax with a Dunkel, the restaurant and bar begins to fill its late-afternoon bookings and custom picks up at the bar in anticipation of the fireworks. A little later, with the daylight vanishing and while there’s still space to be had, I venture outside with a Munich Red and wait for the show. When it comes, like the beer, it’s another dazzling display.
November 6, 2011