Given the alarming rate that pubs that are closing across the country, you would be forgiven for assuming that the public has fallen out of love with beer.
The reality is rather different. The decline of the traditional bar is caused by other factors; competition from supermarkets selling booze at bargain-basement prices, the impact of the smoking ban and changing lifestyles are all regularly blamed by landlords.
It’s still fair to say that beer remains the nation’s favourite tipple, even though overall consumption is falling - in line with other alcoholic drinks - as people of working age today drink less than their counterparts 30 years ago.
But the number of breweries is rocketing. Eight have opened in Scotland in the past year alone, according to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). There are now 76 operating north of Berwick-upon-Tweed, and at least a further 1071 across England and Wales.
It’s a trend also seen across the Falkirk district. The Larbert-based Tryst Brewery continues to go from strength-to-strength and last year the long-established Annan Brewery announced ambitious plans to start producing beer at the former Rosebank Distillery in Camelon.
Think of a typical brewery and you might imagine something like the gigantic Wellpark complex in Glasgow that produces Tennent’s Lager, or the former McEwen’s headquarters at Fountainpark in Edinburgh. But the majority of breweries in the UK now employ less than ten people and produce what is variously called craft beer or real ale.
Craft beer is a generic term that can mean different things to different people. It can describe the use of traditional brewing methods, a reliance on locally-sourced ingredients or a particular emphasis on a certain type of flavour. Craft beer is more defined by what it is not - a mass produced product that is perceived to be of poor quality and lacking in taste.
Real ale, in comparison, is a term coined by CAMRA as: “a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask (container) from which it is served in the pub through a process called secondary fermentation.”
However you define it, the real ale/craft beer market is booming. Sales have increased 12 per cent in the past year and continue to climb.
The Falkirk Herald visited the Tryst Brewery to find why an increasing number of drinkers are looking for something different when they order a pint.
Based in a small industrial unit just behind Larbert’s Muirhall Road, Tryst does everything - from brewing to bottling - on site.
“I produce 12 beers and they all taste completely different,” explained brewery owner John McGarva, still dressed in his orange boilersuit after finishing his work for the day.
“I do a pilsner, a chocolate stout, light ales... it’s really up to your imagination. The are no rules - just as long as it tastes good.”
He’s clear as to what constitutes real ale.
“It’s not filtered or pasteurised. The yeast is in there, eating up the sugar. You don’t need to add CO2 - it’s already in there.”
Despite seeing sales increase year-on-year, and securing contracts with retail giants Aldi, John believes that most drinkers are still unsure what exactly real ale is, due to a lack of places selling it.
“It’s still an incredibly niche market. Edinburgh is one of the centres of real ale, that’s where the biggest demand is. But the majority of pubs in the city still don’t serve it.
“I don’t understand why more pubs, especially in Falkirk, have not cottoned on to it.
“More people drink real ale than ever before, especially younger folk. It’s popularity is increasing all the time.”
John, who grew up in The Bog, established Tryst in 2003 after quitting his job as a commercial catering equipment manufacturer.
He remains the only full-time member of staff at Tryst, but he’s helped out by five part-timers, who work a varying amount of hours depending on demand.
“It’s a sociable business,” he adds. “You meet other people at beer festivals with their own breweries, and you help each other out when you can. It is a very competitive business, but it’s a friendly one - and the great thing is you get to have a pint when you finish for the day.”
John took inspiration from his father, who was a keen home brewer. “He was always making different things - he even made his own advocat at one point.”
Home brewing - much like wine making - is a passtime enjoying a revival of its own.
One recent convert to the brewing world is Falkirk Herald sports editor David Oliver. When not reporting on Falkirk Football Club matches across the country, the 28-year-old enjoys nothing more than creating his own unique beers.
“I quite fancied having a productive hobby that would save me money, rather than cost me it,” he explained.
“The process in books is quite complicated, with boiling and mashing grain and such like, but as I’m a very amateur novice pouring boiling water into a vat of foul smelling syrup is very straightforward.
“There are many steps where things can go wrong, or even a little off-balance, which can upset the whole thing - but it’s just a case of trial and error.”
While David has no plans to quit the press box, or start his own brewery, he insists the process is a rewarding one.
“The results differ depending on which step of the process I make the mistake in - but it’s so idiot-proof at this level that the results have all been drinkable.”
1. Beer has been produced in Scotland for at least 5000 years. Celtic peoples, including the Picts, were known to use heather as an ingredient in their ales.
2. Edinburgh was one of the beer-producing capitals of the world in the 19th century, driven largely by demand from overseas territories that made up the expanding British Empire. The city had 40 breweries at its peak, and their owners - such as the Ushers and the McEwen families - amassed considerable wealth and influence. Many public buildings in the city still bear their name.
3. In Falkirk, the name Aitken is synonymous with beer. It was John Aitken that first opened a brewery on the north side of the town in 1740, near to what would become Newmarket Street. The giant brewery buildings which many Bairns will still remember today were opened in 1900 and designed by the noted brewery architect Peter Lyle Henderson. Aitken’s was taken over by Northern Breweries in 1960, and production ceased six years later. The site was cleared in 1970 and is now occupied by Asda.