How Petra Wetzel went WEST to give Glaswegians a taste of real German beer
Added: Friday, November 29th 2013
Petra Wetzel has a simple claim to fame. “I run the second-biggest lager brewery in Scotland,” she says, then laughs. The number one spot goes to Tennent’s and, as she admits, “We brew in a day what Tennent’s spills in a second.”
As Tennent’s accounts for around 60% of all the beer consumed in Scotland, the Glasgow giant will not be worried by the success of its neighbour, WEST, a German-style beer hall and micro-plant, based in the West End of the city. But for beer drinkers in Scotland and, increasingly, south of the border, Petra proves that proper lager beer, brewed to the Reinheitsgebot, the German purity law of 1516, can be packed with rich aromas and flavours.
Her success is breathtaking. WEST was launched in 2006 in part of the disused Templeton carpet factory at Glasgow Green. It’s a 19th-century architectural masterpiece, a replica of the Doge’s Palace in Venice. It was designed to appease the snooty dwellers of the West End, who weren’t happy to have a factory in their midst.
Would Glaswegians take to a German beer hall serving tasty lager along with hearty Bavarian food? The answer is a resounding Yes. Nine years later, Petra employs 65 people, sells beer in London – where she has 40 customers for her draught beers – Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Manchester and Bristol.
She’s planning a beer hall in Edinburgh – “WEST goes East,” she says – and a venue in London should not be ruled out. The bottled version of her flagship brand St Mungo can be found in selected branches of Waitrose. It’s also exported to both Italy and the United States.
And now Petra has been given £1.85m in funding from the Scottish government to build a stand-alone brewery in Port Dundas, north of Glasgow, which will have a capacity of 50,000 hectolitres or 42,000 barrels a year. This will enable her dramatically to expand draught sales throughout Britain: at WEST, the brewery can only produce around 250,000 litres a year.
Petra Wetzel has a good grounding in beer. She was born in Bamberg, the brewing town in Franconia, northern Bavaria, famous for its “rauch” or smoked beer, where malted barley is gently toasted over beech wood fires. But Petra, now aged 39, came to Scotland to study for a law degree, not brew beer. The switch happened when her father was unimpressed by local beer when he came to visit her.
“We had lunch in the Ubiquitous Chip restaurant,” she recalls. “My father asked for a glass of beer and was given Tennent’s. He took one sip, winced, and said is this what they call beer here?”
A dream was born. Herbert Wetzel is a successful businessman and he raised £1m to create a German-style beer hall, complete with in-house brewing plant, for his daughter to run. The brewing kit comes – naturally – from Bamberg, as do the specialist malts needed to give authentic colour and flavour to the beer, though the base pale malt for all the beers is sourced from Scotland.
Hops come from the Hallertau, the world’s biggest hop-growing area close to Munich. By good luck, the local water supply, fed by Loch Katrine, is as soft as that in Pilsen, the historic home of golden Pilsner lager in the Czech Republic.
The beer hall, with a spacious garden at the front, will be familiar to anyone who has visited the Hofbräuhaus and similar taverns in Munich. It’s large and open-plan, with scrubbed wooden tables and wood-panelled walls decorated with antlers, plus sacks of malt as an emblem of the best Bavarian barley from Bamberg.
Petra Wetzel now employs professional PR people but when she opened she relied on word of mouth. “We started a restaurant that offered good beers,” she says. “Now we’re a Glasgow institution. I’ve made a lot of friends in the pub trade but I only work with people who fit what we’re doing.
“We’re not competing with craft brewers. I don’t like the term ‘craft’. There should be no distinctions: ale and lager are all beer. We’re offering premium lager.
“My beers are different to mainstream lagers as they adhere to the German purity law, which means that only malted grain, hops, yeast and water can be used in the brewing process.”
The Reinheitsgebot outlaws such adjuncts as rice and maize.
“We use no preservatives or additives,” Petra stresses. She shudders and adds – in an accent that’s now a delightful blend of German and Glaswegian – “and no chemicals!”
Her background in law helps her with contracts and agreements and has also won her a small but notable victory. “We serve beer in litres and half litres,” she says. “I was told that was illegal but I argued the case and won.”
The small compact brewery in the basement of the building is based on the German system of mash mixer, lauter [filtration] vessel, boiling kettle and hop whirlpool. A chart on the wall lists the specialist malts imported from Bamberg to brew the beers: Pils, Vienna, Munich, rye, caramalt and chocolate among others. The beers are brewed to meticulous standards by Luke Kennedy and Dave Sopko, trained at two of the world’s leading brewing schools, Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh and Weihenstephan near Munich. The beers enjoy 10 days primary fermentation followed by three weeks minimum lagering or cold maturation, which naturally carbonates them.
St Mungo, named in honour of the patron saint of Glasgow, is a 4.9% pale lager, a style known as Helles in Bavaria. It’s brewed with Pilsner, Munich and carapils malts and hopped with three varieties from the Hallertau: Hersbrucker, Perle and Spalt. It has a burnished bronze colour and an aroma of freshly-baked bread, spicy hops, a juicy malt and woody hops palate and a long, dry and gently bitter finish. It’s bottled under contract at present but there’ll be a bottling line at the new brewery.
The range includes Munich Red, based on the style made famous at the Oktoberfest, and Dunkel or dark lager with a rich coffee and chocolate character. A Bavarian-style wheat beer, Hefeweizen, is made from 80% wheat malt and delivers a delicious flavour of creamy malt, banana and cloves. It won the SIBA Supreme Championship in 2011.
“We’re inventive,” Petra Wetzel points out and has added a beer she calls German Pale Ale, based on the style called Kölsch from Cologne. It has a creamy malt aroma and palate with perfumy and floral hops, and a malty finish.
Petra is keen to match beer with food and her menu suggests which drinks go best with such traditional German fare as roll mop herrings, schnitzel, wurst [sausage], goulash, pork knuckle, pasta and apple strudel. There’s a wide choice of hamburgers – a style that originally hailed from Hamburg – and, as an offering for diehard Scots, haggis. There are several vegetarian options, including one based on dumplings eaten by Catholic Bavarians on meatless Fridays.
WEST was named Family Restaurant of the Year in 2012 and Petra is currently waiting on the result for 2013. But her main effort is directed at building the new brewery that she hopes will come on stream in November 2014.
“The deal with the Scottish government is that I can’t sell the brewery for seven years and I must source my pale malt from Scotland,” she says. “No problems there!”
Between prodigious bouts of work, she is devoted to her eight year-old son Noah and their dog Heidi. She is a phenomenon, taking German beer and food to Glasgow and winning their approval.
As she puts it, “We have a Glaswegian heart and a German head” and it’s proved a winning formula.
*This feature first appeared in the Publican's Morning Advertiser of 28 November 2013.