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McEwan's sees Red in Scotland

Added: Friday, April 26th 2013

McEwans Red

MECCA – one word was all that needed to be said in the Good Beer Guide for the Athletic Arms in Edinburgh. In the late 1970s and early 80s, when cask beer and pubs selling it were thin on the ground in Scotland, the Athletic Arms kept the real ale flag flying.

Nobody called it by that name. It was – and still is – the Diggers. It stands opposite a graveyard and grave diggers like to slake their prodigious thirsts in the pub.

Back in the early days of the Good Beer Guide, the Diggers sold a solitary beer, McEwan’s 80 Shilling. It was served by the Scottish system of air pressure and the tall fount. As you entered the pub, a smartly-dressed barman in a white jacket and red dicky bow  would look up. You would raise the required number of digits to indicate how many pints were required, dials on the wall would rotate and by the time you reached the counter the beer was waiting, perfectly presented.

Eighty Shilling came from the great Scottish duo of McEwan’s and Younger’s that merged to form Scottish & Newcastle. They produced some iconic Scottish beers: McEwan’s 70 and 80 Shilling ales and Export, Younger’s XXPS, No 3 and IPA.

So great was the demand for “80 Bob” in the Diggers that the air pressure dials sometimes whizzed round so fast you expected them to fly off the wall. There’s a legendary tale told of an unfortunate young man who entered the pub and asked for “a pint of lager.” The irate owner marched him to the door, pointed to another hostelry down the road and grated: “They’ll serve you lager doon there. This is an ale hoose.”

But S&N’s interest in ale waned. All the effort went into promoting McEwan’s Lager. It even found its way into the Diggers, and the pub was dropped from the Good Beer Guide. The Younger’s beers disappeared and the McEwan’s ales became keg-only, brewed in small quantities at the Caledonian Brewery when S&N took it over.

But the wheels, like the air pressure dials, turn. Heineken is the new name for S&N and it has sold the rights to McEwan’s and Younger’s to Wells & Young’s. W&Y has had great success with Courage Best and Directors, also acquired from Heineken/S&N, and is now keen to rebuild interest in McEwan’s on both sides of the border.

I hurried to Edinburgh last week in keen anticipation for a media announcement on McEwan’s. It turned out to be not quite what I expected. W&Y have launched a new beer, with a roll-out in Scotland but with plans for national sales. It’s not 70 or 80 Shilling but an entirely new beer called McEwan’s Red.

It gets its name from the use of a slightly darker type of malt called crystal that’s added to pale malt. The beer is 3.6%, it has a rich barley-sugar aroma and flavour, and a light sprinkling of hops. It’s a “nitro-keg” beer served by mixed gas and it will also be available in cans.

Brand manager Peter Mooney says the beer has been designed to attract “aspirational” younger drinkers who consider the older McEwan’s beers to have heritage but appeal strictly to old people. Mooney added that considerable consumer and trade research had gone into the design of the beer. I have no doubt that’s the case but I nonetheless feel W&Y may be missing a trick.

Scotland has changed out of all recognition since the 1970s and 80s, when people queued – I kid you not -- outside the Diggers for a decent pint of cask beer. The duopoly of Tennents and S&N has been broken. At the last count there are close to 60 breweries operating in Scotland and some – Belhaven, BrewDog, Caledonian, Harviestoun, Orkney, Stewart’s and Williams Brothers– are a long way removed from micro status. Belhaven and Caledonian are owned respectively by Greene King and Heineken but they’re given considerable freedom to develop their brands and Caledonian Deuchar’s IPA is one of the UK’s top-selling cask beers.

While many of the Scottish independents produce such traditional styles as 70 and 80 Shilling ales – named after a Victorian method of invoicing beer according to strength – they have also added golden ales, porter, stouts and even beers brewed with heather and spices: William Brothers’ Fraoch, brewed with heather, is a major Scottish brand.

Aspiring Scottish drinkers may consider 70 and 80 Bob beers to be strictly for wrinklies but they are turning not to sweet nitro-keg ales but to hoppy and bitter beers served by handpumps, not mixed gas. W&Y says the McEwan’s cask ales are produced as seasonals and they are “taking a hard look at them”.

I wish I’d had time to take the W&Y team to the Diggers for a pint. It’s back in the Good Beer Guide and serves Deuchar’s IPA and Flying Scotsman, and a house beer, Stewart’s Diggers 80 Shilling.

I bet there was a queue outside.

*First published in the Publican’s Morning Advertiser, 25 April 2013