Turn Back the Clock – A Visit to Traquair House

When you strip it back to the basics brewing beer is a pretty simple process.  You need some malted grains, preferably barley, some water, and a way to heat the water.  The quality and efficiency goes up significantly if you can measure and control the temperature, but there are workarounds like decoction mashing if you don’t have access to a thermometer.  Hops are a bonus if you have them, but ultimately optional.  In a pinch you can always substitute whatever bitter herb grows wild your part of the world—bog myrtle, heather, dandelion greens…  Yeast is essential, but it’s plentiful in just about every ecosystem on planet Earth. The lambic brewers seem to do just fine letting it float in with the night air.

Much of brewing’s elegant simplicity is lost, or at least masked, in a modern brewery. Stainless steel kettles, computer-controlled pumps and valves, rows of glycol jacketed cylindroconical fermenters, and high-speed canning lines are a far cry from the way beer was made when the Reinheitsgebot was penned.  Did you ever wonder what breweries looked like before the advent of stainless steel and digital control systems?  In my last post we visited Cantillon in Brussels, a brewery that dates to the dying throes of 19th century. Today we venture further back into the mists of time, back to the first half of the 18th century; before the United States was a country; before Bonnie Prince Charlie led the doomed Jacobite rebellion; before Louis Pasteur showed that yeast was responsible for making beer.

The destination for today’s excursion is Traquair House, a 900 year-old estate of the Stuart family that claims to be Scotland’s oldest continually inhabited house.  The nominal justification for loading up the car and heading off to the Scotland is a chance to show family visitors from Idaho (Steve and Carolue) the abandoned abbeys and scenic hills of the Scottish border country, but deep down everyone knew the central mission was to learn how the Scots made beer three centuries ago.

Traquair House
Once a hunting lodge for the Kings and Queens of Scotland, Traquair House has been continually inhabited for over 900 years.

A Brewery Lost in Time

Before the industrial revolution many estates and manor houses in Great Britain ran their own breweries.  Traquair House is a rare example of an old-time estate brewery still in operation.  Not continually mind you, brewing operations were mothballed for 150 years until 1965 when Peter Maxwell Stuart, 20th Laird of Traquair, stumbled across the old brewing equipment in a junk room.  Having entirely too much time on his hands he decided to relaunch the family brewery.  Amazingly after dusting off the kit and hooking things up again he found that just about everything was still in working order. It’s not every day you get a chance to visit a brewery whose copper brew kettle dates to 1738!  These days the thought of brewing beer using centuries old recipes and equipment would be considered the height of artisanal creativity by some, in 1965 it must have seemed wildly eccentric.  The fact that Traquair House was the only new brewery to open in all of the UK in 1965 tells you much of what you need to know.

To set the stage for understanding Traquair House I strongly recommend you watch this five-minute video filmed at the brewery in the mid-1970s (click here to launch video).  The video reveals some interesting approaches to brewing.   My favorite is when the laird and his daughter are splashing the wort around trying to cool it down using a technique that might likened to a beginners approach to panning for gold.  You’ve got to love the end of the video, when the Laird places a single case of bottles into the boot of what might be the world’s smallest motorized delivery vehicle and heads off to deliver it to the local pub.

Visiting Traquair House

If you are looking for abandoned abbeys that were pillaged five centuries ago by a despotic ruler looking to assuage his fragile ego and fund his foreign wars, England is without parallel, but the Scottish border country gives its neighbors to the south a good run.  There are no less than four abandoned abbeys within 50 miles of Traquair House—Kelso, Jedburgh, Dryburgh and Melrose.  Unlike the south of England, where traveling 50 miles by car could take anywhere between two hours and a fortnight, traffic in Northumberland and the Scottish border country is usually manageable.  We worked in stops at Jedburgh and Melrose Abbeys before going to Traquair House, and still had enough time to see Kelso Abbey afterward.

I had called earlier in the week to see if it was possible to see the brewery while visiting the house and was delighted to find out that for £7 a head they’d do a personal tour and tasting specially for us.  I didn’t even have to name drop my connections with influential British beer cognoscenti like Roger Protz, Nick Smith, or Duncan Mackay.  We arrived a few minutes early for our 2 pm Sunday appointment and were directed to the large white manor house for our tour.  Our guide, Gus, has been working at Traquair house for decades. Over a period of years he’s worked his way up from groundskeeper to assistant brewer to gift shop manager, but he still takes part in the brewing process as needed.

Melrose Abbey
The spectacular ruins of Melrose Abbey, a Cistercian abbey established in 1136, lie 18 miles east of Traquair House.

Brew Like It’s 1699

Gus leads us around to the back side of the northwest wing of the grand manor house, to the three smallish ground floor rooms that house the brewery.  We spend most of our time in the historic brewhouse that dates back to the 18th century.  It’s a three-vessel brewkit, but not one like I’ve seen before.  Hot water, liquor in the brewing parlance, is heated in the 280-year-old copper kettle and then mixed with malted barley in the mash tun.  Details on the temperature and duration of the mash were a bit vague, but at some point the wort is drained out of the bottom of the mash tun into a somewhat smaller tub called the underback, as the grains in the mash tun are sparged with hot water from the kettle.  The wort is then pumped back up into the now empty kettle and brought to a boil.  This is the only step where the wort has to be pumped uphill, everything else is done by gravity.  In the old days they burned wood to heat the kettle and used a hand pump for transferring the wort back to the copper kettle, but in a nod to modernity these days a gas burner and a mechanical pump are used.  The boil lasts a full two hours, which helps contribute to the rich caramel character of Traquair House beers.  East Kent Goldings hops added for bittering at the beginning of the boil, and a smaller amount (~25% of the total hops) are added with 10 minutes left.

Traquair House Copper
The historic brewkit at Traquair House.  The copper boil kettle/hot liquor tank is on the left; a wooden trough leads from the kettle to the mash tun; the wooden underback below the mash tun is clearly visible at floor level.  You can just see the housing for one of the coolships, and the copper dairy cooler on the far right.

Cooling the wort was traditionally the longest step in the brew day at Traquair House.  The original scheme was simply to transfer the wort into two shallow metal pans, essentially coolships.  Cooling the wort in this way took 3-5 hours, if not longer, but of course in 1700s they weren’t getting their yeast from White Labs either. Very likely they were repitching from the previous batch, so while they weren’t trying to make a sour beer it wouldn’t be surprising if some wild yeast found its way into the wort.  Sometime in the 1970s they purchased a large 19th century copper dairy cooler to speed this process up, which I understand knocked about three hours off the brew day.

Once the tedious but important step of cooling is complete, the wort is transferred next door to the tun room, where each 200 (imperial) gallon batch fills one of the four oak tubs that are loosely covered with wooden lids.  Up to this point Gus has been describing the process in a “aw shucks, this ain’t rocket science” manner.  His enthusiasm picks up when we start talking about the fermentation vessels.  This is no ordinary oak, it’s Russian memel oak, prized for its density and relatively minimal impact on the flavors of beer, wine, or spirits fermented in vessels made from the wood.  Some of the original fermenters have given up the ghost, but they’ve been careful to replace them with replicas made from the same type of wood.  Primary fermentation in these “open” fermenters lasts up to five days.

Traquair House Underback
In this photo you can better see the mash tun (above) and underback (below).

In 1992 the brewery purchased a more modern brewing system, but that’s not included in the tour.  Gus tells us that they still brew occasionally on the old system, but claims it’s hard to tell the difference between the taste of the beer brewed on the two systems.  I assume they want to keep up the romance of brewing using the historic methods, and I don’t blame them.  Now that they export to over 40 countries I can understand the allure of adding some modern brewing equipment.  Nevertheless, they still use the memel oak tuns for fermentation, and according to Gus that’s where all the magic happens anyway. Given the small scale of operations here it’s amazing to me that bottles of Traquair House beer show up on the shelves of specialty beer stores across the US.

Facilities for packaging are conspicuously absent.  When I ask about this I’m told that after primary fermentation the beer is stored in a secondary holding tank (presumably under CO­2) before it’s shipped off to an unnamed brewery in Stockport 200 miles to the south.  They used to bottle at Belhaven in nearby Dunbar, but that partnership ended sometime after Greene King acquired Belhaven.  I was surprised to hear that they need to brew 14 batches before they amass enough beer to fill a tanker truck and ship it down to Stockport.  A back of the envelope calculation suggests that it takes over a month of brewing to make enough beer for one bottling run.  Don’t look for Traquair House to jump on the hazy IPA bandwagon anytime soon.

Traquair House Tun Room
The memel oak fermenters at Traquair House.  Given the open fermentation it’s not surprising that we didn’t go into the tun room, just peered through the glass window of the door connecting it to the brewhouse.  You can see the refection of Gus answering one of my questions in the glass.

Traquair House Ales

After the tour, which lasts 15-20 minutes, we head back up to the gift shop for a tasting of the full line of Traquair House ales.  The Scottish have a reputation for being tight with their money, and the size of the pours at the end of the tour does nothing to dispel that notion.  The strength of the beers and the driving distance to the nearest city of any size might also factor into that policy.

The beers are all made from ingredients that would have been available in the 18th century—pale and crystal malts, roasted barley, East Kent Goldings hops, local spring water.  They all feature a rich, malt-forward character, with the possible exception of the Spring Ale.  Despite the use of loosely covered, unlined oak fermenters, Traquair House beers are not sour, nor do they have any discernible Brett funk that I can detect. That might come as a surprise to my American readers, but many in Britain wouldn’t bat an eye at this approach to fermentation.  Several traditional Yorkshire breweries (Sam Smiths, Theakstons, Black Sheep) ferment in large open vessels, so-called Yorkshire squares.

Traquair House Ingredients
Samples of the ingredients from which Traquair House ales are made.

I tried to get a sense of what makes Traquair House ales special over the course of the tour, but Gus doesn’t give me much to work with. When I ask about the yeast he tells me all British yeasts share the same lineage, so it doesn’t matter much which one you choose (they use Nottingham Ale yeast if my memory is correct).  I’m slightly incredulous at his claim that all ale yeasts are indistinguishable, but unlike their English cousins, Scottish ales tend to have very clean fermentation profiles, so I can accept that yeast is not of central importance for the Traquair House beers.  Ditto for the hops.  Surely, Scottish barley is the key, but even there Gus won’t take the bait.  He’s skeptical of breweries who make a big deal about using local malts, because in poor crop years the maltsters augment their supplies with barley from the places like Poland.  I have no basis to confirm or refute this assertion, but I’m fairly confident Gus will not be put in charge of marketing at Traquair House anytime soon.  Where he does feel they have an edge on the competition is the use of very soft water from a spring that feeds the nearby River Tweed.  It’s essentially the opposite of the hard water that Burton-upon-Trent is known for.  In Gus’ opinion water and open fermentation in oak tuns are what makes Traquair House ales unique.

I’ll finish off with my tasting notes:

Traquair House Ale (7.2% abv) – This is the original, developed in 1965 by Peter Maxwell Stuart and Sandy Hunter from Belhaven Brewery from old brewing records at Traquair.  This malt-forward beer features a caramelized sweetness suggestive of toffee,  distinct nutty undertones, and a subtle sherry-like fruitiness.  The mouthfeel is substantial and chewy.  Unlike most Scottish ales the strength and sweetness render it not particularly sessionable, but definitely unique.

Bear Ale (5% abv) – A more moderate strength, lighter bodied version of the house ale.  This would have been designated a 70 schilling ale in the old system of describing Scottish ales based on the invoice price of a hogshead, which was determined largely by the abv.  It’s also the only beer that goes into casks, which you can find at the nearby Traquair Arms Hotel, in Innerleithen.  Naturally we went there after the tour to get a proper pint.  Like the best Scottish ales, it’s rich and malty yet manages to avoid cloying sweetness.  It’s a sessionable, malt-forward beer with minimal fruitiness from the yeast.  If you really concentrate you can pick up some earthy, spicy notes from the East Kent Goldings hops at the finish.  I would not have difficulty throwing back a few pints of this one.

Jacobite Ale (8% abv) – This ale is based on an 18th century recipe and was first brewed in 1995 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Jacobite rebellion led by Bonnie Prince Charlie.  It is the ultimate expression of the decadent malty character of the Traquair House beers.  Roasted Barley makes for a deeper shade of amber than the house ale.  Crushed coriander is added to give a hint of spice, that harmonizes with the rich caramel, bittersweet chocolate, and subtle dark fruit flavors of the malts.  There is just enough hop bitterness at the finish to keep you coming back for another drink.  If you can only try one Traquair House beer I’d suggest you choose this one.

Spring Ale (4.2% abv) – The only seasonal in the lineup, and the only golden ale.  I don’t really have enough exposure to comment in detail on this beer, but if you’re a visitor looking to experience the true character of Traquair House ales, this is not where I would start.

Lacock Brewery
This is a picture I took while visiting the no longer operational 16th century brewery at Lacock Abbey near Bath.  The design of the kettle and the long shallow coolship bear a striking resemblance to the brew kit at Traquair House.

Closing Thoughts

By all logic you shouldn’t be able to go down to your favorite beer store in the US and buy a bottle of beer from a brewery that ferments all of its beer in a tiny room filled with centuries-old wooden tuns, but you can.  That says something about the interconnected, global world we live in.  Even if we put the business model aside, Traquair House stands out in a crowded field.  In a world mad for hops the rich malty beers of Traquair House are like a breath of fresh air.  Not only do they ignore fads and cycles, they go doubly against the grain by making strong beers in a country that likes its traditional ales sessionable.  That they’ve been in business for 51 years by sticking to tradition makes me feel good.  Here’s to another successful 50 years.

Traquair House Brewery Door

6 thoughts on “Turn Back the Clock – A Visit to Traquair House

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    1. Indeed it was. It was Interesting to see how they made beer centuries ago. It does give the beer a little extra edge when you know its made in a place with this kind of history.

  1. Fascinating piece Pat, beautifully described and written. I last went there in the early 1980’s but, from distant memory, you couldn’t get a brewery tour. I got my Dad a bottle of Traquair House Ale (think it was all they did then) that still lies unopened in his house. Tempted to try it one day. Glad you are making full use of your remaining time in the UK.

    Kind of you to say so but I shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as the others when it comes to beer. When it comes to pubs though…

    1. It might be time to visit again, it’s not a very long journey for you. I just e-mailed them earlier in the week and they were happy to arrange a tour of the brewery (albeit for 5 people). I wouldn’t have high hopes for that bottle from the 1980s, but who knows. I’m pretty sure more aging will not improve it.

      Just four days left in the UK now. I’m meeting a friend from the US in Nottingham on Thursday (he’s coming up from Brighton), which will be the last trip outside of County Durham and Newcastle. I’m planning to visit Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem and the Canalhouse pubs. Any other stops I should consider?

      1. Both interesting places for reasons other than the beer, but that should be good too. Both Derby and Nottingham have a wide choice of excellent pubs. Derby Road/Canning Circus area in Nottingham has a few good ones – Hand & Heart in particular. There is a micropub nearby – Room with a Brew (check opening times on Whatpub) – and a Blue Monkey brewery pub the Organ Grinder in same neighbourhood. Have fun and be sure to keep in touch when you go home.

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