Newbarns Brewery: Introducing Edinburgh's newest brewery

Newbarns is Edinburgh's newest brewery – we pop in for a chat with brewer Gordon McKenzie to talk interior design, concrete, and keeping beer accessible

Feature by Peter Simpson | 06 Oct 2020
  • Newbarns Brewery

Gordon McKenzie is walking us through the freshly kitted-out Newbarns brewery just off Leith Walk. After wedging our bike in somewhere between an office door and a large pile of grain sacks, we walk past the huge bags of malt, short stacks of cans, and chunky metal tanks. “I don't really know how it looks to other people,” he says, “because I'm in here every day.”

It looks like… a lot. It’s a pretty vast space but it’s packed with equipment, with plans afoot for a sizable taproom and outdoor space at some point in the future. For now, that soon-to-be-taproom is giving off a strong ‘we’ll just stick this in the cupboard’ vibe, full of tools and assorted bits and bobs.

“We've done pretty much everything ourselves,” he says, gesturing around the brewery, ”all this pipework and stuff we've done ourselves. Having worked in breweries for a long time and also, to be honest, having the time that we found ourselves with and more worries about money, it just lent itself even more to that. We've always been handy, and if you do something yourself, you know how to fix it.”

Newbarns is a brand-new brewery, but the team behind it certainly know what they’re doing. McKenzie, his partner Emma McIntosh, Jonny Hamilton and Fred Bjerkseth have an impressive array of experience between them from the likes of The Kernel, Siren and Beavertown breweries (Hamilton is also the co-founder of the excellent beer magazine Pellicle). Having met on the London brewing scene, it’s a return home to Scotland for three quarters of the team, and a chance to follow their own ambitious vision.

That vision – tasty, approachable pints for enjoying in the pub. Their Table Beer, Oat Lager and Pilsner are all vibrant, refreshing, and packed with flavour and aroma, but steer clear of many of craft beer's wildest excesses. “If you want to think about it, there's enough there,” McKenzie says of the deliciously crisp pilsner in his hand, offering what may be the most succinct but accurate tasting notes we’ve heard in a while. “And if you don't want to think about it, and you just want to have a chat with your mates, it works then too.”

It’s craft beer in the classic sense; skillfully-made beer produced with quality ingredients which tastes really good. “I don't necessarily think that many people are intimidated by craft beer, or small brewery beer,” McKenzie says. “But I think there's definitely room for a bit more of a kind of familiarity for people who maybe don't always want an IPA, people who drink a lot of Tennents. I mean, we drink quite a lot of Tennents. I think it's really nice to open what we're doing up to people like that. So if you want something that you recognise, but it's just a little bit nicer, or a little bit different, that's basically what we're aiming for.”

As is always the case with this kind of story, it’s time to reveal that the road to turning this former carpenters’ workshop into the brewery we’re standing in wasn’t exactly smooth. Instead, think of a winding B-road loaded with potholes and runaway livestock, with the occasional dead end.

“We got the keys to this place in November,” McKenzie tells us, “and so we were in here, just covered in shit all day digging out concrete. We dug these trenches half a metre down, making space for all the drainage and stuff, and we did a lot of it quite manually. And at that point, we were living in Broughty Ferry, travelling back and forward; working 12-hour days shifting concrete around by hand, and then driving two hours back to Dundee.

“That was mad enough, but also we were kind of just doing our own thing, on our own, and didn't really kind of have time to do anything else. So we were quite isolated. And then in December we came through and we just didn't want to drive back, so we slept in the car. It was absolutely freezing – it was like minus nine – and we parked the car inside [the brewery]. And then it's like, getting out to run to the toilet and thinking 'God, I can't do this even one more day'.”

Thankfully, they soon found a flat nearby which sounds like it may have been, if anything, a bit too convenient (“little fiddly jobs, no matter what time of day or night, we were here”). That led on to more work, which led to getting the gas and water folk involved, which coincided with the complete shutdown of the entire country for several months.

Undeterred, Newbarns worked with some of their pals in the beer world, taking their recipes on the road and brewing their first batches at other breweries while work continued at basecamp. They put the beers up for pre-sale – and sold the whole lot before they were finished brewing. For McKenzie, it was an exciting feeling “seeing how many people had our back, and also seeing so many names that we recognised.”

He says: “Whether it was family, friends in the brewing industry, people that you've not seen in 15 years, and they're like, 'yeah, I'll buy two or three cases of your beer'. Wow. People were really up for it. And I think people really got some enjoyment in the same way that we did, trying to do something a bit mad and build something when it's not so straightforward.”

“There's a lot of kindness going around just now,” he says, “which is... maybe not surprising, but something like that.”

Now that the concrete’s been scraped out and the utility saga is over, things are kicking into high gear, and the numbers are a lot to get your head around – even if you’re one of the people running the brewery. “I've never been able to rationalise the concept of coming into work every day, and making, let's say, 7000 pints of beer a day”, McKenzie tells us, visibly working through the scenario in his head.

“So I'm making 7000 pints of beer a day, and we've always got the same level of stock. So that means we're selling 7000 pints of beer a day, which means somewhere, somebody's drinking 7000 pints a day. And, like, I just can't imagine how that's happening. But then that's not even a big brewery. I mean, it's a reasonably sized brewery, but… it still boggles the brain.

“Emma and Johnny and I have all come from the brewing side of things. We've all worked in places where you're involved with every step. Fred is the most specialist; he was the first real member of sales staff that Beavertown ever had. And obviously, whether or not he can rationalise it, he knows what's going to happen, much better than we do. So he could kind of say like, 'I know that that [volume] sounds like a lot. But once we start doing it, it's not going to be a lot'.” With beers as good as these, Newbarns might need a bit more room sooner than you’d think.