Wednesday 31 August 2011

Natural Selection: Becoming a Brewery

Heriot-Watt University runs one of the most famous brewing courses in the world. This year the MSc postgraduate course in Brewing and Distilling saw four guys – Kevin Emms (team leader), Damon Scott (brewer), Steven Kersley (sales and marketing) and Colin Lymer (brand development and design) – setting up their own temporary brewery, producing, marketing and selling a new beer.

They called the brewery Natural Selection and they released the beer, Finch, a couple of months ago. It’s a 6.5% hoppy red ale: nutty, chocolatey, caramel and vanilla body with a fruity and floral flourish from the Chinook and Amarillo hops which lead to a dry, go-back-for-more finish.

I love the idea of having a condensed project like this and I’m fascinated by what led them into the course, what challenges they faced during and what they all intend to do next. I spoke to Steven Kersley about the dissertation project.
Kevin, Damon, Steven and Colin
“When the project was put to us we only had about two months to get everything in shape before the launch and this included the recipe, so our brewer (Damon Scott) had to work quickly. We only did two test batches at the university pilot brewery before brewing the final batch at Stewart Brewing. Firstly we experimented with two different strains of yeast (Scotch Ale and Nottingham) and for the second brew the focus was purely on the hops.”

Would they change anything in the brew? “Given more time in the pilot brewery Damon has said that ideally he would have added more aroma hops (Amarillo) in order to balance out the malty characters in the beer. However that being said we feel we've produced a good beer and the experience of entering the industry for even such a short space of time has been invaluable.”  

What’s the course like at Heriot-Watt?  “The good thing about the undergraduate course is that it is full of young folk who know exactly where they want to take their career. It's a very specialised degree so you have to be sure that the brewing and distilling industry is for you but the undergraduate degree equips the students with the tools they'll need to succeed in the industry.”

“I would certainly recommend the MSc to anyone who is passionate about brewing or distilling as it is a very insightful and interesting degree which gives you a great opportunity to move into the industry.”

The team had some experience of brewing, with Damon working at Durango in Colorado, while Colin and Kevin are homebrewers. What none of them had experienced was launching a new beer from scratch, which was made even harder by the short time-scales involved.

“Colin was the champ in charge of brand development so his job was to decide how he wanted the brand to be portrayed, this would usually involve a lot of research and  perception testing but he had to work quickly to make sure the labels were ready to print only a month after undertaking the role of brand developer. He achieved this with very little experience of launching a brand.”

“Sales and Marketing was my gig and I was fortunate in that I had a little more time than the other boys to work out a strategy for selling and marketing the beer because sales didn't have to be confirmed before the brew date.  However the marketing did need to be in place so that there was a fair bit of buzz about the beer before it came out.  On a very small budget I made use of the social media, setting up Facebook and Twitter accounts whilst Kevin (project manager) set up the Natural Selection Brewing blog. I also tried to get the press onside so fired out a few press releases, managing to get us a spot in the evening news.” 

“I think the two biggest learnings we took on board were that you must stick to a time line and have a detailed plan of what you want to achieve. Kevin was responsible for delivering the project on time and made a point of having certain milestones that needed to be reached on certain dates and then each of us would formulate a plan individually so that these goals could be achieved. We were fortunate that we took this approach and the project benefited for it and I think each of us learnt as hell of a lot in our individual roles whilst getting a solid grasp of how a brewery operates.”

What’s next for the Natural Selection Brewery guys? “Colin has a brewers position at BrewDog beginning in September; Damon is going back home to Colorado and is hoping to secure a brewers position there; Kevin is going back to Vancouver and is also keen to secure a brewing role in the city; whilst I'm hoping to stay in Scotland and move into the industry myself. We're all going our separate ways but we're all certain that this project has given us great insight to the brewing industry and the experience we've gained will stand us in good stead in the future.”

Building a brand from nothing to being on the bar in a couple of months is a massive achievement. To get everything into place and to have the look and taste of the product to a high standard is great. Drinkers don’t often get to experience the back stage action of brewing and preparing a brand for market, so it’s good to get that insight.

Finch is a good beer and it might still be available in a few Scottish off-licenses. If you wanted to learn to be a brewer, to learn how to open your own brewery, then this seems like a great way of doing it.


  1. I had my bottle of this last night! I was very impressed for it being a first effort and look forward to seeing what they all go on to do.

  2. Surely this post should have been "On the Origin of Beer By Means of Natural Selection" ;-)

  3. That's a great beer logo... bird and all

  4. Interesting timing. I've got an application ready-in-waiting for Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt starting September 2012. Thanks for pointing this project out, a really interesting and enlightening read!

    BTW, it's Heriot-Watt, not Hariot (line one, first word).

  5. Nice piece, interesting. That sounds like my kind of beer!

  6. I heard about Edinburgh brewing courses, they seems so interesting to me.
    Maybe one day, when I'l decide to move to Scotland, I'm gonna think about it.
    The guys' experience you told is very fashinating! Go Natural Selection!

  7. Dave - It looks great!

    Stu - Good luck and hope it goes well! And thanks for spotting the mistake - first word, first sentence is not a good start!

    Angleo - Sounds good, right? I'm even tempted to take a year out and do it. If only it wasn't so expensive!

  8. There are scholarships available for the post graduate course, but you need to have a relevant degree to apply.

  9. I wish I'd spent my time and money doing something similar to these guys...stupid career adviser!
    A great looking beer and hope to get to try something from one or more of them in the future. Good post Mark.

  10. @Ed. What scholarships are available? I'm starting this course next week.
    Great to read about what last years class got up to.

  11. I think you're a bit late for the scholarships then! I applied for a scholarships advertised in "What's Brewing".