Something’s Brewing in St Andrews

12

Given the multitude of pubs, bars and other purveyors of intoxicating liquor in St Andrews, along with the large number of skiving students willing to drink in them, it is perhaps surprising that it has taken this long for a St Andrews brewery to be set up.

Bob Phaff has spotted this niche and in January this year began brewing in Glenrothes under the name The St Andrews Brewing Company. Admittedly, this is not exactly in St Andrews, but he is looking to move closer. As every student knows, cheap (or even reasonably priced) property in this town is rather rarer than gold-dust, so Mr Phaff’s choice to locate some distance away is not to be sneered at.

‘I’ve been home-brewing since I was eighteen or nineteen,’ explains Phaff when questioned about his brewing origins, ‘and I helped out at a friend’s micro-brewery in Milton Keynes called the Concrete Cow.’ He has also written A Guide to the Beers and Breweries of Idaho, so his brewing grounding is pretty solid.

Phaff’s raw enthusiasm for beer and brewing shines through whenever you speak to him. His beers have been developed from home-brew recipes with the aid of Stewart Noble of the Abbeydale Brewery in Sheffield, and they very much retain a homely, down to earth feel not usually associated with mass produced beer.

Indeed, Phaff’s aim is to ensure his brewery never loses that personal touch. He intends to remain a one-man-band for as long as possible. Although he is hoping to move on to casks by the end of the summer, he is planning to keep his focus on bottles as they will allow him to keep his operation at a manageable level, while opening up sales opportunities in the many hotel bars, restaurants and bottle shops in Fife.

These bottles are instantly recognisable thanks to their striking Celtic-style labels. They have been designed by local ceramics artist Susan McGill in consultation with Phaff, and give his beers a striking visual appearance, something that was commented favourably upon by several punters at his introductory tasting held at Luvian’s this week.

Along with the use of a local artist, he is also keen to produce his beers in as sustainable a fashion as possible. He has worked in organic shops and farms in the past and plans to produce a completely organic beer in the future. He sources his barley from Scotland and ensures that his waste products are used by local farmers to feed cows or fertilise crops.

Phaff currently has five beers on offer (with seasonal ones to follow), ranging from the pale, summery Fife Gold to the caramel, roasted flavours of the Oatmeal Stout. Comments on the beers praised the taste, body and smell but were possibly summed up by John Parkin who said, ‘they are promising, but do need a little work.’

Phaff is happy to admit that a bit of tweaking needs to be done, although they are already very tasty. I am confident that given another few weeks of work, the St Andrews Brewing Company will be producing truly top-notch beer.

12 COMMENTS

  1. A good article but I think you are being a bit kind to this guy.

    I just don’t get what this has to do with St Andrews. Just like Belhaven this is another business trying to rip off St Andrews name.

    If his beer is any good then surely it will sell without trying to pretend it is something it is not…….From St Andrews.

  2. Not sure I entirely agree with you there. Belhaven are based in Edinburgh (near enough) and produce one deeply mediocre ale that tries to cash in on the St Andrews name utterly shamelessly. Bob Phaff would have been brewing from St Andrews if a) property wasn’t on the scarce side and b) it wasn’t on the outrageously expensive side. His area of distribution is going to be around St Andrews, not Glenrothes, which is unlike Belhaven who will sell their washing-up liquid anywhere. He has worked for various St Andrews businesses in the past, his wife is an academic here and he is currently working hard with university societies (such as Fine Food and Real Ale) and local businesses to ensure his product is as St Andrews-y as they come. Surely the fact its physical manufacture is a few miles away should not detract from all that…

  3. Ben
    As Dan says it is a good piece you have written here. Very positive about a new Fife venture.

    I also think you are both being a wee bit harsh on Belhaven. As a business they have put a lot into the town in both retail investment and beer terms over the years. Their local rep is also a great guy who is commited to his customers and they own the Whey Pat.

    The beer they make is what it is, and comes from where it comes from. It doesn’t really lie about it on the label, in my view. Nor does Bob Phaff’s. Consumers are not all stupid and they will ultimately ‘get’ legitimacy or otherwise. Although Malibu made in Dumbarton did stretch credibility a bit !!!

    I think Bob has done very well getting 5 drinkable beers onto people’s shelves ( very ambitious in my opinion) in the time frame from a 4 barrel plant. It is no wonder they are not all perfect in his view, and to his great credit he is striving to improve as you suggest.

    I am currently enjoying working developing what I hope will be a really innovative and creative new brewery in the St Andrews area myself so I can fully relate to some of the challenges you mention regarding the town.

    I have not yet met Bob, but I wish him well with his venture, anyone trying to bring the ‘craft’ back into brewing is well worth highlighting, well done on your article ….

    Cheers

  4. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Belhaven (aside from the quality of their beer), they just happen to be the example Dan chose. Although that doesn’t change the fact that their St Andrews ale is trying to cash in shamelessly on the St Andrews name in a way that Bob Phaff’s brewery isn’t.
    Do you know Angus Ales? It is another four barrel plant based near Dundee that has managed to get into pubs and hotel bars right across Fife, showing it can be done! All the best with your venture, I look forward to seeing Miller’s Malts on the market soon…

  5. Ben
    I have seen the Angus Ales in a few places, I havent tried any. 4 barrel is a good size for starters and it is interesting to see the different options taken by the 2 businesses you mention. Bob must be encouraged by his early days having his beer in bottle and seeing real people buy it. In my previous experiences there is nothing like that buzz when they like something you created.

    Our ‘Eden Brewery’ is a bit different again to Bob’s in that we will have a 20 brl brewery and we will be looking emlploy a good few people early on. Some say this is risky, I think it is a commitment to the quality experience we want our beers to deliver. We have been helped by some of the best, experienced and most passionate folk in the industry in the evolution of our project so far. Beer, wine and spirits backgrounds collaborating.

    With Beer I reckon there are a lot of people out there doing similar things very well. Our aim will obviously be to make good, but also, differentiated beer, and therefore create a brand in our own right.

    We hope to create product that can reflect well on the town and hopefully in time provide an interesting place for people to visit locally too.

    Our product trials, and early interaction with consmers will be underway from early April using our beer but produced down the A91 a wee bit. We hope to be making beer in the town by June / July. I will get in touch in April when we are trialing and testing as it sounds like you are interested in this market sector. Cheers

  6. Paul, my interest is piqued by dint of being president of the Real Ale Society here in St Andrews (as well, of course, by my journalistic nose, or something). We are always keen to get involved with new and exciting brewers, so if you fancy popping an email to saurasmail@st-andrews.ac.uk whenever you like, I’m sure we would be delighted to help with tastings, tours, talks and the like.

  7. Here are some ramblings from a beer drinker who has over 40 years experience of contributing to the Chancellor’s national excise duty income!

    I was very interested to read the article & comments regarding Bob’s venture & on the quality of his beers – as someone who for many years has consumed just as much bottle conditioned beer as cask ale I can say that I found all 5 of Bob’s beers very palatable & on a par with many more illustrius brewing names. Bottle conditioned beers are however different from cask beers in a number of respects – generally they need to be stronger alcholically & allowed to mature longer – personally I’ve found those bottled conditioned beers available today which are above 6% ABV have far greater depth & complexity of flavour – very much more akin to the strength of beers that were brewed historically in Fife before the 1st World War. For the strength of the beers Bob produces I think he has created some great tasting beers – although still good as bottled beers some of them are arguably better suited as cask beers – ie refreshing light session beers – this is particulrly true for Fife Gold.

    I’ve brewed myself for over 30 years and I’d be happy if every one on my own brews was to Bob’s standards – the odd few have been better but by far more have not been as good. It is great to get a local bottled beer from which I can use the yeast as a starter to my own brews – I currently have a strong dark ale on the go in which I used Bob’s oatmeal stout as a “starter” – the fermentation has been quite vigorous & at present it is looking to be a very promising brew.

    Turning now to the location of his brewery – I can understand Dan’s point BUT it is well known in the Fife property market that within St Andrews town itself there are not any properties (industrial use classes 4/5)that could easily get planning consent from which to operate a brewery. The point on price is well made but that is the secondary hurdle. Realistically the options are either to locate outwith St Andrews town as Bob has done or acquire a pub (not that many of these are available)& operate a small brewery from there like the Harbour Bar / Fyffe Brewery does in Kirkcaldy.

    Personally I welcome anyone who sets up a brewery in Fife. By the end of this year Fife will have 4 microbreweries operating (5 if you count Loch Leven which brews 300 yds across the border in old Kinross-shire at Blairadam) – more breweries gives more variety & better consumer choice.

    When I first moved to Fife in 1986 it was a real ale desert – real ale was availble in the whole of Fife in probably no more than 10 pubs – the choice of local beers was non-existent – Belhaven & Maclays of Alloa were the most locally available ( by the way Ben, Dunbar is not nearly Edinburgh – it must be 30 miles to the East). Belhaven were independent then long before Greene King had ventured northand had the best & widest choice of real ale – they had 4 good real ales – simply these were 60/- 70/- 80/- & Sandy Hunters (a brew named after the Belhaven Brewer that created it). In winter they did a lusciously complex 90/- on draught (probably about a 8.5% ABV). My general point is don’t knock local brews welcome them. Before the recent upsurge of microbreweries the last brewery to operate in Fife was in 1926 when J & G Brown of East Wemyss was taken over by Wm Murray & Co of Edinburgh & brewing was transferred elsewhere. Historically, St Andrews town was also a major brewing centre – in 1700 there were over 90 brewers in the town. By 1850s there were only 2 commercial (or common) breweries operating. These were in South Street close to West Port – the malt barns are still standing and the Argyle Brewery on Argyle Street – now completely demolished and redeveloped as flats with the site being to the west of the car parks by the Bus station both breweries closed in the 1890s. Yes, it would be great to have a town based brewery actually operating in St Andrews again but sadly this may not happen due not only to the reasons I’ve already given but also to the general ill-informed opposition of the residents who no doubt would oject to the wonderful aroma of boiling hops!

  8. Just stumbled across this page and its lively little debate, (I promise I didn’t google myself!).
    I have to say that I found Dan Stuarts comment hilarious, it will surely be the only time I’m compared to a drinks giant Belhaven, and really what can I say……. Well the answer to that is a lot so I probably shouldn’t start.
    All I’ll say is to everyone else who has left a comment – Thanks, I’ve met you all and you all understand what I’m trying to do and produce here.
    I have to admit the thing with the name has taken me by surprise and lets face it the name was there for anyone to get and do with what they wished until I came along. I am a bloke who moved up here, wanted to set up my own business and just started brewing. The reason I’m not brewing in St Andrews is really an issue to be raised with Fife Council and Sir Ming, and my opinions on the matter could probably fill this whole comment box so anyone want to chat about it, give us a bell- Dan if you get this please get in touch, lets meet up and I’ll show you around the brewery and explain about our plans etc. but just one more little comment – if you think I enjoy driving every morning from St Andrews to Glenrothes errrrr no, no I do not.
    Ta
    Bob

  9. John, always a pleasure to get such a full comment! With respect, Bob is trying to set up a commercial venture, so he really should be (and, indeed, is) producing beers much better than one can manage when home brewing. Bob’s beers are very good, but I truly believe they could be better.

    As for the location, I support Bob’s choice fully. I think Dan’s point is that he didn’t have to call it St Andrews Brewery, he could have called it something else and that by calling it St Andrews, he is jumping on the bandwagon. I disagree with this point, as I think I make clear in my article and subsequent comments.

  10. Ben,

    Although I agree with the general sentiment behind your distinction between commercial microbrewing & home brewing, I’m not certain I fully agree on the detail. If you are commenting on home brewing on the basis of the “cheapo” beer kits or malt extract brewing then you are quite correct.
    However, most full mash home brewing now is done on quite sophisticated equipment these days, comparable to the commercial 2.5 & 4 barrel micros supplied by companies such as PBC etc.
    Many of the craft brewers I’ve met, have like me, their own brewhouse (usually a garage or out house) with a supply of their own casks (usually pins) & the equivalent brewing capacity of up to one barrel plant. Indeed many of the Scotland’s current microbrewers started life as home-based craft brewers which then moved on from a hobby to, as you rightly point out, a commercial venture which of course requires far more commitment & additional skill sets to that of merely just brewing good beer for one’s own pleasure.
    I’m sure Bob started that way in some shape or form, and given his undoubted professional approach & enthusiasm I sincerely hope he grows a succesful business from his efforts.
    Historically, this is also how many of the Great British regional & national breweries started out long ago. History also tell us that once these successful breweries reach a certain size they become ripe for acquisition by bigger breweries & drinks groups who usually give the brewery owner / partners a hefty cash sum, then over a short period of time subsume brewing into their own spare capacity plant followed by closure of the acquired brewery after of course an appropriate timelapse – this literally has been happening for centuries right up to the present time – eg Doom Bar in Cornwall & Harviestoun in Scotland are recent cases. I expect Bob would quite like the luxury & level of success in his own business venture to attract such suitors!!

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