The History of Brewing in Edinburgh

Edinburgh Brewing D


Fancy a Brew?

Although not a spirit, it would be remiss to leave out  Edinburgh’s long and rich history when it comes to brewing beer. With a tradition dating back over 5,000 years, Scotland has long prided itself on producing top quality beers and ales.


 History of Scottish Brewing

There is evidence from archaeological findings that some sort of fermented beverage was being brewed in Scotland possibly as early as the mid-4th millennium BC, although these they were likely little more than a cereal-based porridge with flavours added.  The Picts were also fermenting drinks and preserving them with heather (a precursor to hops) as early as 6500BC.

The commercial brewing trade was developed by Benedictine monks in 12th-century Edinburgh and in neighbouring Dunbar, where they took full advantage of fresh spring water sources and locally grown barley. Over the centuries, Scotland gained a reputation for ales of high quality.

The mid-18th century saw the establishment of the large firms, with beers being produced for both consumption within Scotland but also for export to England, the Baltic, the Americas and the West Indies. This boom continued into the 19th century with even small towns having several breweries.


Scottish brewing reached a peak of 280 breweries in 1840. By 1910 this had dropped to 92. Restrictions on raw materials imposed during World War I along with the Temperance Movement also took a further toll, reducing the number to only 36 by 1940. There were just 26 breweries left in Scotland in 1960 and only 11 by 1970.

However, Scottish brewers have always been at the forefront of innovation and today there are more than 100 breweries operating across the country. The variety and quality of Scottish beers and ales on offer is greater than ever.


Edinburgh’s Brewing Heritage

Mcewan Hall Exterior

At the industry’s height in the late 19th century, Edinburgh drinkers had a massive 41 city brewers to choose from. Rivalling the thriving breweries in London and Burton-on-Trent, they certainly made their mark on the industry. Some of the most well-known include:

The Caledonian Brewery opened in 1869, perfectly located next to the new Caledonian Railway Line on Slateford Road, where it continues brewing to this day and still uses natural whole leaf hops and open-fired brewing coppers.

Read more about the history of The Caledonian Brewery> 

Among the most successful firms were those of William Younger, who had started business in 1749 in Leith, later moving to the Holyrood area, and William McEwan who founded The Fountain Brewery in 1856. Recognising that Scottish ales were also proving hugely-popular overseas, they both owed much of their early success to strong export figures.

* Did you know? – By 1889 The Fountain Brewery was one of the largest breweries in the world, producing an astonishing 456 million pints a year!

In 1897, wanting to leave a lasting legacy to the city, William McEwan made the largest single private investment in the history of the University of Edinburgh, contributing to the cost of building the magnificent McEwan Hall.  Used for graduations, concerts and examinations by the University, it remains an important building in Edinburgh’s history and culture.

Mcewan Hall Interior

In 1930 William Younger and William McEwan combined to form Scottish Brewers. The Abbey Brewery, previously Youngers Brewery, closed in 1956 and was converted to flats. 1961 saw McEwans and Youngers breweries merging forces, to become Scottish and Newcastle.

In 1973, due to the demand for bigger premises to increase capacity and production efficiency, the Fountainbridge brewery was rebuilt on recently-cleared land opposite its original site. The brewery remained active until 2005 when production was shifted to the Caledonian Brewery on Slateford Road, however the McEwan’s brand is still alive and prospering today.

Read more about McEwan’s history> 

Today, much of the former Fountain Brewery site has since been redeveloped and is now offices and housing. Other famous breweries, such as those at St Leonards and Craigmillar followed a similar fate many decades earlier.


Beer in Edinburgh Today – the Story Continues

Today, there are a number of microbreweries in operation in the Edinburgh area, producing bespoke lagers and ales of a high quality to a growing customer base. Why not check out these brewers, next time you’re in need of a cold one:

Stewart Brewing 

Stewart Brewing 736

Since starting in 2004, Stewart Brewing have become one of Scotland's leading craft brewers, specialising in making craft beers of the very highest quality.


Barney's Beer 

Barneys Beer

Housed in a 1900s horse stable in Summerhall, Barney’s Beers opened in 2012. While producing traditional ales, they also like to experiment with new flavours, such as Sherbet Pale and Marshmallow Milk Stout!


Edinburgh Beer Factory 

Formed in October 2015, this family-run Edinburgh Beer Factory brewery is inspired by the Edinburgh-born ‘Father of Pop Art’ Eduardo Paolozzi, and love showcasing the art of brewing.

Bellfield Brewery 

A short walk from the city centre, Bellfield Brewery produces tasty, award winning beers that everyone can enjoy as it is all certified gluten-free and vegan registered. Enjoy in their taproom and beer garden, fresh from the brewhouse.


Continuing the education of future brewers and distillers, the internationally renowned Institute of Brewing and Distilling at Heriot Watt University prepares candidates for entry into the malting, brewing or distilling industries, covering everything from brewing science and chemical engineering, to business studies and production management.

Scotland, and Edinburgh’s breweries are in safe hands, ensuring the continuation of this centuries-old story…..


Thirsty for more? On a warm summer's day there's nothing better than enjoying a cold beer while soaking up the rays and shooting the breeze with friends. Edinburgh has a variety of beer gardens to choose from - head over to our guide to Edinburgh's Brilliant Beer Gardens for some inspiration, sit back and enjoy.....