Fountain Brewery Edinburgh August 1895 Invoice Glen Mhor


This week's article focuses on the importance of yeast in the brewing process. The invoice from Fountain Brewery in Edinburgh, dating back to August 1895, serves as an example and gateway to the past. Thank you to all who contributed to the acquisition of these documents. In doing so, you've enabled each of these to be explored and showcased online, adding to our knowledge and appreciation of Glen Mhor.

While yeast is often overlooked during distillery tours, it is actually the spark plug for fermentation, or I love Alan Winchester's description as we discussed this invoice, 'remember  yeast is the hardest worker in the distillery.' Although the industry has become fairly standardised in its use of yeast in recent decades, some producers have started to experiment with yeast and the possibilities that it can offer. 

Most distilleries from a bygone age relied on breweries to provide their yeast requirements. At Glen Mhor, the previously discussed 1917 train invoices showcased the distillery's use of a variety of breweries across the UK. This demonstrates the distillery's willingness to source ingredients from different regions. This number includes Younger & Co., McEwan's, and Hamlyn. Several sizeable enterprises were used to provide Glen Mhor with all its yeast needs in the 1910s. There is a point of interest regarding the utilisation of several and why exactly? This is a topic that may be revisited as we delve into the recently acquired invoices from the Highland Railway during that period. 

Perhaps a more practical answer is revealed in the recently published The Distillation of Whisky from James Eadie Ltd. which revives lost 1920s text. In this, it is noted that 'the whisky distiller is well aware of the fact that brewers' yeasts are not always of the same quality: the reason is obvious - yeast outcrops from light gravity.'

Before going on in greater detail to underline 'there are strong yeasts and weak yeasts each possessing peculiar complexities which, while trifling in themselves, have an influence upon fermentations and fermentation products.' 

By splitting its yeast suppliers, arguably Glen Mhor was able to spread the risk and ensure a sufficient supply not only for its needs but also for the desired impact on fermentation. This may have been a difficult lesson from a previous season when the yeast did not meet the required standard. What we do know from this invoice in 1895 is that it shows almost a year of yeast orders for the distillery, specifically the first full calendar year. 

Alan Winchester offered his thoughts on this finding:

'Yes, there were various qualities of yeast, from various brews, and sometimes the hogsheads could froth when the bung was taken out (I was told this, they used to tell me). 

The yeast was tapped and they would remove it in buckets, normally this maybe mixed with some wort and pailed into the washback, remember the bub work that Liquid Antiquarian did recently.'

To date, this is only supplier of yeast during this initial period that we know of, given the modest initial production at the distillery, a fair synopsis would be that Fountain Brewery was the main source. This raises further questions in my mind. Why was there a change? What qualities did Fountain offer? Did John Birnie use this yeast provider during his residency at the Glen Albyn distillery? Questions that I hope to answer or at least speculate on given time.

By the end of the 1880s, the Fountain brewery had become one of the largest in the world, capable of producing 456 million pints. In 1894, the brewery reached a symbolic milestone, coinciding with the debut of McEwan's 80/- heavy beer and the birth of Glen Mhor. And Alan confirms just how popular it was with distillers: 

'We, and a number of the companies I worked at, were still using McEwans yeast up to before the brewery closed, Hamlyns were an agent and took yeast from a number of brewers, under their brand name. You may see mention of Sir Alfred Newton another agent, I think from Burton on Trent. We used to take yeast from North of England. Also remember Mackinlay's ultimately were taken over by Scottish and Newcastle Brewers.'

Despite the document being labelled as 1895 on both sides, it becomes evident that this cannot be accurate since it spans from October to the subsequent summer and was settled on 15th August 1895. Consequently, what we are actually witnessing is the conclusion of the year 1894 being documented. This observation holds significance as Glen Mhor did not officially commence production until December 1894. Moreover, if McEwans was indeed their preferred yeast during this period, as it appears to be the case, it is reasonable to assume that distilling operations commenced towards the end of October. This would have allowed the team a preparation period of approximately 6-7 weeks, including trial runs.

I asked Alan Winchester about the practicalities of yeast during this time, and I'm always appreciative of his insightful replies:

'The yeast would be in a liquid form and delivered in a Hogshead the invoices do mention Hogsheads, abbreviated to Hhd., Edinburgh was a very large brewing centre at this time, a cask is one of the easy ways to transport this liquid. The brewing practice at this time was to skim the yeast from the top of the fermentation vessels, this yeast was a co product which was sold to distilleries, the hogsheads continued for a long time, as the Glenfarclas Distillery in 1975 had a trap door where the casks were taken up onto the first-floor level, but pressed brewers yeast and distillers yeast were more common, in 1975 delivery of liquid yeast was  again available at this time, and McPherson transport had recommenced a tanker delivery of bulk liquid yeast.'

'The pressed yeast was developed to deliver in bags and that was in cake form rather like butter, and the Brewers were always keen to remove as much yeast as possible, as their tax was based on the wort collected, so squeezed out beer would have been recycled, however when we received the liquid yeast, the old tunroom operators liked to let it settle and any beer would rise to the top, and using a cup skim some of the beer, frowned upon by Management.'

Bonus beer as a perk of the job? A consistent trend in the supply of yeast is observed, occurring on a weekly basis. This indicates that the distillery did not have a practical long term storage area for yeast over a significant period of time. Alan, isn't surprised by this frequency: 

'I would have expected a weekly delivery with empty hogsheads going the other way. Yeast is usually 1% of wort collected in the washback. It is a product with a limited shelf life, and was stored in a cool place, nowadays it will be kept under refrigerated temperatures between 1 to 4 Centigrade, normally in older distillers a cool room or small building sufficed. So, yes, they would be weekly deliveries. Of course, until the advent of the yeast process being understood, yeast was often a co-product of grain distilling.'

The 1893 distillery plans show two possible areas referred to as the ‘yeast house’, both near the chimney stalk.

Additionally, there is a notable decrease of 50% in yeast supply during the summer months, which aligns with the traditional silent period at Glen Mhor. Speaking recently with Marcelle regarding her father who was a stillman at Glen Albyn, the Mackinlay & Birnie silent season was 6 weeks. However, production continued, albeit at half of the normal levels. It can be presumed that, being their first full season, the distillery prioritised production and meeting demand. It would be intriguing to investigate the events that unfolded in the subsequent years. The establishment of multiple warehouses on the premises prior to 1900 suggests minimal interruptions in production due to seasonal factors.

It is highly probable that a yeast house was established at Glen Mhor, although it may not have been in use throughout its lifespan. The building may have been repurposed, but it seems likely that the proposed structure was established at a later date than 1893. This could have allowed Glen Mhor to become less reliant on weekly deliveries, which could have been unreliable in the Highlands due to variable weather and travel connections.

The red structure below appears to have been added later (this Canmore image dates from the early 1980s) and is of a similar size and location. It provides another clearly defined structure among the maze of clustered buildings that make up the Glen Mhor production site. An fits Alan's outline of what it should be i.e. 'a smallish building in a nice cool area.'

Alan is able to give us details on the yeast utilised by D.C.L. in the modern area and what may have been featured in the Glen Mhor whiskies we are able to enjoy today: 

'With the pressed yeast a blend of brewers' yeast and distillers' yeast in 1975 from DCL at Menstrie, were hydrated with water and added as a cream injecting it into the liquid wort line after the worts cooler.'  

'The demise of large breweries, and changes in brewing practice i.e. late hopping as the hops were thought important in providing an antiseptic effect on the fermentation, also yeast has a market in Bovril and Marmite manufacture, but a lot of companies are back looking at yeast strains again.'

On the yeast invoice, observant individuals will observe a period of calmness in February 1895, once again at a rate of 50%, indicating that production proceeded at a reduced speed. At present, we can only speculate as we lack any explanation within our current timeline, that this was done to provide some employees with a respite. Additionally, it is worth mentioning the addition of Robert Robertson from Mortlach in December 1894, who assumed the position of head brewer. Prior to his appointment, it seems John Birnie had a more hands on, practical approach to his distillery. 

And that's what one document can give you, imagine what awaits the remainder of the collection?