Wells gets Younger – which isn’t as old as claimed

Excellent news, I think, that Wells & Young’s has acquired the Scottish brands McEwan’s and Younger’s from their current owner, Heineken.

The announcement last week that W&Y was bringing back Courage Imperial Russian Stout genuinely excited me, and not just because it’s a fantastic beer. It showed that the Bedford company has a shrewd understanding of the sort of niche a medium-sized brewer can exploit with the right brands, and it has cottoned on to the growing desire of drinkers in the UK, the US and elsewhere to drink authentic, heritage beers again. McEwan’s and Younger’s have plenty of heritage – Younger’s No 3, for example.

But I’d like to make it clear, now, that if I notice ANY references by the brand’s new owners to Younger’s being “established in 1749”, I shall be driving up to Bedford and administering a few slaps. Because it wasn’t. This claim of a 1749 foundation date has been around since at least 1861, making it 150 years old, or more, and it still regularly pops up. Only yesterday the Scotsman newspaper printed this rubbish

“William Younger founded Edinburgh’s historic brewing industry when he set up his firm in Leith in 1749.”

There are two big errors in that one sentence: Edinburgh’s brewing industry is, of course, far older than 1749: the city was stuffed with breweries long before, so much that its nickname, “Auld Reekie” (“Old Smoky”), is sometimes said to have come from all the smoke that came out of the brewery chimneys. In addition, William Younger never started a brewery in Leith, in 1749 or any other year. In fact he was almost certainly never a brewer at all.

William Younger was only 16 in 1749, which was actually the year he moved to Leith from the family home in West Linton, Peeblesshire. It has been claimed that his first job was working for a brewery in Leith, sometimes said to be the one run by Robert Anderson, one of the town’s bigger brewers, with an output of 1,500 barrels a year. Unfortunately, there is no known documentary evidence to back this up: if there had been, the book printed to celebrate Younger’s “double centenary” in 1949 would have trumpeted it. Instead the author quietly danced around the issue of whether William had been a brewer or not.

By 1753, aged 20, William was working as an excise officer, and married to a young woman from his home village, Grizel Sim. Their eldest son, Archibald Campbell Younger, was born in 1757, to be followed by at least two more boys, Robert, and William Younger II, born 1767. Less than three years after William II was born, however, his father died aged only 37. Two years later Grizel Younger married Alexander Anderson, who had been brewing in Leith since at least 1758. When Anderson died in 1781, Grizel ran Anderson’s brewery herself before retiring in 1794, aged 65. It was Grizel, therefore, who was the first of the brewing Youngers.

Archibald Campbell Younger had been apprenticed to his stepfather’s brewery when he was 15. When he reached 21, in 1778, Archibald left Leith to start his own brewery in the precincts of the Abbey of Holyrood House in Edinburgh. If any date can be given for the start of the Younger’s brewing concern, therefore, 1778 is the year. The site Archibald chose had excellent well-water, and, because it was within the abbey precincts, it was outside the jurisdiction of Edinburgh Town Council: thus Archibald and the three other brewers in the abbey precincts did not have to pay the council’s 2d-a-pint beer tax.

The Abbey brewery, Edinburgh in 1861

After eight years, in 1786, Archibald was able to buy a larger brewery nearby in Croft-an-Righ (“Farm of the King” in Gaelic), a lane behind Holyrood palace. He had become famous for brewing Younger’s Edinburgh Ale, according to the writer Robert Chambers in 1869, “a potent fluid which almost glued the lips of the drinker together, and of which few, therefore, could dispatch more than a bottle.” It sold in the bothies of Edinburgh for three pennies a bottle, 20 per cent more expensive than ordinary ale. Five years later, in 1791, Archibald moved again, to a new brewery in North Back Canongate with a capacity of some 15,000 barrels a year, where he was in business with his brother-in-law, John Sommervail.

Archibald’s brother Richard was running a brewery just off Canongate in Edinburgh from at least 1788, though by 1796 he had moved to London. That was the same year that William Younger II opened his own brewhouse within the Holyrood Abbey precincts. By 1802 Mr William Younger’s “much admired” ale was being advertised for sale at the Edinburgh Ale Vaults in London, in cask and bottle. The following year he acquired James Blair’s Abbey Brewhouse, Horsewynd, Holyrood. William and Archibald were briefly partners in a venture to brew porter, from 1806 to 1808, but this seems not to have been successful, and William acquired new partners, while in 1809 Archibald retired from brewing.

William Younger, ‘Established 1749’ – not

In 1818 the Abbey concern became William Younger & Co, with William II in partnership with Alexander Smith, the brewer and superintendent of the Abbey brewery. In 1836, when William II was 69, he made his son William Younger III, aged 35, a partner in the business, along with Andrew Smith, son of Alexander Smith. William Younger III had no particular desire to be involved in the business, but Andrew Smith had worked there since he was 16, and it was under his command that the company began bottling for sale overseas in 1846, and exports started to grow. The reputation of Younger’s India Pale Ale and Edinburgh ale helped it rise to be easily the biggest brewer in Edinburgh by 1850, mashing 10,292 quarters of malt. This was nearly a third as much again as its nearest rival, Alexander Berwick, who had bought Richard Younger’s old premises off South Back Canongate (now Holyrood Road), 300 yards away.

Eight years later Younger’s bought Berwick’s premises from his nephews for £1,600. Eventually production of India Pale Ale (brewed, like the Burton article, in unions) was concentrated at the Holyrood brewery, while the Abbey brewery made the Edinburgh ale. By the early 1860s the the firm was exporting its ales as far as Honolulu and New Zealand, using a red “triple pyramid” trademark, greatly annoying Bass, which felt it resembled its own red triangle trademark too much.

A description of the Abbey brewery in the Official Illustrated Guide to the Great Northern Railway in 1861 included mention of two 50-quarter “mash tubs” equipped with Steele’s mashers; two wort coppers, one holding 116 barrels; and the tun and fermenting rooms, “each having 30 fermenting tuns, and beneath them 12 settling synores [sic].” It’s clear from the context what a “synore” is, but I have never seen the word before, and it appears to exist nowhere else in Googledom but here. If anyone has any more information I’d be delighted to hear it. “Synore” there is evidently a typo for “square”.

The GNR guide is also the first reference I have found to the “established in 1749” canard, though I am sure there are earlier ones out there. By now William McEwan had started his own brewing operation at Fountainbridge in Edinburgh, but although he would become a ferocious rival, Younger’s continued to thrive: it was the first brewer in Scotland to register as a limited company, in 1887, and by 1905 it was reckoned that Younger’s produced a quarter of all Scotland’s beer.

In 1930 it was announced that Younger’s and McEwan were linking up as Scottish Brewers, though their three breweries continued until 1955, when the Abbey brewery was shut and converted into offices. (In 1999 it became part of the site for the new Scottish parliament building.) The consolidation of the brewing industry in the UK saw Scottish Brewers join up with Newcastle Breweries in 1960 to form Scottish & Newcastle, which would eventually, by the start of the 1970s, be the smallest of the “Big Six” UK brewing conglomerates. That was how it stayed, until the 1990s, when another storm hit the UK brewing industry, and by 1995 S&N had acquired what had once been the Courage and Watney brewing empires to become the biggest brewing concern in Britain. It was clear, however, that consolidation was not just a regional, UK, phenomenon, but global. S&N tried to expand enough to compete on the world stage, buying the French brewer Kronenbourg to become the second biggest brewing concern in Europe.

It also started a joint venture with Carlsberg, Baltic Beverage Holdings, to run the Baltika brewing operation in Russia. Carlsberg, however, seems to have eventually decided it wanted all of Baltika’s profits for itself: knowing it would never be allowed to take over S&N on its own (too many markets where it would own too great a share), in 2007 the Danish firm invited Heineken to join it in carving up S&N, with Heineken getting the UK brewing operations.

Slowly Heineken appears to be realising that comparatively “niche” products are best run by a specialist, hence the sale of McEwan’s and Younger’s to Wells & Young’s, which at a bound becomes the third largest premium ale producer in the UK, after Marston’s and Greene King. I wish them well: just don’t mention 1749 in the promotion literature.

36 thoughts on “Wells gets Younger – which isn’t as old as claimed

  1. “Synore” just looks like a mis-transcription of “square” to me. Presumably the author had poor handwriting.

    It’s fairly ironic that Wells and Youngs aim to bring back cask. When Scottish Brewers took over T&J Bernard in 1960 one of the first things they did was send round their reps to Bernard’s customers to tell them they would be getting McEwan’s or Younger’s beer in future, and it was all going to be “container” beer as keg was called back then.

  2. Gosh, you Brits and your obsession with history. When are you going to learn to just accept what the lovely ad people tell us and stop making such a fuss? In the states, we have massive companies with entirely fictional establishment years as central parts of their brand! If everyone agrees on it, and a newspaper prints it, and it’s on a label, it must be true.

    In all seriousness, it’s hard not to be excited by the purchasing of a big name in British beer back from Heineken, even if it’s unclear exactly what changes that will bring.

  3. I’m not sure how much Scottish beer was cask-conditioned in the 1800’s, this might be a good article subject, Martyn.

    I was interested to read that ad using the term “bite” to describe presumably a hoppy taste.

    I’ve seen the term in some current beer advertising too, for characterful imports or some craft beers IIRC.

    It is interesting how certain expressions have a long currency in certain fields. Bite used in this way denotes the taste of hops to one not accustomed to it, or not in large doses. It is a way to explain a traditional beer to a person who might not be prepared for the taste. Yet it seems an odd usage for this purpose since to get bitten is not usually considered a pleasing experience. Why should good beer bite and not good whisky, say? (Although I guess some Islay whisky can bite due to its strong peaty taste, and some Bourbon whiskey).

    Perhaps it’s just one of those terms which has acquired an ironic meaning when used in this way, but I’ve always been somewhat puzzled by it.


    P.S. The news about Courage Russian Imperial Stout is very important, great initiative on the part of W&Y. They are smart to see the opportunities, kudos to them.

  4. Being one generation from the land of Sweetheart Stout myself, Gary, what was “bite” to a sweetie sucking Scots of my grandfather’s generation might not mean what it does today. I was once told of the spiciness of bologna, for example

  5. Ah, well, I guess bologna – they called it polony sausage in England if I am not mistaken – would be a mite spicy next to potted hough, lorne and slice and Ayrshire bacon. I recall, Alan, a Scots butcher in east-end Toronto, this goes back about 20 years. I used to buy those things there and puddings too, I liked the white kind. They were good I’ll tell ya, spice or no. He did add some red pepper to his haggis though, small ones of the sausage shape. I wish I could find its like today.


  6. It does suggest that they are trying to build themselves into a nationwide brand though which can only be a good thing.. A bit more competition in the big boys playground will sharpen things up a bit…

      1. Well I hope (and have no doubt) the No.3 will be better than the early/mid nineties aberration I recall from the S&N pubs in the Midlands. It was the kind of vomit juice that could have led me to drinking Carling at such an impressionable age. Glad I persevered.

  7. I have been to visit the Wells and Young’s brewery. It was an amazing tour with the family in Bedfordshire. I have learnt a lot about this brand and i am actually conducting a research on its history

  8. Do you know how much Scottish and Newcastle headquarters were purchased for. I know it is the Scottish Parliament but do not seem to find any transaction regarding the sale of the land? I am also curious to it being possibly donated as I am sure Prince Albert managed to acquire land from Abbey brewery. I just can not find any records?

      1. To clarify my earlier message: ‘Records of William Younger & Co Ltd, brewers, Edinburgh, Scotland’ has “William Younger II opened his own brewhouse within Holyrood Abbey precinct in 1796. William Younger II extended this brewery and acquired James Blair’s Abbey Brewhouse, Horse Wynd, Holyrood in 1803”. (This text appears drawn from the Business Archives of Scotland ‘Scotland’s 100-Oldest Companies’ document, and presumably, those dates are correct). This document suggests that Younger’s foundation date of 1749 may have been taken from the foundation of James Blair’s Abbey Brewery. While not provable, it would be broadly consistent with James Blair being described as ‘Brewer to the Abbey’ when he married Catherine Henderson in Edinburgh in January 1756, and still described as ‘brewer in Abbey’ when in 1769 he applied to have work done on tenements in Canongate.

        1. While that is certainly an interesting surmise, the 1749 date seems to be based on the year William Younger arrived in Edinburgh – see The Younger Centuries by David Kerr, p2

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.