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International Sour Beer Day: From brewing sour beer in his kitchen to 1.4m litres per year

20/09/2023
Vault City Strawberry And Peach

IN JUST five years, former IT professional turned Vault City Brewing founder Steven Smith-Hay has gone from brewing on his kitchen stove to making 1.4 million litres of sour beer available for sale in four of the UK’s biggest supermarkets. 

The Edinburgh-based brewer, which has two bars in the city and a 5000 square foot production facility, is on track for £4.5m turnover this financial year. 

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Back in 2018, Smith-Hay began taking simple ingredients and transforming them into extraordinary sour beers through the magic of fermentation in his kitchen, simultaneously becoming one of few people with an HMRC registered excise warehouse in the spare bedroom of their tiny two-bed flat. 

Of the two first releases originally made through wort boiling on the kitchen stove, one, the Mango Sour, is now available in more than 700 Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and Morrisons stores across the UK. Today, more than a third of sour beers consumed in the UK is made by Vault City. 

The brewer also has a huge following amongst hardcore craft beer fans, with listings in more than 200 independent bars and shops across the UK.  

Now, to celebrate International Sour Beer Day, today  (September 20), the brewing entrepreneur has returned to those origins of Vault City’s journey to release two new creations: an Overnight Oats beer, made from banana, blackberry, goji berry, maple and coffee; and a Neapolitan Scoop beer. 

Smith-Hay founded the brewery with the help of his partner Adele and former brewer Jonathan Horn in 2018. The trio began brewing 400 litre batches of hand bottled, hand labelled fruit forward sour beer and demand quickly outgrew the supply. 

He launched the company with a tap takeover at a BrewDog bar later that year, and soon made the switch, ditching a successful career as an IT consultant to go all-in on creating sessionable sours for drinkers across the UK and internationally as he began to see the fruits of his labour. 

Within the first year, Vault City moved (temporarily) out of Edinburgh to Dundee, into the home of 71 Brewing where they rented some warehouse space and increased production from a kitchen to a fully-fledged commercial brewing kit, from 400 litres to 4000 litres at a time.

As well as a huge following in the UK, Vault City is also available across Europe, with an ever growing legion of fans in countries across Denmark, Sweden, Singapore and Thailand. 

Smith-Hay, who is currently in Norway at a beer festival as Vault City’s international appeal grows, said: “It certainly hasn’t been the most conventional route into making sour beer. I enjoyed my previous career, but I didn’t love it – not many have a passion for IT consultancy. I always knew mine was brewing. It took time to build up the confidence to go all in, but when you see the sprouts of something special, it spurs you on to take the leap. 

“We’ve come a long way from our humble beginnings in the kitchen, and a spare room that doubled up as a customers and excise warehouse. When we started five years ago, sour beer was a very niche product, but it’s grown massively since then, although it still feels like we’re making it up as we go along!

“The origins of sour beer techniques go back centuries, and our focus is on making a traditional style more modern and accessible, and to get people talking about sour beers through our ‘you can’t do that’ ideas – from Rhubarb and custard to Iron Brew, Buckfast, and of course Deep Fried Mars Bar. 

“A big decision early on was that we wanted to be in supermarkets, because we believe our beers have a mass appeal – people just need to be awakened to it. Sour beer no longer needs to be the final destination of a beer journey. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be the start.

“We’ve bootstrapped it from the kitchen to now, which means we don’t have a board breathing down our neck and can let our creative juices truly flow while taking probably too much care and attention into every single beer, often tweaking at the 11th hour. But it shows.

“To now be selling sour beer to the nations that created it – and to be gaining a real cult following there is massive for us, but also says a lot for the strength of Scottish brewing. We’re doing things differently, and people are standing up and taking notice.” 

Just four months after the operation switched from kitchen to commercial brewery, Covid hit. 

However the company grew as drinkers became more experimental during lockdown. Research conducted by Vault City earlier this year revealed around a third (31%) of UK drinkers are more likely to be experimental when it comes to choosing drinks than they were prior to March 2020.

September 20 is Sour Beer Day, celebrating the style which is growing in popularity thanks to producers like Vault City who have mastered the intentionally acidic, tart, or sour taste. 

Sour beers were once considered unusual, but they are now seen as one of the world’s most popular beer styles. 

The first sour beers were created in Belgium in the early 18th century, with classic styles including Belgian Lambics, Gueuze, Flanders red ale, German Gose, and Berliner Weiss, although some of the fermentation techniques are understood to date far earlier.  

Vault City’s beers are designed to be more accessible, with the likes of a Cloudy Lemonade, Papaya Peach Session Sour, Strawberry Banana Milkshake, Raspberry Blueberry Bubblegum and a Jaffa Cakes, and Coffee Imperial Stout.  

Vault City, which is a multi-million-pound business, switched to a four-day work week last year – becoming the first UK brewer to do so.

To browse Vault City’s beers, visit www.vaultcity.co.uk/collections/beers 

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