Friday, 20 March 2015

Iain Turnbull 1949-2015

I first met Iain Turnbull at an Edinburgh and SE Scotland CAMRA beer festival at Meadowbank in the late 1990s. He was there with his colleagues from Restalrig Village Brewery, promoting the new venture and enjoying the beer. They seemed to be an amiable bunch and we got chatting. Several brewery visits and many pints later, I found myself as his assistant at the brewery where he constantly astonished me by his ability to estimate the temperature of wort by looking at it, and being able to convert between systems of measurement in his head - part natural talent; part decades of experience. He had first arrived in Edinburgh as a brewing student at Heriot Watt in the 1960s, but never graduated because he got a job with a major brewery and learned first hand from some of the greats of that period. At Courage, he seems to have ended up as the last brewer at many a brewery, and developed a healthy disrespect for accountancy-led brewing.

One of my favourite of his many stories comes from his time at, I think, Bristol, where the UK version of Fosters was made. At this time, the gyle numbers were a letter-number-letter sequence that between them indicated the date and some other information about the product. One day in September, there was a commotion in the loading area. The draymen were refusing to take the latest batch of Fosters out for delivery. The head brewer, accompanied by Iain, went down to find out what the fuss was about and were shown the number on the kegs: K9P. "Dog piss? Sounds about right! Send it out!" Alas the draymen were not swayed by the Head Brewer's argument and the beer eventually went out as batch K8aP. But K9P was later recycled by Iain as a beer name at least twice.

His time at breweries closed by Courage was supplemented by time at breweries closed by other companies. When not brewing, he was selling cement and did a stint running a pub. After Restalrig went pear-shaped (having the business management side done by someone who, despite extensive experience, had an alcohol problem so serious it killed him not long after, was part of the problem), Iain, David Murray and I set up Fisherrow Brewery, which lasted a couple of years until David's sudden and untimely death from an hereditary heart problem.

In the time since then, he worked in a number of smaller breweries, and did a six month stint in Nigeria helping to restart a large lager brewery there. He ran a business sourcing and building plant for small breweries.

And in 2009 he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer.

His response was a big two fingers to that, and with the help of other brewers he produced a series of brews in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support. My last time brewing with him was for one of his Brewer's Swansong brews at Tryst Brewery in Falkirk. But he pointedly failed to die and there were a good number of fundraising brews including a revival of Fisherrow favourite, Portobello Porter. But, cancer sucks, and does not play well with other conditions. He spent an increasing amount of time in hospital after a stroke and a bladder condition that necessitated brutal surgery. And he was never the same. He always was an awkward, stubborn bugger, with an off-colour sense of humour that never quite stepped over the line. He delighted in making life difficult for jobsworth bureaucrats, often by having read the relevant legislation or regulations. He was, for a couple of years, the official "Token Heterosexual" at Pride Scotia events. But illness took the pleasure out of life. We were concerned when he didn't fill in some forms in a way designed to create headaches for bureaucrats; when the humour stopped and antipathy took its place. It was obvious living was now a chore.

The last time I saw Iain was at the New Year, where we shared bottles of early 1970s Courage Russian Imperial Stout that he had brewed back in the day. He was very frail. This morning, we learned that we will have to retrieve the special beer he made a few years ago for his own funeral so it can serve its intended purpose.

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