Published on March 31st, 2015 | by Alastair Gilmour0
A WELD CHAMPION
The pint in your hand has to come from somewhere. Alastair Gilmour meets a man who helps brewers make beer happen
In a writer’s job you get to meet some extraordinarily talented people. Take the man who built his own house to take full advantage of truly stunning Borders scenery, the welder and fabricator who constructs whisky stills and creates breweries in sizes from nano to regional, the home-brewer whose Blonde is a highly marketable fusion of soft malt and crisp apple flavours, and the Isle of Man TT sidecar racer.
If you roll all of those into one, James “Sam” Sampson comes out the other end. And Sam, as he prefers to be known, even makes the most amazing tomato-rich, ham-heady, rib-sticking soup. It’s tempting to confuse him with a rocket scientist.
For the past four-and-a-half years, Sam has been constructing brewery equipment – mash tuns, fermenters, conditioning tanks, cask washers, you name it – from his Scotia Welding & Fabrication business near Lauder in the Scottish Borders. Breweries he has been involved with – either full kit installations, part-works, or remedial – include Allendale in Northumberland, Tempest in Kelso, Fyne Ales of Argyll, Ushers of Edinburgh, Stonehouse in Shropshire, and The Old Potting Shed in High Spen, Tyne and Wear. His order book bulges to the extent that he’s recently taken on two more pairs of metalworking hands.
His first brewery commission came in 2010. “I was in Inverness, actually at a funeral, when I got a call asking me if I’d be interested in building a brewery,” he says. Not a man to shirk a challenge, Sam decided to have a go. “That was Tempest Brewery, then the consultant on that job asked me if I’d be interested in doing one in Kent.
“It went on from there. I’ve done distillery work for Balvenie, Grants, and the Hendricks gin distillery. I first started work at McMillan’s in Prestonpans (Edinburgh), the coppersmiths and specialist fabricators, where I served my apprenticeship working on whisky stills.”
Sam works in close collaboration with brewing consultant George Thompson, a hugely experienced brewer himself whose portfolio reaches across the globe and who lands, from time to time in the North East, including, a couple of years ago, overseeing developments at Hadrian Border brewery in Newcastle. Sam says: “I think people are far more interested in where their beer is coming from these days and we’re heading to the stage where each village is going to have its own microbrewery.”
Whether you trace that educated assumption back to former chancellor Gordon Brown’s small breweries’ tax relief in 2003 that introduced a 50% reduction in excise duty for micros producing under 5,000 hectolitres, or the wave of craft brewing inspiration rolling in from across the Atlantic, it spells good news for Sam Sampson, George Thompson and the simple beer lover.
Scotia Welding’s journey towards the microbrewery sector started with the horrors of the World Trade Centre in 2001.
“I was manufacturing and constructing architectural metalwork for trade fairs, visitor centres and exhibition stands all over the world,” says Sam. “I was in San Diego, Florida, Cannes, Canada, but 9/11 kicked it all in the head. Within a year, two of the three companies I was working with went bust.”
A man who enjoys a pint, Sam noted that more and more beers were appearing, produced by new, small breweries – and the common denominator was a need for brewing equipment. Many of them had started up on little more than a shoestring budget and a dusting of enthusiasm, so it would be fair to presume that they would be seeking second-hand vessels to convert for making beer.
Dairy equipment, for example, was widely sought after – that’s how Wylam Brewery in Northumberland got started. Similarly with Sulwath Brewery in Dumfries & Galloway – but in that case it was redundant jam kit.
However, those conversions require high levels of skills in adapting to a new use, and Sam, who specialises in stainless steel, aluminium, mild steel, brass and copper, knew he was the man.
Tom Hick, owner of Allendale Brewery, is delighted with the work Scotia Welding has carried out for the award-winning business. He says: “Sam was great to deal with. He extended some of our Grundy tanks which involves not only quite a lot of welding, but maintaining the structural integrity of the vessel to retain its strength. He also reinforced the legs and fitted a sight tube so we could check the levels.
“He not only knows his own job but he’s got a lot of knowledge about brewing, which is what he’s offering.”
Sam Sampson takes his work so seriously he built his own pilot plant to brew beer for himself – obviously to enjoy a beer but also to complete the process in his head. The 120-litre capacity microbrewery installed in his workshop could fit easily into the average sized garage or a large kitchen.
A room in his house has a bar in one corner, an ornate church pulpit which once graced the Guthrie Memorial Church on Easter Road in Edinburgh.
He says: “A friend of mine was in charge of stripping it out (when the church was made redundant) and making sure that everything was properly removed without damaging it. He suggested it would make a nice bar.”
It’s a bolt-hole and ostensibly a contrast to the welding torch and laser cutter, but in reality it’s very much a creative space, a problem-solving den acting as yet another implement in a rocket scientist’s extensive toolbox.