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I spent a couple of years as a student just out of earshot, but within noseshot, of Tennent's Wellpark Brewery in Glasgow's East End. It was a difficult neighbour. In those days, 15 years ago, the fumes and odours from the brewery would drift up the hill towards my squalid apartment and considering how many of those hedonistic academic days were spent hungover, it often made for a terrible start to the day.
"I think we've improved the ventilation since then," laughs my guide, Craig, on Wellpark's The Tennent's Story tour. The master beer-maker has invested more than $2 million in a new visitor centre and in-depth tour. Considering beer has been made in one form or another on this site for about 500 years, this modern incarnation feels more than a little overdue.
It starts with an interactive offering with eerie computer-generated sprites from the company's past beamed onto a screen to explain the brand's history. This includes Hugh Tennent, the visionary brewer who travelled to Bavaria and returned with the recipe for Tennent's main lager which has been used since 1885.
This Glasgow brew is sold internationally more than ever before, but its popularity at home is hard to fully comprehend. Craig reminds us of the oft-quoted Scottish anomaly that we are on the only nation on Earth with an indigenous soft drink – Irn-Bru – more popular than Coca-Cola. "Thing is, if you added all the Irn-Bru and all the Smirnoff products sold in Scotland together, we still beat them," smiles our guide.
The tour includes a long explanation that while Tennent's is the Wellpark Brewery's biggest product in terms of volume, the facility is also used by brands such as Stella Artois, Carling and Beck's to brew and bottle their British products, almost all of them using the same pure Scottish water filtered from Loch Katrine. It's hard to imagine any of them are more satisfying than the delicious unpasteurised pint of Tennent's included at the end of the tour, however.
Amid the dizzying statistics we hear, perhaps the most remarkable comes from a display plaque near the entrance. I'm not overly familiar with the aerodynamics of boomerangs, but it seems pretty incredible that one would take 150 years to travel all the way from Scotland to Melbourne and back again.
Yet that, more or less, is what happened with a bottle from the Wellpark Brewery found by Australian diver Jim Anderson in a shipwreck in the 1970s. "I found out it was from Glasgow, and I contacted Tennent's to see if they were interested in the bottle, which they were, and I was delighted," said the Geelong native last year when he personally brought it to the museum.
"It took a bit of clearance to get it to Glasgow because artefacts are protected in Australia and we need special authorisation for things like this to leave the country. It's amazing to see it back, 150 years later, from where it started its journey."
That particular bottle arrived in Australia in 1868, the same year as the final convict ship from Britain, aboard The Light of the Age. After a mammoth journey, it ran aground just short of Melbourne, its final destination. Thankfully, no one died and the bottle survived well enough that Tennent's made Shipwreck Stout, a commemorative brew following the old recipe as closely as possible.
And how did the ship meet its demise? Appropriately, the official reason is that the captain was drunk.
The Tennent's Story tour is on every day at Wellpark Brewery and includes a pint of its unpasteurised lager. Adult, £12.50; children £9 (12- to 18-year olds must be accompanied by an adult) . See tennentstours.com.
Jamie Lafferty was a guest of Tennent's.