With a mountainous north and lowland south, the Isle of Arran is often referred to as ‘Scotland in miniature’ – yet, at the moment, another of our islands is home to a brewery who could very well be a bellwether for how the industry is looking, as we head towards the middle of 2014. The Isle of Skye, largest of the Inner Hebrides, “sticks out of the west coast of northern Scotland like a lobster’s claw, ready to snap at the fishbone of Harris and Lewis” (in a perfect description attributed to Scottish mountaineer Malcolm Slesser). At the north of the island, right in the pincer’s grip, is the small port village of Uig (population 200), and here, just behind the ferry terminal; the Isle of Skye Brewery.*
*If you look on streetview, the brewers are leaning in the doorway – presumably killing time during one of natural breaks created by a brewday.
Founded in 1995 by Angus MacRuary and Stephen Tinney (the latter selling his share to the former twelve months later), the Isle of Skye brewery have been at Uig pier ever since. Some beers were initially contracted to Belhaven for ease of bottling, but not for a long time; everything is now done in-house. The brewery made headlines last year, when a proposed merger with the Arran Brewery fell through due to Arran’s financial issues. Angus – who had been due to retire as part of that merger – instead secured a buy-in elsewhere, gaining funding to invest in the brewery and stay on at the helm, invigorated, for another couple of years. That investment came from businessman Kenny Webster, who joined as Managing Director.
So far, it’s a regular story of a small, successful, local business. So why is this company representative of British brewing, right at this very moment? Well, because Isle of Skye brewery have just ‘gone craft.’
The very fact I’m writing those words could be said to be symbolic of a modern malaise. What Skye have done is simply re-brand, update their packaging, change direction away from one which they feel might be a bit outdated. That’s all it is; businesses have been doing it for decades. Yet, in this day and age, it’s seen as something greater – reaching for the ‘craft’ status, and the implication that comes with it; a conscious decision to bridge the gap to a previously disinterested market share, based on image. As Kenny Webster says, “Skye was creating outstanding craft beer long before it became cool again to do so.”
Whilst I’m not quite sure exactly what he means, his wider point holds true – it’s almost as if these ‘old’, ‘traditional’, ‘family’ breweries are seeking to justify themselves now, as the Craft Question looms over everything. Established brewers face a stick or twist decision; remain as they are, not pandering to external influence – or if the time is right for a refresh; ‘craftify’ themselves. Off the top of my head, seven other breweries in Scotland have rebranded recently – from subtle packaging changes to full-on craftification (such as Traditional Scottish Ales, who officially launch their new Black Wolf guise today).
What message does this send to potential converts? That fans of ‘craft’ beer are more influenced by design and look, over taste? Is image the most important component of ‘craft’ beer? No, of course not – the critical thing, now as ever, is the taste of the beer. Aside from this, it’s about how the beers are produced, and the ethos of the company as a whole. As Mr. Webster continues, “The current obsession that drinkers have with craft is to do with the fact that people are bored with mass-produced, generic brands. They want beer with character; from its taste, to its look and the story behind it.”
As hinted at earlier, this is something the Isle of Skye Brewery have, in abundance. For almost twenty years, they have been putting their beers out and winning awards – including CAMRA Champion Beer of Scotland for 2011, with Cuillin Beast (I was on the judging panel for that particular competition, and it was hands-down the best of the finalist beers that were put before us). But, of course, without an official definition of what ‘craft’ beer is, or isn’t, in the UK – who’s to argue with Kenny? Skye use local ingredients. They aren’t owned by major corporations. Head brewer Pam MacRuary is the longest-tenured female brewer in Scotland, and entirely self-taught, to boot.
These are all fantastic stories, and deservedly Pam is going to take ‘a more visible role’ in the company, as it moves forward. Another change for the brewery; the beer names – Red Cuillin becomes Skye Red, Black Cuillin becomes Skye Black, and Hebridean Gold becomes Skye Gold. The recipes for these beers will remain as they are. Next week, a limited release of 1,500 bottles of barrel-aged Ardmore Beast will hit the brewery shop (Cuillin Beast matured in Ardmore single malt casks), and at the moment, Isle of Skye are trialling local releases of their first keg-only beer, Eilean-Òr.
Will all of this considerable effort help the Isle of Skye brewery get a new section of beer drinkers interested? Does ‘craft’ equate to story, noise, and bold colours? Will other breweries continue to get on board with this way of thinking? Only time will tell. Welcome to Skye, 2014; Scottish brewing in miniature.