Isle of Skye – British brewing in microcosm

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have done is simply re-brand, update their packaging, change direction away from one which they feel might be a bit outdated.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.

18 thoughts on “Isle of Skye – British brewing in microcosm”

  1. As long as the recipe for Red Cuillin stays the same (as indicated) they can call it what they want. Fantastic beer.

  2. We were lucky enough to be one of the few to test Isle of Skye Brewery’s Eilean-or, which went down exceptionally well, with it winning the Mortonhall Golf Club’s beer tasting earlier this week. Look out for more exclusives from Isle of Skye brewery at Growler Beers UK.

  3. To Kev I can say emphatically that “Skye Red ” will stick to the same “Red Cuillin” recipe that we have been brewing for almost 20 years.

    Stuart, we are glad to hear that the tasting of “Eilean-Òr” went well at Mortonhall. We installed in yesterday in the Bakur Bar here in Uig and it sold out in 2 hours 15 minutes – in the middle of the afternoon!

  4. It’s very interesting to see what’s happening with branding, particularly in the Scottish drinks industry.
    I think Scottish breweries have previously gone down one of two paths with branding; modern (ish) or twee Scottish, the latter trying to appeal to tourists who like nessie and jimmy wigs (i generalise but you get my point!). I think there is only a limited market that twee Scottish appeals to however and i think Scotland can do a lot better at marketing itself and its products as modern and forward thinking whilst not forgetting our history – we cant always hark back to our history is my thinking.

    Scottish beer branding changes have actually been preceded by whisky branding. Not too long ago whisky was very traditionally marketed but the rise in global interest has changed the marketing approach substantially and there are some genuinely excellent examples out there which give the impression of history but also appear bold and modern and ‘cool’ : Bowmore, Bruichladdich (particularly the Octomore series) and Springbank. Interestingly all in similarly remote locations to Isle of Skye and they need to appeal to a wider customer base than just tourists in the immediate surrounding areas.

    I’m all for a bit of inventive marketing which rightly retains the sense of origin of the product but also shows in off as interesting and ‘cool’ in a competitive market place.

  5. Angus – two and a quarter hours? That’s some going!

    Calum – great points. It’s happening in the wine industry too – reinvention is par for the course

  6. Excellent news Angus I look forward to enjoying it again in the future. Also look forward to giving the Eilean-Òr a bash.

  7. I can certainly believe that Angus, as everyone who tasted it in the shop bought at least a litre. A new barber who has opened (Stag Barber Co.) took 9 litres for his launch!

  8. I view this rebrand as a mixed bag. I first saw the rebranded beer available at the River Inn near Houston, and first thought that this was a new brewery. Under closer inspection however it was clear that the brewery had undergone “craftification”, both with the design of the pumpclips (which are very nice) and new names for the beers.

    I understand the desire to tap into the craft beer market, but having edgier/craft designed pumpclips, and renamed beers, I was expecting a more “craft” beer and was therefore let down somewhat – even though I did like the beers before.

    When you change the branding of a product people will see it differently, that’s the point of rebranding. So instead of expecting a “traditional ale” style, which I got, I was expecting something more “craft”; more hops, higher alcohol strength and more bitterness.

  9. Joe, i can see the point you’re making but i somewhat disagree with what you’re saying. I dont think ‘craft’ needs to be more hops or higher strength, i think its more about the brewery and their dedication to making a ‘real’ product in the right way. Take Luckie Ales for example, he does plenty of lower strength and more traditional styles but i think few could argue that he is not ‘craft’.
    I do think you should expect a wide selection of beers from a ‘craft’ brewery though because their small (relative) size allows for this over macro production so i’d like to see Skye introducing additional beers too that might be higher hopped or strength-ed, different yeasts and so on. Hopefully this rebrand allows them the opportunity to do that.

  10. Great post.

    If rebranding means that a small or medium sized brewery, that produces high quality beer, reaches a wider audience then good for them. Whether they wish to call themselves “craft” should be neither here nor there. The ongoing debate regarding the “C” word won’t end but it feels as if it is becoming a standardised term/approach to making good or great beer.

    I agree with Calum’s comment on Joe’s response regarding “craft” meaning higher abv and/or higher hopping. If we applied the higher abv, then any beer produced by a small or medium sized brewery could be termed the “C-word” as long as they are using malt (grain), hops (flower), yeast and no extracts e.g DME, gravy browning. Obviously, other adjuncts to flavour the beer e.g. lemon, ginger, tea, coffee or whatever grabs your bag.

    The whole “craft” equals “punk rock” idea is becoming or has become tired and rather juvenile. In fact, I believe it has become condescending to the drinker. It feels as if the “I only drink craft beer” devotees have become drone-like denizens of well meaning and intentioned breweries. Those that wanted to introduce British beer drinkers to others’ take on British, Belgian, German etc beer styles. They have done a great job as well, well most of them that I have tried and some have done a poor job.

    The “Craft” label can be incredibly disrespectful to great breweries that produce great beers using traditional brewing methods and ingredients, the history & rich heritage of British brewing and those individuals and organisations that fought hard to keep British brewing alive in its direst moments and helped grow it. However, I am grateful to “Craft” for introducing me to some fantastic beers but I was drinking some of these before I had actually heard the term “Craft”.

    I think the debate and by default a brewery’s decision to embrace this dark and nebulous term will carry on dividing people. I suppose I am now agreeing with Joe, as when you see creative and contemporary branding, you do pre-consciously expect a beer to taste hoppier, stronger, coconuttier and it’s a shame he was disappointed by what he had. At least the “C-word” movement has inspired bar/pub owners to increase the variety of beers available to their customers.

    Sadly, the “C-word” now just seems to be purely a marketing tool/term, in this country at least and obviously there will be winners and losers.

  11. Thank you Richard,
    Quite possibly the best review I have read to date!
    To be passionate about the final product, understanding the ingredients you are about to use, maintaining quality and consistency, being able to hear and translate what people want to drink, working long yet fulfilling hours and quite simply loving your job.
    I found this wonderful job 20 years ago nearly and I so look forward to the future with Kenny and Skye Brewery.
    Richard, the day Cuillin Beast won Champion Beer of Scotland my feet left the floor and I floated.
    Xx

  12. I don’t have any issue with the re-brand, apart from that the labels look a little Camden-ish. More importantly, after inspecting the website, there was nary a mention of the ‘C’ word. The bottom line is that they make good beer, and as Calum noted, maybe this will free the brewery to be more adventurous.

  13. I agree with Graham when he says: ‘The whole “craft” equals “punk rock” idea is becoming or has become tired and rather juvenile. In fact, I believe it has become condescending to the drinker’.

    This is basically how I felt about the TSA -> Black Wolf re-branding. Not liking the whole ‘Beer worth howling for..’, #jointhewolfpack, slightly arrogant ‘we are proud of our Craft roots (which we started yesterday)’ vibe that I’m getting from their twitter account.

    It’s just feeling slightly insulting, especially as I had a conversation with one of the directors (who was heavily involved with this re-banding) a couple months ago, and I got the distinct feeling that he was looking down at brewdog ‘fans’ (as cash cows drones) while having no idea why brewdogs marketing actually works.

    Which means it is very nice to see something like this Skye re-branding; quite like the look. Also if it means they can try making new beers and market them accordingly (while continuing to make the old favourites) all the better.

  14. Great read, as always, Rich. I’m a fan of these guys, as it happens, and that new branding’s about as far away as you can get from the old stuff. Bring it on.

  15. Arran’s financial trouble? It was only due to go ahead if the govt. grant was approved which it wasn’t.

  16. If I can just throw in a little bit on the use of the term”craft”.

    When we set up Skye Brewery in 1994 (we started brewing in 1995) we called ourselves “artisan” or “craft” brewers, in the true meaning of the words. The term “artisan” was a bit poncy so we stuck with “craft” and have described ouselves as such ever since, before the vast majority of the neo-punk breweries were even a glimmer of an idea.

    We have all allowed these new breweries to hi-jack the name to mean something else, prompted by the Americans, and, to a lesser extent, the Australians. Taking an orange and calling it an apple doesn’t change the fact that an orange is an orange. So, we have always been, and still are, craft brewers, even although the types of beers we produce are not quite in line with the faddy stuff produced by these newbie-breweries.

    At the end of the day, however, it doesn’t matter what we call ourselves. What the consumer wants is good, flavour- and taste-ful beer. We strive for that and, hopefully, succeed. Twenty years’ existence seems to point to the fact that we do. Many of the newbies do too and, if they keep it up, will be here in 20 years time (and we’ll have been going for 40 years!).

  17. Well said. If the product is good it will always survive. Fads will come and go, as will imitations and those who just want to make some fast money.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*