What if Highland…were more Lowland?

Posted by on Nov 11, 2014 in Scottish Beer | 6 Comments

orkney_bestAt the end of last week, an announcement was made over at the Drygate brewery in Glasgow following the judging of this year’s SIBA Scotland region awards. Highland Brewing Company had done it again. Taking overall Gold and overall Silver in the same competition (with Loch Ness Brewery winning Bronze for HoppyNESS) meant yet more certificate-ware for undoubtedly the most successful Scottish cask ale brewery of modern times. Consider this; their ‘best in show’ beer for 2014 – Highland Island Hopping – also won the overall Gold last year, becoming the first beer to repeat as champion since SIBA began taking records in 2006. This year’s Silver medal-winner – Highland Pale Ale – won overall Gold the year before that, in 2012. In 2011, Highland had come second and third overall (Fyne Ales’ Jarl pooping the party), which mirrored their haul of the 2010 competition (albeit with Cairngorm Black Gold taking Gold).

This tells us several things. Firstly, it has to be a seriously good beer to get one over on a Highland entrant to a SIBA competition. But, more importantly, the sheer consistency of Rob Hill’s outfit is quite startling. In CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Scotland competitions run over the same years (2010-2014), Highland have taken the Champion crown twice (not to mention on two more occasions, 2007 and 2008). In fact, prior to this year’s CBoS announcement – which saw not a single Highland beer in the top three – the previous two competitions had podiums (podia?) featuring Highland beers as often as all other winning breweries combined. Now, you could say that Highland certainly enter a lot of their beer into a lot of competitions – which is undoubtedly true – but it’s not just on home turf that they seem to do well; they won three awards in the most recent iteration of the International Brewing Awards.

This has recently got me to thinking – would Highland Brewing Co be as successful if they were located somewhere else? What if, say, they weren’t located in Swannay, but in Swindon?

Firstly, the immediate thing that comes to mind is they would have far more immediate competition (with no offence meant to the Sinclair brewery, or anyone else in the north of Scotland). Cutting and pasting Rob and his sons into another market, one with far more family brewers operating, would make success harder to come by, you’d think. But then, by the same token they would also have access to far more cellars – more breweries means more people, which means more tap handles. Highland didn’t gain success overnight, having worked up since 2005 – but they have shown a recent willingness to diversify, as when I interviewed Rob in 2013, prior to the launch of the kegged side to their business. Maybe the biggest risk to the ‘Lowland Brewing Company’ would be the loss of their character, then – for every night spent rueing the ferry crossing schedule, you can’t deny that coming from Orkney gives you (and therefore your products) quite some character.

Maybe this is an imagination that could be extrapolated; what would be the outcome of a local brewing favourite suddenly upping sticks and moving to another area? What if someone like Hawkshead swapped places with Highland? Or Oakham? Would competition judges of the South-East region go as crazy for Canvey Island Hopping? There’s no way of telling, of course – although I would certainly think that if Highland moved anywhere, they would need a lot more of their Orkney Porter (though that’s a subject for another post). Maybe the guys at Highland dream of a central, flat location with numerous trunk roads, off-street parking, and a circular catchment of thirsty towns within an hour’s round-trip. But then, maybe that would be the kind of thing that would keep them up at night instead…


  1. Allan McLean
    November 11, 2014

    Swannay is a winning location but Rob is the real success.

  2. Anonymous
    November 11, 2014

    I really like their beers and would put them in the top 5 or 6 Scottish breweries but I think there’s a lot of truth in ‘the more competitions you enter the more prizes you win’.

    I know quite a few of Scotland’s best breweries don’t enter ANY competitions. Whereas some will enter anything and everything (particularly the WBA).

    Would changing location affect they’re results? I’d like to think not but I’d guess it might a little (plus they’d be using different water to brew with).

  3. Lewis Hill
    November 11, 2014

    Thanks for writing about us, Richard, and the nice comment, Allan.

    On the matter of entering competitions – I don’t think you enter CAMRA competitions as such, more the beers are chosen. The only competitions we have ‘entered’, to the best of my knowledge, are the SIBA ones and the International Brewing Awards.

    We do plan to enter other competitions in the future, it’d be nice to win something at the World Beer Cup.

    Cheers, Lewis.

  4. Richard
    November 11, 2014

    Thanks Lewis – what do you think; would Highland be the same if it was the Highlands of the Peak District, or the Cotswolds?

  5. Lewis Hill
    November 11, 2014

    I think if we were based somewhere else we’d be different in rather a lot of ways – except for the quality of our beer.

    It adds another level to a lot of things being based up here. We have great support locally and sell more and more beer in Orkney every year, but the majority of our output is still shipped off the island. Logistically we move a lot of goods in and send more back out; I don’t think we could ever feasibly run our own bottling plant (having to ship in glass to ship it back out). Apart from the taxman our biggest bill every month is the transport company.

    Everything takes longer too: pallets in and out are at least a two day service – if the ferries go on time – so we have to be plan ahead with materials and customers have to know they can’t get a next day delivery. I’m sure a large Scottish brewery moved location at least in small part to be within the ‘next day’ catchment area.

    It’d be nice to have a busy brewery tap room too, but even if you got to Orkney we are still 30 minutes from the main town, about as far as you can get on the island!

    If you looked further back, Rob won awards during his time at the Orkney Brewery and also Moorhouses’s Brewery too (in fact he won the International Brewing Awards gong at all three breweries) so he must be an important factor.

  6. Al Reid
    November 16, 2014

    Must admit I do like the sound of a beer called ‘Canvey Island Hopping’ a perfect medicine
    and almost guaranteed to make you Feelgood…

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