One of the common themes in brewing is that of companies changing hands – in the modern era the attention is on smaller breweries acquired by larger players to be subsumed into a craft (fake or otherwise) empire. It’s a modern way of thinking, but mergers and takeovers have always happened of course – back in the 1840’s Scotland had a whopping 280 breweries – as opposed to around 130 today. Changing tastes, wars and the temperance movement did for some – but many were bought out and closed down. If you had to jot down a list of exit points for brewers, being bought out is right up there. But there are others of course.
The brewer could be the one who decides to pull the plug and sell. Ill health or personal reasons may intervene. The business could go belly up. Aside from the the first one the connection between many is that it’s not a pleasant end for a brewery that has maybe been trading for decades. Interviewing recently-freed brewers isn’t something I have done very much of, so I don’t know the anecdotes told about how many end up leaving on their own terms. These days with the news headlines in the brewing press it seems like either they leave when it falls apart, or drive away in their new Lamborghini (licence plate: B1G B33R).
But there is one exit strategy that comes around on the brewers’ wheel of life every now and again – one that hopefully we all will get to experience. Simple retirement. There’s probably a joke that old brewers never retire, but just last year one of Scotland’s finest did that, as Stuart McLuckie pulled down the shutters on Luckie Ales for the last time. Like much of what Stuart did, this was done quietly and without fuss, and rather than have the Luckie name hit that dead end like many others, he instead sold everything – including his recipes – so that the brewery could continue.
Stuart started out brewing as Luckie Ales in 2008 on a farm in central Fife, before taking up a small unit in the outbuildings of a crumbling distillery in Markinch. Brewing once or twice a week on a 1BBL kit, he drove the beers to local bottle shops himself. Brewing is a tough business, particularly on that scale – you have to do everything yourself; brewing and cleaning, the company stuff, the sales and the deliveries and returns (if you ever tried one of his cask ales at the Hanging Bat you’ll know his journey was worth it). I caught up with Stuart via email to find out why he had decided to call time.
“I wish I had started brewing 10 years earlier,” Stuart told me. “I would have been able to sell a five barrel brewery by now and had a few employees to do the grunt work. As it is I’ll carry on home-brewing – there are a lot of old ales to brew, especially the stronger ones needing a year+ to age, something that is commercially not yet viable. It’s a bit strange not brewing any more so I’ll need to get the garage decluttered and start brewing mini homebrew batches as there’s lots of styles – oak aged, Brett and old ales – that I would like to explore.”
I got the sense that the business had become too commercial for Stuart, which given the size is saying something. I guess the only regret he had is that he hadn’t got out of the gates earlier when the brewing scene was really in its infancy – starting out in 1998 would have given him more momentum, and got the 1BBL stage out of the way much earlier. I wish him all the best, and if his experiments with Brettanomyces come to fruition I will beat a path to his garage door.
Anyway, all Luckie Ales beers are now produced by Martin Doherty, ex-of Knops Beer, in an industrial unit in Leven, about ten miles down the road from the old distillery in Markinch. Like Stuart, he started out as a keen homebrewer and then left a career to pursue this with more regularity. After graduating from the Heriot-Watt Masters’ degree course in brewing and distilling that has become industry standard, he worked with Bob Knops for a year, before leaving to set up his own brewery in Fife. However when he saw Stuart wanting to retire, he stepped in.
“My intention for Luckie Ales is to follow a similar path to Stuart,” he told me, via email. “So brewing traditional and historic beer styles / recipes, whilst gradually introducing my own ideas. I have fairly traditional tastes myself, and I particularly love the malt (and yeast) profile of many of the existing Luckie beers – has been a treat getting access to Stuart’s recipe secrets. I want to build on this base and experiment to create some new recipes, perhaps with some more adventurous hopping to create some (hopefully) great beer.”
So the future looks in safe hands for Luckie – and equally importantly – for Stuart’s creations. After all, another way brewers used to exit the business was to hand it down to the next generation – with Luckie although the brewery was sold to a new brewer, it seems as if all the house secrets will thankfully pass on with it.