Category Archives: Scottish Beer

Highland no more – Swannay Brewery launch

Swannay1

Name, logo, visuals. All are important when forming a company – it becomes your identity much more than whatever aspirations you hold when starting out. People can’t associate with the finer points of your ethos unless you are able to talk to each customer individually, so instead you have the natural extension that is your brand. Brewing is an industry with long associations in this regard – right from the days of the Bass red triangle (the first trademark ever filed) beermakers have focused attention on what’s on the front of the bottle as well as what’s inside. Having that individuality of character is how people tell you apart, after all.

Last night, one of Scotland’s most respected breweries began a transition from one identity to another. Re-branding can be a tricky business – at risk is the entire momentum of the company if people fail to get on board or recognise the new look. From subtle alterations to football teams changing colours, there have been recent examples of this going wrong – but Orkney’s Highland Brewing Company are the latest in a long line of companies to realise that they needed to update things a little and undergo what ponytailed marketeers would no doubt refer to as a ‘brand refresh’.

The new guise is more than that, however – Highland have gone all-in and changed the name of the brewery. Rob Hill and sons have thought long and hard about how to make their beer more synonymous with their home – Lewis Hill confirming what I have wondered for a while, which is that as Orkney isn’t actually in the Highlands they felt the name lacked connection. They can’t have picked a new name that was more apt – the brewery sits near the Swannay burn that feeds the freshwater Loch of the same name, on the northern tip of the mainland of Orkney. They are very definitely the Swannay Brewery.

Swannay4

Aside from the name change, there’s a new nautical-inspired twisted rope logo, and the pump clips feature similarly marine-esque designs. It all looks really rather good, and solves a recent problem Highland found for themselves – the adoption of a second line of beers spearheaded by Lewis. Bringing both into a similar vein (the recent arrivals and the older classics favoured by Rob) gives everything a flow to it as they move away from the old image.

I’ve said before that Highland are one of my favourite breweries – they are consistently fantastic in their output (last night confirmed this even more), so it’s interesting to see this new look as they stride out with a unified identity that, far more than in their old days, represents what the Swannay brewery are really all about.

Double Up

TurboJarl

Well, all those emails and calls certainly paid off. A tweet, linked to Instagram, plops into the timeline in the middle of the afternoon, with a mere six words of fanfare. In a single moment, that announcement carries the suggestion of a beer that many people have been wondering about for a long time. Fyne Ales are going to make an Imperial version of their all-conquering 3.8% Citra pale ale Jarl. Turbo Jarl. The legend, doubled.

Alright, it’s not the second coming or anything – but for a serious amount of time I’ve wondered what a ramped-up Citra hopped beer from Argyll’s finest would be like. Sure, they have Superior IPA – but that’s an India Pale Ale; and it has Cascade pitching in with the Citra. The sheer joy of Jarl is in its sessionability – it is the perfect first sipper. Any beer brewed to 7.4%, nudging under the duty threshold, can’t possibly have the same ideal as Scotland’s Summer Classic, can it?

But just think on for a minute. There are no better hands for this project to be in. Fortifying something that – since it first appeared at the debut FyneFest of 2010 – has been cemented as one of the outstanding beers of Scotland in recent times, winning SIBA awards and being crowned Champion Beer of Scotland in 2013. Maybe now is the perfect time to push out the longship boat a little and see where it lands.

Why the hell not? I know many roll the eyes at the craftification of brewing, and the rush for bigger, stronger, slower. Balsamic barrel-aged sour tomato beers and the like. But these things are all the product of experimentation, fed through the skill of our brewers – and that keeps the industry going, attracts great young talent and the interest keeps them there. If there is a market for the end-result – and by goodness, will there ever be a market for high-abv Jarl – then absolutely good on them.

Now, before I write something utterly ridiculous like high-abv beers are brewers’ Himalayas – here are five other Scottish beers that it would be interesting to see a ‘double’ version of…

Cromarty AKA IPA – While we’re on the subject of beers that captured the Zeitgeist – Cromarty’s tub-thumping IPA (no slouch at 6.7%) would be boosted into the stratosphere with an extra third again on the abv. Except, this one has already been done – Cromarty Man Overboard was released in January. People power!

Cairngorm Black Gold – The dark to Jarl’s light; a stunning and multi-award winning beer (not to mention the current Champion Beer of Scotland). At 4.4% it has fantastic depth – but what would it be like at 7.5%? Cairngorm rarely venture over 5% – for fans of bigger beer, this could be a real winner.

Stewart 80/- – Let’s push the flipchart here – an imperial 80/-? Ending up like a bastard lovechild of an old ale and a wee heavy, this might put the cat amongst the pigeons. Doubled up, at least Loanhead’s finest would know what to call it, even if Stewart 160/- would require an extra digit on the pump clip.

This. Is. Lager. – Well Ok, I guess I could whisper this upstairs but imperial lagers are few and far between and – when delivered well – really bring something interesting to the table. Avery, Brown, Dredge was a similar vein, but doubling-up TIL would raise a few eyebrows.

Pilot Ultravilot – Just to see how much of this Leith’s finest could take.

What other beers from the UK would have a totally different outlook placed on them, if they were doubled up?

Natural Selection Brewing launch Bitter Descent

Bitter Descent2

Edinburgh is a city built on its traditions of brewing, and yet new institutions are added to the roster all the time. For example, one of the newer of these additions is celebrating its fifth anniversary this very week. It was that long ago that the collaboration project between the Institute of Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University and Stewart Brewing first began, and it has been marked in customary fashion by the release of the latest Natural Selection Brewing beer. Last night at the New Amphion room of the University of Edinburgh the latest team of NSB’ers unveiled the fruits of their labours – Bitter Descent, a 5.1% ESB brewed with American hops.

If you’re unfamiliar with the project the IBD degree course offers to its students, Natural Selection gives them the chance to develop a beer – and brand – from scratch, covering all aspects of the process. They design, trial, brew, market and then sell their beer, gaining crucial insight into the whole panoply of related careers that they will hopefully go on to enjoy. And that certainly is one of the more regular outcomes – previous Natural Selection Brewing alums are working at a number of UK and North American breweries now; testament to the project and how much it gives to those who get on board. And that’s no done deal – a high percentage of the IBD students apply to be involved, understandably – particularly now the scheme has been so well received.

This year, the four students who got the chance are Reade Huddleston (Brewing), Sarah Brown (Project Co-ordinator), Sam Fleet (Marketing) and Richard Hamer (Sales). I managed to sit down with them about half an hour before the official launch of Bitter Descent. Whilst posters were still being tacked to walls and the band were soundchecking, we spent a while chatting through the genesis of the beer. After running a number of trials for different styles, they settled on an Extra Special Bitter – the style that has grown out of British Best Bitters and has taken on a new prominence in North America. Reade – who is from Texas – elaborated; “ESB is one of the most quintessential balanced styles. Bitters are not something I got into, but Extra Special Bitters I really got into. That’s probably an American thing – everything has to be extra special! So as we’re in summer, we wanted a balanced beer but also something that speaks to my American heritage and yet is accessible to the UK public.”

They were at pains to develop a beer that worked on both keg and cask – and for the first time in the five-year history of the Natural Selection Brewing Project, it has also been bottled and canned. So four different dispense methods to choose from. Having tried both draught formats, the cask is understandably softer and more lightly floral, whereas the keg version had the bitterness level raised by the carbonation – although as expected neither overwhelmed the palate. The team were after a balanced, drinkable beer for summer – and that is exactly what they have achieved.

A series of events have been planned for Bitter Descent – of which 10,000 litres has been produced, and all of it sold. As Richard said; “One of the things I really wanted to do was target new markets. It’s very big in Edinburgh but we want to keep that focus and get it out to new markets. We sold out last week, so we now have nothing left. It’s been great fun, talking to people about your beer. It’s an awesome feeling, it really is.”

What possibly wasn’t fun was the required twenty-two hour bottling shift. Also, the 9am delivery run this morning following the launch last night, which was scheduled to end at 3am (a time I long ago pushed beyond the limits of my bedtime). From what I hear the beer was really well received – but, as I always say, at the end of the day the final beer really isn’t the most important thing. Of course they want it to turn out well, and it’s a nerve-wracking time – but the lessons and experience learned along the way will count for far more down the line.

And that is why the Natural Selection Brewing project is truly invaluable, and something I hope continues for a long time to come.



Natural Selection Brewing Bitter Descent will be available for tasting in all Edinburgh Vino Wines and branches of Oddbins (the latter beginning today), as well as appearing on draught in several city pubs. They are also planning events in London, Glasgow and Aberdeen – for details on all these events, check out their Twitter Feed.

Not just the industrial…

Street View appeared on the scene a few years ago, but has already become an indispensable tool. For instance, I’m off on holiday next week (so no posts etc etc) but thanks to Google’s cameras I know exactly how to drive from Pisa airport to where we are staying.* It makes such a difference, knowing what a junction looks like before you roll up to it, or how to recognise a hotel without ever having been there. The downside is that when you do arrive you get that weird déjà vu feeling – but it’s a small price to pay for not getting lost.

Speaking of which, sometimes when you head off to find your favourite brewery, you end up in concrete hell, negotiating identical streets on industrial estates looking for the correct unit. But not every brewery is located on a retail park. Here in Scotland, we are blessed with some of the most striking brewing scenery imaginable. And thanks to Street View, you can imagine no longer. Take that white house in the picture above – that’s the farmhouse at the centre of Fyne Ales’ brewery in Argyll, looking as gorgeous a setting as a brewery could ever wish to have.

* And as it’s Italy, I’ll be deploying +10 rakish driving points at all times.

Scottish brewing revels in the variety – and not just in the beer. In the locations as well…

For instance, this fetching façade is the Abbot Brew House in Dunfermline. The pink exterior looking quite the destination, (quite literally) highlighting the historical importance of the brewery and the beers that the team at the old building produce.

I mean, look at this. The Cuillin Brewery (the white building in the foreground, in front of the larger Sligachan Hotel) overlooks the mountains after which it takes its name, and has to be the most stunning location for a brewery I can think of. Although, if you know a British brewery with a better location, let me know…

Ok – not every brewery overlooks pods of dolphins leaping about, or has red squirrels scampering through the keg washing station. Step forward Pilot Beer. The beating heart of Leith.

WEST in Glasgow is proof that not all interesting brewery locations are along twisty roads and require you to stock up on midge spray beforehand. The old Templeton carpet factory on Glasgow green is a great place for a beermaker – because a) it’s unique and looks really, really cool and b) there’s the grassy sprawl of the green on which to take your beer when the sun shines.

On the shores of Little Loch Broom, An Teallach’s cask-only brewery peeks out from the row of trees behind the A832. This is the classic ‘what to look for’ if you ever go searching for a brewery. If they don’t have external fermenters – ‘casks, indicate, manoeuvre!’

What at first glance resembles a scout hut is, in fact, home to the Colonsay Brewery – arguably the most remote beermaker in the country. As they say, ‘the smallest island in the world with its own brewery’ (they employ 10% of the island’s working population). A two and half hour ferry ride to the glittering lights of Oban, this is brewing on the (admittedly beautiful) edge.

Not all breweries have had the questionable luxury of the Google car drive up to their postbox. This is as close as you can get to the home of Knops Beer Co – which looks as if it doubles as a small airfield. And clearly a windy day, at that.

Oh, and this brewery also looks to be remote and out of the way. But as it’s BrewDog, maybe Google kind of need to update their maps on this one…

Innis & Gunn roll the dice. Or do they?

NewGunn1

So, this week one of the biggest pieces of news in the Scottish beer world was of an innovative, PR-savvy beermaker launching a unique crowd-funding scheme to raise capital for the construction of a new brewery.

Yes, a week after BrewDog announced Equity for Punks IV, Innis & Gunn have revealed that they are implementing a BeerBond™ for fans of their beer, and are hoping to raise £3m to create a new state-of-the-art brewery and an additional 35 jobs over the next four years. The location of the brewery is still to be confirmed to the public, so far the teaser of ‘somewhere in SE Scotland’ is all we have to go on.

Having been making beer for thirteen years, I&G have finally decided to take the plunge and open their own facility (up to this point, of course, their beer has been brewed at the Wellpark site in Glasgow, home of Tennent’s Lager). I’m sure I’m not the only one who has wondered for some time if something like this was going to happen. Back in January 2014 I suggested that might be the year when Innis & Gunn break the umbilical – but it has finally happened this year. And good on them for taking the risk.

But just how much of a risk is it?

In a word? Zero. It’s a cleverly-balanced offer with an enormous safety net attached. Building a new brewery is never easy (just ask the guys at Magic Rock), but this is the modern way to go about it. Ask your fans for the investment, and build something together. The one proviso to make it a success if fairly obvious – you need to have people who are willing to pony up when you send out that Press Release. One thing Innis & Gunn have, is a loyal fanbase. Whilst I can’t count myself amongst them, their beers are hugely popular – and with 30% average growth over the last two years, they are certainly moving in the right direction.

But if that direction is, say, somewhere near Dunbar (I genuinely don’t know, that’s a total guess), what do they gain from that? Well, the plans don’t give any indication of the size of the facility – so once that detail is released, that will be the marker of how confident I&G are in this new brewery, and what they hope to achieve with it. Anything around the 10-20BBL mark, and it could be along the path of a fantastic tourist attraction – the first thing I thought when I looked at the artist’s impression was Tebay services (which I mean as a compliment).

Anything around or north of 40BBL and the new Innis & Gunn brewery is a statement of intent. Their business is built on massively successful export numbers, I&G Original is the biggest-selling imported beer in Canada. If it has space inside in which to expand, then the immediate future could be less important than that down the line. Also, the barrel store. Plans for the new site include a bottling line and barrel room. Clearly, they aren’t going to move away from their Oakerators® any time soon, but the bigger the barrel store, the larger the indication will be that they are significantly upping their cask-ageing programme.

But back to the risks, and that safety net.

The I&G announcement on their blog contains the following sentence – “The time is right for us to bring brewing, barrel maturation and bottling under one roof in a home of our own where we can install the special equipment we need to craft beers with even greater depth of flavour.” However, as I understand it, their site at the Wellpark in Glasgow will be maintained and continued to be used – for large-batch runs of their core beers. The new site in SE Scotland is for additional, experimental and small-batch beers.

So there’s the first reason why this almost can’t fail for I&G – it’s not an all-in move, by any means. Build a beautiful visitors centre, shop and brewery with ample parking and signposts off the A1, but also keep the hulking, steaming tanks working away quietly in the East End of Glasgow. It’s the best of both worlds – and, to be honest, I wouldn’t have expected anything less. Innis & Gunn absolutely know what they are doing – why move everything to an industrial estate in (say) Cumbernauld, when they can have the frontage piece and the behind the scenes?

The second reason why I don’t see this as anything other than a huge success is the financials. A 7.25% (gross) interest minibond, tied for four years, with a £500 minimum investment – as Dougal Sharp said in a radio interview I heard the other day – it’s clear and simple for prospective investors. “They know what they are going to get, and when they are going to get it”. Aimed at beer fans who have money in accounts paying lower rates than that, it’s a ‘well, why not?’ investment.

Back in that 2014 preview of the year ahead, when I wrote that Innis & Gunn could take the next step and open their own brewery, I said that ‘surely now is the time for them to stand up and actually become the brewery they, and others, think they should be’. With the announcement this week, that has certainly come true. Visually impressive, appealing to casual beer drinkers, yet still with the workhorse brewery quietly in another city…

UPDATE

Dougal cleared up the size question with this tweet:-

So clearly, the new brewery is going to be a much bigger space than I or anyone else had anticipated…

Branding: who has the Best?

beertapsp

It’s been five months since I started working in the industry full-time, and I’ve already learned a huge amount. I never thought I’d end up in a career in Marketing – back in my day at Uni, I remember seeing toilet roll dispensers scrawled with ‘Marketing degree – please take one’ graffiti. * Here I am though, still thoroughly enjoying it. The insight I’ve gained has been widespread and hugely revealing – but one particular point was brought home just the other night. The importance (or not) of what we in the trade should refer to as ‘on-trade brand recognition’. Or, in plain English – why people choose things in pubs.

* Losers. I instead opted for the supremely employable degree of intertidal macrofaunal biologist. BOOM

At my hotel, a patron came in and after surveying the fonts, asked for a pint of ‘Caledonian’. What he was asking for was actually Caledonia Best, brewed not by the Caledonian Brewery but by Tennent’s, at the Wellpark in Glasgow. Now this coincidence is without doubt not lost on the people in both of those breweries; at the latter because the brand is a similar marque to Scots smoothflow-leading Belhaven Best, and the Edinburgh concern because the beer name is a one-point Scrabble tile away from that of their brewery.

The irony here is twofold. Firstly, the Best which the purchaser may or may not have been after isn’t actually made by Caledonian at all; and secondly, it doesn’t really matter what he was really after. He asked for the wrong brand and got a beer he was probably expecting anyway. The main underlying point is…does any of this actually matter? He got a beer, Tennent’s got the sale and the Caley got the brand recognition. I guess it depends what you think is the most important. And that is the million dollar question.

I’ve not spoken to anyone from the three breweries involved; the Best/Best similarity is an old story and anyway, I drummed up the blog post while I was eating a bowl of pasta. In this age of trademark disputes where ‘passing off’ has become ‘watering down’ for the craft generation, you’d think it would be important. But then, people have always asked for things by badge-name rather than brand name; got things wrong but got the right beer. I remember one of my first days at the aforementioned Uni, when met with a row of unfamiliar pump clips.

It was the sports bar of the place I was studying, which obviously given the fact that I was about to embark in a short-lived career in estuary worm-ology I didn’t frequent often. I still have the memory of being stared at from behind the bar as I tried to work out the beer I was going to pick. I should, of course, have opted for the ‘pint of lager’ catchall defence, but had it into my mind to try something Scottish. So, peering from my centimetre-thick glasses and stammering my plummiest English, I asked meekly for a ’pint of McEwans Brewer, please’.

What happened was that without pause or comment, I was given a pint of McEwans 70/- and retreated to a corner, from that moment on resolved to asking for it only by that single number (or if I felt flush to the tune of £1.30, I’d trade up for a pint of 80). In truth, brand recognition matters to marketers and people in the trade – but if punters come up with an approximation that works, that will do for them. From my sports bar pint, to the Best-drinking hotel guest, to the old story of the crowds at Digger’s in Edinburgh holding up fingers when they made it through the door.

There is a final irony to all this – if I were to order a McEwan’s 70/- today, it is actually brewed at…the Caledonian in Edinburgh, so although Wells & Young’s would get the sale (having taken over the McEwan’s brand), the Caley would get a tiny bump in their contract-brewing order sheets (well, Heineken would). Maybe the take-home message from this isn’t the vagaries of beer ordering in unfamiliar bars as much as the intertwinedness of the Scottish brewing brands…