Tag Archives: Highland

Highland no more – Swannay Brewery launch


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.


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.



Why do people drink? For me, it fills the gaps between meals – but it’s a question that has been asked ever since beverages more tasty than water were invented. Ever since ‘Ug the curious’ discovered that you could ferment fruit and became the most popular Neanderthal on Earth, people have wondered just what it is about alcoholic beverages that attracts others, or (more pertinently) keeps them coming back. One of the important reasons is in that last sentence, of course – the fact that they have that mild toxic effect we return to time after time. Taking aside the social aspects of this question for a minute, the other main reason why those who drink do so – as if you needed a moment to even consider – is the flavour. That’s why there are different styles of beer; it’s why wine is infinitely more complex than red or white, and it’s why Advocaat exists. It shouldn’t, but it does.

Flavour is not just a single experience, a lone point, though. As anyone who’s attempted to judge beer has discovered, for our favoured beverage it is broken down into different distinctions. There’s general flavour – i.e. ‘what am I experiencing right now’, and there’s aftertaste – i.e. ‘what am I experiencing…right…now’. Each of these has further quantifiers. From the hop-forward power IPA that lights up the tastebuds before the glass has left the lips, to the long, drawn out finish of something beefier. In fact, if we want to break into another plane entirely, I remember the very first ever tasting notes written on the BeerCast were of (if you can believe it) Sagres Bohemia – a representative of the lesser-known Portuguese Dunkel style – which was summed up in April 2007 in the following manner…

Dark, Portugal, strong, subtle…has pre, current and after taste

Now, aside from being still the best tasting note I’ve ever seen (and a riot of oxymorons), it even borders on the metaphysical. A beer that has a pre-taste is one that is definitely worth seeking out, you would think. Of course, it’s the final words of that note that are important in that regard – the aftertaste is crucial in beer. It determines instantly whether you like what you have decided to take a punt on, whether you’ll be ordering another, and whether you’ll need to break into those polo mints on the way home or not. For me, without doubt it is the most vital component of a beer. And the most vital component of that is Linger. How long those flavours stay around makes or breaks a beer. Even those styles – like, say, mild – that don’t have a long aftertaste can still have an amazing linger; they can provide a base flavour you enjoy long after putting the glass back on the table.

Maybe it’s a simple progression – flavour > aftertaste > linger. Or maybe it’s just semantics on my part – but I always differentiate between those last two. Aftertaste coats the mouth as you swallow, and then linger is what you get after you count to five. I think I remember reading once about cigar smokers ‘rolling the flavours around in the mouth’ – and it’s maybe along the same lines (although I’ve only ever attempted to smoke a cigar once in my life, and it ended with me regurgitating my £2 pints of Carling into a bush outside Hull University). The experience of enjoying a lasting flavour is by no means limited to beer – the number one lingering sensation has to be garlic – but there are plenty of ales out there that give you an amazing result, long after you expect it.


Here are five of the best Scottish beers I can think of for Linger – with these, the rewards just keep on coming.

Tempest Unforgiven (5.4%)
A juniper rye ale with smoked oak, on cask this one goes on and on. Smoked and rauchbiers are (in)famous for their long, deep aftertastes, the addition of juniper gives this one a lift away from the full-on sausage-meat effect of some of Germany’s finest, towards a sloe-gin element that really works.

Loch Lomond Silkie Stout (5.0%)
This particular style is perfectly suited to yielding a long, rewarding linger – but the balance of malt right at the beginning is where it really pays off. Silkie is a stout that has a fantastic ashen dryness on the finish, that you can really taste for a while after. Proof that it doesn’t have to be hoppy to be moreish.

Highland Old Norway (9.0%)
Barley Wines are a prefect illustration of beers that leave you with a complex, enduring far-aftertaste. And like many of their beers, Highland’s is the best in Scotland for the style. Old Norway is a masterpiece, with a linger of figs, honey and warming, walloping alcohol.

Fyne Ales Vital Spark (4.4%)
I’ve never really been entirely sure what style Vital Spark is (a medium mild?), but it’s my favourite beer that they produce. This is largely down to the fantastic flavours that it leaves you with – the key here being the blackcurrant fruitiness that blends into the roasty finish.

Stewart Brewing Chilli Reekie (6.2%)
Another ingredient bound to linger, Stewart’s chillied-up version of their strong stout Cauld Reekie has a rising subtlety of heat which works really well with the base components of the beer. Chilli is easy to overdo, and this one gets the balance perfectly correct (unlike the worst beer linger I ever experienced)…

What if Highland…were more Lowland?

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…

Saint Guinness Day


Happy Saint Guinness Day! Today, around the world, hundreds of thousands of dark pints will be churned out, knocked back and knocked over – all in the name of a long-passed, snake-managing missionary. It’s the biggest day of commercialisation in the beer world, bar none. Over the years, Dublin’s most famed export has become so synonymous with St Patrick’s Day that it has become equivalent to the general celebration of things Irish, and has probably now surpassed it. People go out to drink the black stuff, it having become the focus of attention on the 17th of March (aside from my Grandad’s birthday; he’s 93 today).

There’s no denying Guinness aren’t brilliant at marketing – is there a brewery who has embraced the dusky art more totally than them? You only need to go to the hugely impressive Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, and walk around – the whole thing is essentially a museum to their marketing prowess. Toucans, sea lions, charging horses, breaking through the surf. Even I used to have one of those giant foam shamrock hat-things in my flat, for goodness sake – until we found a mouse living in it (true story).

I’m not a Guinness hater. One of the best beers I ever had was a pint of it, in Belfast when I was 18. The mystique of the settling and topping-up is Ireland’s tea ceremony, and at least has a smattering more integrity than the ‘perfect pour’ nonsense of Heineken, or whoever it was that purloined the technique for lagery means. When you go to the museum and come up out of the lift into the Gravity Bar, as the barman starts flicking the tap for your arrival, it’s like walking into a commercial.

Yet, this is pretty much all Guinness has to offer. There’s a reason why they constantly promote the moment of pouring; that’s the highlight. There are so many more great stouts out there. Sure, you can go somewhere like Edinburgh’s Three Sisters, as they try to break the record for numbers of pints of Guinness sold in 24hrs (last year, they got through a staggering 10,486 in a single day). But Scotland has some stunning stouts available, made here, brewed with endeavour and imagination. There’s far more to stout than style – these five Scottish stouts save their best for where it counts; substance.

Cromarty 2Craig’s (2.0%)
A collaboration between brewers Craig Middleton and Craig Allan, it starts off roasty, but leads into a whack of grapefruity citrus from the Cascade, Columbus and Chinook. Cromarty Craig calls this an ‘unstout’ because it is hoppy and low-alcohol, but it deserves to be in this list, no question.

Highland Sneaky Wee Orkney Stout (4.2%)
If any brewer would get the most out of the dark arts, it would be Rob Hill. Highland are renowned for their golden pale ales (and now, thanks to son Lewis, their IPA’s), but Sneaky Wee Orkney Stout is deep, raisiny, chocolatey, and all-round fantastic.

Cairngorm Black Gold (4.4%)
One of the most consistent beers in the country, Black Gold seemingly wins awards in every beer competition it enters. It has to be the most under-rated beer in Scotland; a near-perfect blend of soft, subtle roastiness and slightly sweet chocolate on the finish.

Loch Lomond Silkie Stout (5.0%)
Silkie is very definitely the word for this beer – or rather; silky. Soft and rounded, Fiona gets supreme balance in her stout – always the mark of a good dark beer. I usually get a fair bit of coffee in Silkie, which comes across like a sweet mocha, rich and hugely easy to drink.

Fyne Ales Sublime Stout (6.8%)
Like Highland, another brewer that should turn their hand to darker things more often, Fyne’s Sublime Stout more than lives up to its name. With a slight reddish hue, you’d never mistake this for a Guinness. It verges into the Black IPA territory, but the dark berry fruits pull it back. A belter.

Of course, there are far, far more than five stouts in Scotland – which are your favourites? What have I missed off this list?

Highland Brewing Co to begin kegging


Rob Hill has seen pretty much every development in brewing, in a career stretching from his days as a twenty-something assistant at Moorhouse’s in Burnley, to managing his own plant on Orkney. As head brewer at the Highland Brewing Company, he’s steered one of the UK’s remotest island breweries to national acclaim – culminating in last year’s crowning of Orkney Best as Champion Beer of Scotland. Having built that reputation on a supreme foundation of cask and bottle – Highland are now set to embark on a new path; in a couple of weeks, they will begin kegging.

Speaking to Rob, it’s clear this is a business decision rather than a personal one, and it has been long thought out. “We can get keg beer into places we can’t get real ale into,” he says, on the phone following a massively long brew-day, interspersed with unloading breeze blocks in the pouring rain.* “We can see an opening. There are many small markets up here – places that don’t have cellars, don’t have facilities. It makes sense.”

*Nobody goes into brewing for the glamour

Rob’s a great brewer to chat to. “If people want keg beer, then they want it. It’s not something I’m interested in,” he says, in his trademark short, clipped sentences. “I’d be happy to carry on doing cask. But I’ve got the lads to think of. This is their game. Real Ale may be booming, but it’s tough. You’ve got to fight for every penny.” Recognising that younger drinkers are interested in alternatives to cask ale might not sit with his personal opinion – Rob’s a cask man, and always will be – but he knows it can help Highland grow.

With that last quote, he’s also alluding to his son Lewis, whose ideas are increasingly becoming played out at Highland. Hoppier pale ales and IPA’s – such as last year’s Duke – are beers Lewis gravitates towards, and I imagine the decision to begin kegging was one in which he was heavily involved. It’s probably no co-incidence that the first beer to receive the keg treatment will be the aforementioned Duke – which I’ll bet should work perfectly with the carbonation levels raised.

I asked Rob if he’d be looking to tweak some of the recipes to make them suitable for kegging. “Why should I do that?” he replies, cheerfully. “It’ll be the same beer in the keg. We’ve never had a pint of cask back. We’re not going to change our recipes.” Why did they decide on that particular beer to keg first? “I’ve had pints of Duke on cask that have been chilled down, and it works. The Duke will be first – after that, we’ll have to see. The kegs are due to arrive in a couple of weeks, so we should get the beer out there sometime in March.”

With the equipment already in place, it’s only the actual kegs that are required – so it’s no surprise that Highland are keen to get a quick turnaround. They’ve been busy converting two old conditioning tanks into keg-ready vessels – previously, they were used to transport beer down the A9 to be bottled. As ever, Rob is typically sanguine about the new venture. “We’ll try it and see if it works. We hope it’ll get a good response. We can do forty to fifty 9’s a week, so we’ll see how it goes.”

“We’ll keep on doing cask beer, though. That won’t change.” he adds.

Scottish Real Ale Festival 2012 – the beers

The Scottish Real Ale Festival is well and truly open for business – once the doors were unlocked the first hundred people had entered the venue with only thirty-five minutes having elapsed. We covered the details of how the Corn Exchange is working out for the SRAF in yesterday’s post – so today, it’s on to something far more important – the beers. I was involved with the judging for most of the day, but still managed to sample a few when the deliberations had finished.

On that note, congratulations go – once again – to the Highland Brewing Company for winning the Champion Beer of Scotland with Orkney Best. Rob and the team deserve every credit – they are surely the most consistent brewery in the country. Underlining this, they also finished second with Orkney IPA – only a bronze for the fantastic Fyne Ales Maverick prevented a potential clean-sweep.

Following last year’s surprise victory for the Skye Brewery, Highland’s win marks six consecutive years that an island brewery has won the Champion Beer of Scotland accolade. It was waaay back in 2006 that Kelburn’s Cart Blanche last won CBoS for the mainland. In fact, Highland have now won the trophy four times in those six years – and with four different beers. How’s that for an achievement?

Back to the other beers on offer – one of the first I managed to seek out was Head East, from the brand new Strathbraan Brewery in Dunkeld. A 4.2% bitter, it was the ideal festival starter – as was the fruity Burnside M-pire, which had a bit more body at 5.2%. Next up, Stewart Brewing Solas – the winning red IPA from their most recent brewer battle, which I really enjoyed.

Speaking of Stewart Brewing, hops and enjoyment – bolted to the bar was something new for the SRAF – the inaugural run of Stewarts’ Hopinator. Pulling Pentland IPA through a column of hops is a great idea – and it looked fantastic, like a beerhound’s lava lamp. However, the result was almost undrinkable at first – pure hop juice, with no alcohol or body. We went back later, and it had calmed a little, but still wasn’t right – hopefully it’ll come good later in the week.

There were more successful experiments with hops on offer – St Andrews IPA was possibly the beer of the day, although Cromarty Red Rocker on cask is another cracking beer from Craig Middleton. Both producers are relatively new on the scene – as are the Spey Valley Brewery. If the 5.4% Spey Stout is there on your SRAF visit – it’s a must-try, simple as that. A fantastic rich, roasty beer – the best in show, for me.

Another good one is DemonBrew Mashup – we featured Dave Whyte and his antiquated brewkit on our new Edinburgh brewers post a few months ago. Operating from the Prestoungrange Gothenburg, he somehow manages to get great results from his cantankerous gear. I imagine a brewday for Dave is like the Tardis scenes in Doctor Who, all hissing pipes and sudden warning sirens, as he gets thrown around whilst trying to hammer things back in place.

Mashup is a result of one of these days of excitement – a blend of two different brew runs that didn’t make it to fruition. What were to become an 80/- and a well-hopped bitter eventually were blended together to form this new beer. Having the heat exchanger fail halfway through a run was far from ideal – but it resulted in Mashup, a fruity best bitter with a blast of citrus from Motueka and Pacific Jade.

On a final note, we can’t talk about the SRAF without mentioning the twisted madness of Tinpot. The small brewery in Bridge of Allan always sail close to the edge – as last year, when their Thai Pot and Beetroot & Black Pepper Pot divided opinion. With their offerings this time around, they are sure to do the same. Prune Pot, for example, is unfortunately horrendous – although it is big on the prunes.

This is the bottom line with Tinpot – their beers do taste of what they say – but it’s completely up to you whether you find them palatable or not. Five Spice Pot really does smell and taste of star anise and dandelion and burdock. Raspberry Pot was probably the pick of the bunch with its slightly sharp fruit edge. We spoke to Mr Tinpot – Walter ‘Wattie’ Dunlop – who confirmed his next beer should be Apple and Raspberry Pot – although his oregano beer, Pizza Pot, might return.

That conversation summed up why I love beer festivals. For all the fantastic, locally-made, on-style beer available (such as the Spey Stout or Red Rocker), there are always surprises. Before, I’d have taken a few sips of an ‘XYZ’ Pot and gone looking for something else, but having chatted to the man behind it, I still might not like many of his beers – but I hope he carries on inventing them for a long time to come.