Tag Archives: Isle of Skye

Beer of the Week – Skye Red

Friday has rolled around again so it’s time to fire up the spotlight and shine it on another Scottish beer that deserves a place in your beer cupboard. We are inundated with IPAs, sours and all kinds of amazing flavours from around the world (and long may that continue) but you also need to keep the classics in mind – and that’s why this series exists; these are 52 of the most unsung beers from Scotland that you should seek out, if you’ve never tried them before. This next instalment sees us reach another month and celebrate March with a red ale.

There are few more evocative parts of Scotland than the Isle of Skye, and the brewery there (there’s always a brewery close by) has taken the local environment to heart. This particular beer is their flagship and used to be known as Red Cuillin after the sunset striking the nearby mountains, but changed name when the brewery rebranded in mid-2014. The recipes remained the same however and this particular beer – the first that the brewery produced, back in 1995, has remained at the forefront of their lineup. It is the quite brilliant Skye Red.

9. Skye Red (4.2%)
Isle of Skye Brewery, Uig, Skye
Style: Red Ale
500 ml bottle

When you think of red ales at first your mind tends to wander over the Irish Sea, but Scotland has given the world some of the very best (it’s a guarantee that Skye’s won’t be the only version in this series). There’s a history of brewing bitter-ish beers up here of course, with the Shilling beers of lore, and it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to introduce some Crystal malt – as is the case with Skye Red – and you instantly get a deeper caramel element to the flavour. This works perfectly with the UK hops and leaves a nigh-perfect red ale as the result.

Skye Red is one of the nuttiest beers I have had – there’s a touch of the ESB about it – but it has more sweetness than the first beer in this series (Fyne Ales Highlander) for instance. Everything is in balance and nothing leaps out, which is something that keeps you coming back. Session Beers might be one of the newer trends to hit craft brewing – part of the natural cycle of hop-led boom and palate-led bust I guess – but for one of the formative Scottish session ales, brewed the same way for 22 years and counting, you need look no further than this supreme example.

Pick it up here:
At Isle of Skye’s online shop (as a case of 12x500ml bottles)

Beer of the Week Series:
1. Fyne Ales Highlander
2. Swannay Old Norway
3. Broughton Old Jock
4. Traquair House Ale
5. Tempest Easy Livin Pils
6. Cromarty Brewed Awakening
7. Fallen Chew Chew
8. Black Isle Hibernator

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.

Beer news – Arran and Isle of Skye breweries to merge

It was announced today that two of Scotland’s island breweries – Arran and Isle of Skye – are to merge at the beginning of next year. Arran Brewery were originally founded in 2000, before entering administration and being acquired by Gerald Michaluk’s MMSI company in June 2008. The Isle of Skye brewery were established in 1995 by husband and wife team Angus and Pam MacRuary, and have been steadily growing their business since – last year their Cuillin Beast was named CAMRA Champion Beer of Scotland.

Joining the two operations together has come pretty much out of the blue, although Arran have been extremely active recently. Four months ago, Gerald Michaluk announced a plan to raise £10m for expansion through a BrewDog-style share scheme. The Fraserburgh outfit used the money gained from Equity for Punks to open a glittering new facility (at which, co-incidentally, the first trial brew was run yesterday). Similarly, Gerald is after a huge enlargement of Arran’s kit – but also a mainland-based bottling plant and a chain of pubs throughout Scotland.

So, based on today’s announcement, what does each party gain from the merger – and why might they have agreed to put pen to paper? For Arran, this clearly increases their portfolio whilst they are attempting to attract investors for the share scheme. It also gives them timely exposure on the business pages of the newspapers. Interestingly, Gerald was quoted in the Herald as saying “But it is really about getting the experience of the Skye team. Getting brewers with 18 years of experience is not easy. Angus strengthens our board and our expertise.”

Does that indicate dis-satisfaction with the brewing team at Arran? Or is Angus – who was apparently just about to retire – simply to be retained as an advisor? It will be interesting to see what effect Pam’s brewing skill has on the Arran staples. Speaking of Skye, from the merger they will also gain an upgrade in facilities, and investment that they were looking for. Arran already sell in a lot of supermarkets, so Skye could well see their beers appearing on more shelves across the country as a result.

But there are a few interesting points about this deal. Firstly, the balance of the merger. Gerald Michaluk – currently Managing Director of Arran Brewery – will become the Managing Director of the new company, to be called…Arran Brewery plc. Angus will exchange his shares in Skye for shares in Arran Brewery plc and gain a seat on the board. Is this actually a takeover? Both parties will gain from the deal – and as long as the facility on Uig is retained, there shouldn’t be any fears that Isle of Skye will go the same way as the Atlas Brewery, merged with and eventually closed by Sinclair Orkney.

From keeping up with the press releases around Arran’s expansion – which is enormous and extremely positive in scope – there’s one thing that springs to mind. Arran are really keen on cracking the American market. I think this was the reason they bought and re-launched Beers of the World magazine. Angus MacRuary apparently has experience of the US market – beers like Cuillin Beast would be well-suited to craft beer fans over there. Merging with Skye gives Arran that ‘in’ to potentially shift beers from both stables into the States.

Finally, there’s the issue of Old Worthy. A one-man operation established by Nick Ravenhall, they have recently released the first batch of beer, brewed under contract at the Isle of Skye facility. With a great story behind it, and being very active on social media – not to mention having contacts in Scandinavia – will this become another brand shifted under the Arran Brewery plc banner? Will the Skye brewery become a contract-specific plant, while the brewery on Arran handles the regular beers?

So many questions – time will tell. Let’s hope that this merger benefits all parties involved, and both Arran, Isle of Skye and Old Worthy enjoy increased sales as a result.

UPDATE 27/02/2013
It was reported today in the BBC that Arran’s expansion plans and the merger with the Isle of Skye brewery have been put on hold, after their FPMC Grant application was rejected by the Scottish Government. According to a spokesman at Holyrood, their application ‘did not meet the criteria of the scheme’. Although they have pledged to assist the Arran Brewery in subsequent development, the fact that Gerald Michaluk was quoted as saying “Without grant assistance, a brewery of this size on an island like Arran is simply not economic,” is worrying for the future of the brewery. Where this leaves the Isle of Skye brewery also remains to be seen.