Tuesday 22 March 2016

Beer is a welcome taste of the Highlands

The news that Scottish brewers have done well at the SIBA BeerX 2016 trade conference and festival in Sheffield, taking 25% of the gold medals despite being less than 10% of the UK’s brewery population, reminds me that it’s an area I’ve been meaning to write about for some time – ever since meeting half a dozen interesting brewers from the Highlands & Islands area a few months ago, in fact.

Beer, beer, beer...
We met at a special one-day Highlands Craft Beer & Cider festival run in London’s Covent Garden on behalf of Highlands Islands & Enterprise (HIE), which is the local economic and community development agency. As well as six breweries and a cidery, it featured excellent Scottish cheese and the inevitable – but very welcome, as far as I’m concerned! – haggis, and pulled in well over 300 visitors during just a few hours.

As an insight into the Scottish beer scene today, layered on top of reading the likes of Ron Pattinson on the history of Scottish brewing, it was fascinating. For instance, talking to Merlin Sandbach of Aviemore’s Cairngorm Brewery confirmed my understanding that Scottish brewing consolidated in the mid-20th century even more than English brewing did, leaving great swathes of the country with no real ale and little choice of keg beer.

Merlin noted that as one of the elders of Scottish craft brewing – it is 15 years old now – Cairngorm has taken the opportunity to work with some of the newcomers to mutual profit. “We have invested in our own bottling plant and we contract-bottle for others, so they become customers rather than competitors,” he said, adding that “We're working with Highlands & Islands CAMRA too. We have worked to bring back cask, we also do craft keg.”

It is hard work though, according to George Wotherspoon of Drumnadrochit’s Loch Ness Brewery. “Scotland still has a very young craft beer market, [new brewers are] still trying to pitch lager drinkers who will only take a risk on golden beer,” he said. On the plus side, there is plenty of heritage for craft producers of all sorts to build on, and nowhere is that as true as Loch Ness. “One thing we do not have to explain is the brand,” he laughed. “About a million tourists come through our village every year.”

Like most of these breweries, Loch Ness does cask ale for beer festivals, but bottled beer is the mainstay for all of them. That’s partly down to the peculiarities of the local market, with so much of the on-trade being both tied and keg-only, but it’s also because even where there is interest in cask ale, there isn’t always the knowledge and skill to look after it. Plus it needs turnover, because even properly-kept cask beer is good for at most a week once tapped.

Heather & sales manager Alan of Wooha
“We have our own bottling line, and while we do own 24 casks for local beer festivals and the like, everything else we do is bottled and bottle-conditioned,” said Heather MacDonald of Wooha Brewing Company. “I've been to too many pubs with badly-kept cask beer. There's no way I'm putting all that energy into brewing and having it go to waste. I had one publican ask for cask beer and say he knew how to look after it and make it last three weeks!”

“We do a little keg, the rest is all bottles plus some casks for local festivals,” agreed Alex Saramaskos of Keith Brewery. “In my immediate region, everyone is tied to Tennents, Carlsberg, etc. But a bit further away we can find free outlets – we have to go 60-plus miles out. Some delis and caf├ęs are very interested too, for example in Aberlour where the tourist market is.”

The other opportunity for the new brewers, just as it was for Scottish brewers in the 1800s, is to export outside the region, both abroad and to the rest of the UK. Scotland’s bonnie image helps as much here as it does with the seasonal visitors: “The export market is absolutely key,” said Spey Valley Brewery’s Innes MacPherson. “We also have a canning line in mind in three or four years – there's plenty of bottling capacity around.”

Some have targeted exports from the get-go – Wooha already has its own bottling and pallet racking lines, for instance. It even spent last December selling at a Christmas market in France! “Our aim is to export 65% by the end of our second trading year,” said Heather MacDonald. But most are not big enough to do it alone, according to HIE development manager Caroline McLellan, hence events such as the Covent Garden one to raise awareness and build contacts. “London and the South-east are really key markets for our area,” she said. “So now I'm trying to get people working together, collaborating to get scale.”

Of course this is just a snapshot of Scottish brewing today, and most importantly it excludes the major population centres of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. Scotland as a whole now has well over 100 breweries according to SIBA, which on a per-person basis is about twice as many as London has. I think it bodes very well for the future though. In particular I hope that as well as seeing more Scots beer south of the border, we will also see the Scottish pub & bar trade open up to beer variety pretty rapidly, just as it has in other similarly-sized European countries.

More on the breweries and beers at the Highlands & Islands festival in my next blog post...

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