Tartans and Tankards: Exploring the Craft Breweries of Scotland
You may have tried some beers from Scotland over the years—the powerfully malty Dark Island from the Orkney Brewery, or the unique range of beers from Heather Ales. Like most beer lovers, after trying these beers, you’re curious about where the beers come from and why they are what they are. What, after all, makes a Scottish beer Scottish? Is it the water? The ingredients? Do the brewers perform mysterious rites with a haggis?
Scottish brewers come up with different approaches to positioning their beers. Some, such as Broughton Ales, Heather Ale, and Orkney, place strong emphasis on their Scottish heritage. But Harviestoun is one of the best craft brewers in Scotland—and there’s very little in their marketing that tells customers that they are buying a Scottish product.
In less than ten years, Scotland has lost its three large breweries, but the door has opened for small, specialty brewers. Spend enough time talking to Scottish craft brewers and you’ll find they’re a quirky, interesting, and innovative lot that are producing a lot of great beer.
It’s hard to say when the revival of interest in craft beer in Scotland began. In the early 1970s, CAMRA members started demanding better beer in their local pubs. Belhaven had continued to produce cask ales during the dark days of British brewing. But between 1974-75, sales of Belhaven cask products soared by 50 percent. “That showed there was an interest in the product,” says Alastair Mouat say, now of Broughton Ales.
Given increased demand, some entrepreneurs took a chance and started brewing. First off the mark were David Younger (of the brewing family) and James Collins (of the publishing family) who in 1980 turned an abandoned sheep slaughterhouse into the headquarters of Broughton Ales. Six years later, Glasgow homebrew shop owner Bruce Williams began to develop heather ale, and in Orkney, Roger White decided to start a brewery as a profitable hobby. The Scottish craft brewing movement began.
Until recently, most cask ale in Scotland tended to be sweeter and less hoppy than English equivalents. “Because hops don’t grow in Scotland,” says Harviestoun’s Ken Brooker, ”the Scots don’t put many hops in their beers. But over the past ten years, Scots became interested in English beers as the guest beers came in; English beers were hoppier and more bitter than what Scots were used to. But now the Scottish palate appreciates hoppy beers.”
In 2002, beer duty was cut for breweries that produced less than 18,000 hectoliters a year. The result was a big boost for small breweries. Now, the current CAMRA Good Beer Guide lists 22 breweries, nine brewpubs, and one contract brewer operating in Scotland. Here are the stories of six of Scotland’s most innovative and interesting craft brewers.
The Melvich Inn: Exploring Nuclear Options
The Far North Brewery, located in the Melvich Inn in Melvich, Scotland, boasts that it’s Scotland’s northernmost brewpub. It’s certainly the most remote brewpub, not only in Scotland, but also perhaps in the world.
How remote is the Melvich Inn? Well, here’s how you get there. From Inverness, take the train north to Thurso for 3 ½ hours. You head through some of the most rugged and remote mountains in Europe. When you get to Thurso, head for the post office—not the new one in the Co-Op supermarket, but the old one on St. George Street. Ask the clerks at the counter when the next postbus to Tongue leaves.
“I’ve never heard of the post office running buses,” I tell the driver.
“Ever heard of a stagecoach?” he says.
In rural parts of Scotland, the post office delivers the mail, and people too. If you’re going to Melvich, Bettyhill, or Tongue, the Post Office will deliver you.
Once you get to Melvich, you see why nature lovers go there. The view from the inn across Melvich Bay to Bighorse Head is lovely, and blissfully free of any human noise.
Peter Martin runs the Melvich Inn. In 1996, he bought the 19th-century coaching inn. (Its newest building dates from 1895.) “I’ve been a homebrewer since I was 15,” Martin says. So he thought that having real ale would bring in customers. And so it has. “I had three couples here last week who were CAMRA members,” Martin says.
But after the short summer tourist season, many of Martin’s customers are engineers working at the nearby Dounreay nuclear power plant. Martin humors the engineers by giving his beers nuclear names. The IPA is known as “Fast Reactor.” The winter warmer is “Edge of Darkness,” named after a pulpy 1980s thriller about shenanigans at a nuclear power plant. The engineers, Martin says, “come up to me and say, ‘Do you know what that film is?’ Then they have a pint.”
Martin’s “nuclear” beers have gotten him international attention. He says that the most unusual coverage he’s ever gotten was in a Japanese arts magazine, whose reporters were touring northern Scotland. The reporters, Martin says, were “amazed that anyone would name a beer after a nuclear power reactor.”
Orkney Brewery: Pleasing the Entire Palate
You can “do the Orkneys” in one day. That’s what lots of tourists do. But take the standard tour and you’d miss Quoyloo, the home of Orkney Brewery.
Orcadians pride themselves on their local foods. You can sit on a pier at Stromness harbor and have a picnic of aged Orkney cheddar, “luxury herring,” and “millionaires shortbread.” According to Orkney senior brewer Luke Kendall, members of Orkney Quality Food and Drink include bakers, herring producers, and dairies. There’s even an Orkney winery (which makes fruit wine). So why shouldn’t Orkney have a brewery?
Roger White founded the Orkney Brewery in 1988. An engineer who “had the idea of brewing a little bit of beer and going fishing,” White’s beers were so good that he had little time for sport. Their office showcases 33 awards—and that’s only up to 2002. They don’t even have room for the prizes they’ve won in the past three years. Several Orkney beers have won CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain in their category, and Orkney’s big barley wine Skullsplitter (8.5% ABV) has won Supreme Champion Beer of Britain as a winter beer.
In 2004, Roger White had to sell the brewery he founded for personal reasons. The buyer was Neill Cotton of Atlas Brewery. Though the ownership change resulted in some turmoil, things have calmed down nicely.
“Neil comes in from a different angle,” Kendall says, “with new approaches and new angles to explore. He’s a bright new light on the horizon.”
One result of the new ownership is that Orkney, for the first time in nearly a decade, is expanding its line of beers. A lager, 59 Degrees North, is in production and should be out later this year.
But what’s most interesting is Orkney Dark Island Special Reserve. Dark Island is a powerfully malty beer that the Good Beer Guide says “can be hard to categorize as a stout or an old ale.” Cotton and Orkney’s head brewer, Andrew Fucton, decided to see what would happen if the Dark Island matured in surplus whiskey casks from the Dalmore distillery, Scotland’s oldest. The result is a beer that retains Dark Island’s roastiness, but complements the character with port-like notes.
It’s too early to say what the Dark Island Special Reserve will be like, or when it will be released. But if the Special Reserve in any way resembles the sample I enjoyed during my visit, it could become one of Scotland’s greatest beers.
Atlas Brewery: West Highland Revelation
Neill Cotton had spent several years selling beers and spirits, but wanted to start his own business. “Should I make beers?” he wondered. “Should I go on the wine side?”
In a serious piece of good fortune, Cotton decided to trek the West Highland Trail, a multi-day hike from Glasgow to Fort William. “We walked down the hill and saw this place,” Cotton recalls. “And I knew I wanted to start a brewery.”
The place he saw was Kinlochleven, some 15 kilometers from the southern end of Loch Ness. The small town is nestled at the base of some of Scotland’s most majestic mountains, in an area so rugged that the Royal Marines base their winter training headquarters here. This became the home of Atlas Brewery.
Cotton says that most Scottish beer lovers prefer beer in a very narrow range. “We’re dominated by cask-conditioned ales,” Cotton says. “Because cask beer is what we learn to drink, we’re biased toward beers between 3.8 percent and 5 percent (ABV), that are mid-brown to mid-ruby in color.”
“We wanted to be more international” than other Scottish craft brewers, Cotton says. “The last thing I wanted to do was to brew another 4.2 percent beer and hop into my kilt.”
So there’s nothing on Atlas’s packaging to suggest that the beer’s actually made in Scotland. (Well, one package has a mountain on it, but that’s it.) Instead, all the beers have “geographic and cartographic” names. And while all of them are within the 3.8-5 percent ABV range, some of the styles are new to Scotland. Tempest, for example, is one of Scotland’s few wheat beers. Nimbus is a kölsch—or would be, except that in Europe, “kölsch” is a protected appellation that can only be used by brewers in Cologne. So all Atlas can say is that Nimbus “is inspired by Cologne’s great beers.”
Wayfarer is called an IPA. But Cotton explains that in Scotland, “IPAs” are in fact bitters. “The Scottish consumer thinks that bitters is an English product,” Cotton explains. So Scottish brewers make bitters—but call them IPAs in order to sell them.
Atlas beers aren’t available in the US yet. But when Atlas bought Orkney, it acquired a small brewer with excellent US distribution. So it’s possible that Atlas beers could be in America very soon.
Williams Brothers: Brewed According to the Golden Ratio
Most brewers are lucky if they can develop one beer style in their lifetime. Bruce Williams has developed four.
In 1986, Williams, who was running a homebrew shop in Glasgow, acquired a 16th-century recipe for an ale made with heather and no hops. After several years of experiments, Williams created Fraoch Heather Ale. He then worked with other indigenous Scottish ingredients to produce more historic ales: Alba, made with pine needles and spruce leaves; the elderberry-based Ebulum; Grozet, a gooseberry-based fruit beer; and Kelpie, which uses seaweed and organic barley in the primary fermentation.
All this innovation ensured that Williams became Scotland’s best-known craft brewer. Heather ale, after all, has a great story. How many beers, for example, can trace their origins to the Isle of Rhum in 2000 B.C.?
Moreover, Fraoch has a European Union Certificate of Specific Character—or, in other words, an appellation. To make “heather ale” in the EU, a brewery has to be located in Scotland north of the Forth River. “All of the big breweries in Scotland,” Williams notes, “are south of the Forth.” So it’s likely that he will be the world’s only heather ale producer.
Fraoch drinkers, Williams says, enjoy unusual beers with a deep local heritage. For example, in July when protesters spent a day denouncing capitalism at the G8 Summit in Gleneagles, their beer of choice in the evening was Fraoch. But he also sells beer to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and the House of Commons in London.
“You’ve got anarchists drinking heather ale,” Williams says, “and the royal family drinking it. Neither of them wants to drink lager. They want to drink Scottish beers when they’re in Scotland.”
But Fraoch, Alba, Ebulum, and Kelpie aren’t really session beers. They’re beers you savor at home, not consume at the pub. As a result, Williams says, he’s only able to achieve a “certain penetration” with them.
So Bruce Williams, along with brother Scott, have been spending the past decade trying to develop beers for the Scottish market. In 2004, the Williams brothers merged Heather Ale Limited and two other companies into a new venture.
Williams Brothers Brewing, based in Alloa, currently offers a line of four beers: Gold, Red, Black, and Joker. These are more complex than most session beers. The Gold, for example, is made with seven malts and five hops. And all of the malts and hops in Williams Brothers beers are mixed using “phi” or “the golden ratio,” a mathematical constant abundantly found throughout nature.
The four Williams Bros. beers have only been out for a year, so it’s too early to tell if they’re successfully reaching Scottish beer lovers. But Bruce Williams is optimistic. “We’re the fifth biggest brewery in Scotland,” he says. And he hopes to keep growing.
Harviestoun: From Cars to Bars
Harviestoun Brewery is located in Alva, halfway between Edinburgh and Glasgow. However, talk to the company’s founder, Ken Brooker, and you’ll quickly learn that Harviestoun isn’t a “Scottish brewery.” It’s Ken Brooker’s brewery—which just happens to be located in Scotland.
“I’m brewing Brooker’s beers,” he says, “I’m doing my own thing.”
Harviestoun is thus a very personal brewery. Marketing? Brooker makes what he wants to make. Quality control? Most nights you’ll find Brooker at his local, personally testing his beers. “If I see something wrong, I tweak it a little bit,” Brooker says.
Brooker’s gamble—that the public will share his taste for beer—has paid off spectacularly so far. Harviestoun has won scores of prizes from CAMRA, which awarded several of his beers “Champion Beer of Britain.” And at the Great British Beer Festival this past August, Harviestoun’s Schehallion received the prize for Supreme Champion Beer of Britain. Out of the thousands of beers submitted for judging, Brooker’s was judged the best British beer of 2005.
Harviestoun’s received other honors as well. Twice a year, the Tesco supermarket chain holds a Challenge Cup, inviting brewers to come up with innovative new beers, and Harviestoun has won three times. One of its prize-winning beers was Old Engine Oil, a beer with the strength and complexity of a barleywine—but without the high alcohol content.
“I used a recipe that was used to produce a beer with 8.5% ABV,” Brooker says, and then toned it down to produce a 6% ABV beer that was “a very rich full beer with just enough hops to balance out. It’s not just a sweet beer.”
But where did the name “Old Engine Oil” come from? Before becoming a brewer, Brooker had spent his career at Ford Motor, signing on as an apprentice and rising to become Ford’s area manager for Scotland. In 1985, Brooker started “brewing Saturdays and Sundays and working bloody hard for Ford the rest of the week.” Within three years, Brooker became a full-time brewer, which he’s been ever since.
The Harviestoun beer line has two things in common. First, the beers have off-centered names. The winter warmer is “Good King Legless.” Their February seasonal is “Ice Maiden” and their March beer “Spring Fever.” And their butter is “Bitter and Twisted,” which, Brooker explains, is British slang for when you’re just really angry with somebody.
A Harviestoun characteristic is their reliance on hops: “I suppose in British terms, you can call me a hophead,” says Brooker. Among his beers are an “American Red” with Willamette and Liberty hops and a “Gold Rush” featuring Brewers Gold. But none of Harviestoun’s beers are over 40 IBU. Brooker points out that hops have lots of flavors besides bitterness—and good beers try to capture the aroma of the hop as well as the subtler, non-bitter flavors hops provide. His goal is to produce “the right sweetness and aroma from the hop resins. The hop resins left in the beer give balance. That balance is the center of the bull’s-eye.”
Broughton Ales: Off the Beaten Track
Only 30 miles south of busy Edinburgh lies Broughton, which couldn’t be more different. Here tranquility abounds in a land that’s amazingly peaceful and remote. “I can walk out the door,” says Broughton Ales managing director Alistair Mouat, “climb a field, walk for eight hours, and not find another road. Even people from London have a hard time realizing how rural we are.”
Broughton Ales was founded in 1980. Cofounders David Younger and James Collins bought a building used as a sheep slaughterhouse. They’ve stayed in the same place ever since. Astonishingly, much of the equipment has been running for a quarter-century. The brewery has a handmade, rustic feel. The mash tub has 25 years of dents in it, and looks like it was made in a high school Shop class.
There’s plenty of history around Broughton, and the brewery uses this in marketing its products. Buy Broughton Ale and you don’t just get a great beer—you get a story as well, one steeped in myth and legend. Greenmantle Ale, for example, is named for one of the best-known works by Scottish novelist John Buchan. Meanwhile, Merlin’s Ale gets its name from the famous sorcerer who, according to some legends, lived near Broughton for much of his life.
Broughton’s two most recent products continue to mine the area’s history. Borders Gold, an organic ale, has Mary Queen of Scots on the label, because a legend claims that the gold from her third wedding ring came a nearby stream. (One of Mary’s castles is a few miles away.)
Broughton’s two most recent products continue to mine the area’s history. Borders Gold, an organic ale, features Mary Queen of Scots on the label. (One of her castles is a scant few miles away.) And Broughton’s 25th anniversary beer, Exciseman’s 80 Shilling, may well be the first beer honoring an alcohol tax collector. Famed poet Robert Burns, who worked as an exciseman during the day.
Scottish craft breweries, like small breweries everywhere, have lots of obstacles to overcome. Tight shelf space and the consolidation of pub chains will make Scottish brewing a highly competitive industry. But it’s likely that Scotland’s dynamic and innovative craft breweries will continue to make some of the world’s most interesting beers.
Martin Morse Wooster
Martin Morse Wooster writes for Mid-Atlantic Brewing News and American Brewer.