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.