Use the words "craft beer" and "Scotland" in the same sentence and most people will think of BrewDog. But there's much more to be discovered – even in the country's outermost reaches, as wandering Tasmanian Bert Spinks discovered.
August in Edinburgh is off its chops. Festival season means loads of tourists, countless fliers for comedy shows, and plenty of people walking around the streets in fancy dress. And lots of drinking: Scots don't mind their booze, after all.
There's a good amount of quality craft beer coming from mainland Scotland, particularly in the wake of BrewDog's incomparable success. Among those to keep an eye on will be Fyne Ales, who have just expanded their operations and have subsequently come up with a stunning imperial stout collaboration with De Molen.
But I was interested to see how far and wide the "craft beer revolution" had gone in the bonnie north of Britain. Scotland's islands are rugged – mountainous, heathery, hardy, and with very ordinary weather. They're famous for their whisky, but what are they making of the less potent barley beverage?
In each cluster of islands there seems to be at least one brewery producing handcrafted ale. Islay, for example – a famous whisky destination – has an eponymous brewery, most successfully producing a 4.4 percent ABV dry stout, Dun Hogs Head Ale, best enjoyed from the cask.
Entering the little store belonging to the Isle of Skye Brewery in the charmingly-named town of Uig, the cheerful chap at the counter started reeling off the list of all the islands that had very recently opened breweries, or would be very shortly. Some, though, such as Isle of Skye, have been around for more than a decade, making them pretty early adopters in the handcrafted beer market.
And why not? The beer market in Britain is huge, and has a long tradition of diverse styles done well. But perhaps it's this traditional of quality that hamstrings the development of craft beer: tasty, low-alcohol beers being the done thing, Scottish beers generally lack the drive to be innovative that might be found more commonly in, say, the US or Australia where such innovation has been fired in part by a response to the homogeneity of the generic brands. Or, rather, the buying public in Scotland doesn't seem to support the more innovative brews. [At least in the more remote areas – see a Crafty-reading brewer's response below]
So, with the Isle of Skye, we have their quality Black Cuillin and Red Cuillin beers (named for the savage-looking mountains of the island's south), but their Cuillin Beast strong ale isn't easy to find, and experiments like their oyster stout or blueberry bitter are no more.
On the Isle of Arran, I joined their brewery's well done tour. Once again, their traditional styles are done well enough – their dark ale in particular warrants a sample – and I was able to try their Sleeping Warrior barley wine, an 8.3 percent ABV ale with the right toffee and spice flavours. But, apart from this, there was a lack of daring in the brewing at Arran.
That said, the island is partly responsible for what I consider the best beer in the islands. Much further north, in the far-flung Orkneys, the Orkney Brewery has put together a fantastic porter, the Highland Barrel Orkney Porter, that has been aged for 18 months in barrels from the Isle of Arran whisky distillery. The result is brilliant: warm, boozy, roasty, and well worth savouring on a rare clear night beneath the stars.
Tasty beer continues to spread. A Shetland lass on the beach tells me that her brother has started up his own craft beer shop, Beervana, a few hundred kilometres north of the Scottish mainland in Lerwick.
In the meantime, I had to return to Edinburgh. And the truth is, there's still very little that can compete with the quality of the BrewDog pub on Cowgate.
Bert Spinks somehow makes a living from writing, walking and drinking.
ADDENDUM! A reader who spent time brewing in Scotland reckons there's much more to be enjoyed so has sent in a list of some of the venues and breweries worth checking out elsewhere in the country too. Thanks, Jimmy Krekelberg!
Edinburgh Craft Beer Bars*
- The Hanging Bat
- Hollyrood 9A
- Black Friars
- The Vintage
- Red Squirrel
*Specialising in predominantly keg rather than cask beers
- The Beerhive
- Bottle Baron
- Great Grog
- Valhalla's Goat
- Hippo Beers
- The Cave
Some other Scottish Breweries
- Stewart Brewing (who now have an 18 tap growler fill station)
- Elixir Brew Co
- Fyne Ales
- 6 Degrees North
- Black Isle
- Edinburgh Beer Factory