A Visit To Arran Brewery
Off the west coast of Scotland, just under an hour by ferry, is the Isle of Arran, a postcard perfect island nicknamed ‘Scotland in miniature’. It’s easy to understand why, with stunning sunrises and sunsets over its small range of mountains, golf courses, and castles. And it would not be a miniature Scotland without the presence of both a distillery and a brewery. However, it’s mid-November and the number of postcards sent to families worldwide are, like the daylight in winter, fast dwindling. This reduced tourism suggests a certain seasonality to the local businesses, and, this is evident in the numbers taking the scheduled tour of Arran Brewery: two, my companion and I.
It’s a short bus ride from the main town of Brodick to Cladach, with other tourist attractions en route. We pass the Heritage Museum, where visitors can learn about past traditions of farming and seafaring, and then the small businesses, such as Arran Aromatics and the Island Cheese Company, that drive the local economy today and, by virtue of their visitor centres, allow tourists to see their wares’ production. Disembarking from the bus leaves us standing on a narrow road, surrounded by trees. A nearby field allows a contemplative view of Goat Fell, the island’s largest mountain, and a brief walk away, following an offshoot from the road, there’s a path leading up to an enclave of small businesses, the brewery included.
On entering the brewery, there are no immediate signs we are in such a place. We are effectively entering through the gift shop. On one wall, the shelves are full of neatly organised bottles from the Arran range, both as single units or gift boxes. Elsewhere, for sale, there are T-shirts, beanies, other clothing, and other merchandise, all stamped with the brewery’s insignia. A rack of varied glasses runs down the centre of the store, the display enlivened by a mixed assortment of primary-coloured paper tucked inside, all the better to highlight the designs on the glass. Over by the pay counter, a young woman looks up from a mini photography studio and greets us. In the studio there’s a polystyrene head sporting one of the aforementioned beanies. She explains that she’s trying to take a photo for the website. The immediate chattiness is comforting and inviting, and a conversation ensues as we wait to see if anyone else turns up for the daily tour.
The tour starts just after two, and our guide is Veronica, who I later discover is the daughter of the brewery’s owner. We begin with a history of beer making on Arran, with the discovery of barley and wheat at the Machrie Moor stones suggesting a brewing imprint dating back 3,500 years. Then it’s on to the basics of beer — malted barley, hops, water — with the joke that, in Arran, there’s no shortage of the latter. Looking out the rain-specked window at the puddles from rainfalls past and the ominous grey sky threatening a fresh deluge, it’s never felt more true. From a few jars on the counter we are invited to taste a couple of malts, one wheat, one barley, and to sniff the stronger chocolate malts. There’s a couple of jars filled with hops, too; Styrian Goldings and Challenger, nicely pungent. The basics dispensed, we are invited to head through a hitherto unnoticed door, which takes us from the shop into the brewery proper.
It’s not the brewery proper, however, but a viewing gallery. A long corridor where non-guided visitors can look into the brewery and witness the brewing in action. The few chairs scattered around hint that this is at the visitor’s leisure. On the walls there are detailed signs describing the brewing process, with pertinent jargon capitalised and highlighted in red. Veronica follows, carrying a broomstick, and leads us into a dark corner. A passing worker is asked to turn on the lights, and the gradual illumination highlights an eco-friendly element. With the broomstick — or alestake, given the context it will be used — there’s another brewing history lesson, this time discussing a mix of the predominance of women in early brewing, King James VI and witchcraft, and ale taxes. These stories told, I wonder if there’s an implicit connection to be made with the brewster’s alestake (placed outside to indicate excess beer for sale), paying taxes on beer to belay fatal accusations of bewitching men, and the modern image of cackling witches riding into the sky on a mysteriously propelled broomstick. It’s an idea that has some purchase.
We move through the elements of the brewery, beginning with the hot liquor tun. On a raised level, at the back, and just identifiable from the viewing area, there’s the mash tun. And, just before us, there stands the large copper kettle. Moving on, we come to a row of rooms, each with a window looking in upon further stages of the brewing process. The first window shows us the fermentation room, where five open tanks currently sit empty. The next shows the cold room with a number of conditioning tanks. Pointing out a stray cask at the back of the room, Veronica takes time to explain how casks are racked and talks through the secondary fermentation process. At the last window, we get a view of the bottling plant, a surprisingly small affair. Veronica volunteers that, with one person doing both bottling and capping, they can expect to see only forty-four cases of twelve produced in a day. This is for the smaller beers in the range. A tanker also gets sent to Burton-on-Trent, where the larger Marston‘s handle the bottling of the flagship Arran Blonde, a gentle tipple that, back in 2002, was named winner in the SIBA Awards’ UK Bavarian-Style Wheat Beer category, chosen from a panel that included no less a name than Beer Hunter, Michael Jackson.
At one point Veronica mentions something that is unclear, referring to a ‘we’, and I enquire further. It turns out that she’s referring to the company that now owns Arran Brewery, having bought it out of administration three years before and engineered its growth. It occurs to me then that, in the introduction to the tour, the history was all about Arran and brewing rather than the brewery itself and I wonder if it would be pertinent to give an overview of the brewery’s past and how it has got to where it is today. As such, it was founded in 2000, by Richard and Elisabeth Roberts, on the notion that the island deserved its own brewery (because it already had a distillery), it soon racked up awards for its beers and grew its workforce to eleven. When the shadow of failure lengthened on the business, its new owners stepped in and, in overcoming whatever problems dogged it in the past, have grown the business and expanded the range. With this notable new beginning, however, the tour itself comes to an end and we’re led through a second door that returns us to the shop in order to continue with a tasting.
The woman that originally greeted us as we arrived is called Holly, and Veronica leaves us in her hands to taste the available beers. There are four handpump handles visible, decorated with the range’s pumpclips, but there appears to be no cask ale served here. The tasting is a bottle only affair. Not to worry, though, as it appears we’re in for a treat as one from each of the range is lined up, and Holly starts cracking the caps off and handing out plastic cups. She begins with the beer equivalent of the Pepsi Challenge, providing two cups and filling them with separate versions of Arran Blonde, one pasteurised, the other not, and inviting us to decide which we prefer. It feels like a subtle piece of market research, but I plump for the version I like best — more flavoursome, and finishes with a more pronounced, but not uncomfortable bitterness — and it’s no surprise to find this is the unpasteurised version. Their ABV at 5% is deceiving as they are surprisingly light.
We continue through the range, moving through Arran Ale and Arran Dark, the other two survivors from the original range, and I pass on a sampling of the Arran Sunset, having had a bottle entertain me on the ferry. They are nice beers, robust enough, but perhaps too inoffensive for my tastes. The Red Squirrel, on the other hand, greets my palate with a mellow wash of liquorice and toffee and a satisfying bitterness that leaves me wanting more. And more I get, this time in the form of Clyde Puffer, a relatively recent addition to the range. Named after the small boats that would have carried passengers and products between the islands, this stout is another winner, packing a nice coffee roastiness that’s not too bitter and perfectly drinkable. Another cup of this is poured, this time Holly sets it on a Guinness Surger and immediately a blast of ultrasonic waves stimulate the beer forcing it to become very creamy. In comparison to the original, it’s nice, but the coffee flavouring that so defines the beer is lost in the foam.
The drinks continue with a charge of Arran Milestone, named after the brewery celebrated its thousandth brew. It’s their highest ABV beer at 6%, and it comes with hints of citrus, caramel, and some spiciness. As a surprise, another bottle is cracked open, this time the 2011 Vintage of the Arran Milestone Special Reserve, bottled only the day before. Holly waxes lyrical about this one, saying that previous editions have been very much Marmite beers due to the high peaty flavourings earned from ageing in Bruichladdich Octomore whisky casks. This year’s vintage dispenses with the aforementioned cask and sees an Arran Distillery cask, that has supposedly held some Jack Daniels in its time, ageing the beer. The whisky flavourings are not too strong here, and there’s a nice butterscotch dimension working alongside the original Milestone.
Holly fills my cup again with more from the bottle of Clyde Puffer (in the end, I drink it all) and we talk casually about the business. Although she doesn’t brew, Veronica reveals she is a trained brewer. A young sales representative, who pops in and out of the shop on business, is training to brew also. Here, at Arran Brewery, everyone knows about the business and, when it has its busy moment, everyone is able to pitch in. At one point, head brewer Paul pops by the shop, his hand fatigued by the strains of signing and numbering the multiple labels that will wrap around this year’s Special Reserve bottles. In his quick visit I’m told the anecdote of how Clyde Puffer came to be, due to the demands to have a stout in the range, and the relief that the multiple barrels brewed were, to his surprise, and in typical Scottish positivity, “not bad”. Finally, there was good news round the corner, too. While island businesses will always have the extra cost of ferrying their goods to the mainland, with these costs reflected in the finished product, there’s a change coming that will see this reduced to something more competitive and, at a time when the brewery is seeking to distribute its beers nationwide, this surely is favourable in making their prices more competitive when selling their cask ale to pubs.
Eventually, there comes a time when I feel we’ve overstayed our welcome. Holly assures me no, as there’s still beer in the bottles — I expect there’s not when the tour sizes are larger — but we can see outside the day darkening already and there’s still other shops to visit. With our greatest thanks for the hospitality, above and beyond the four pounds pricetag, I make my purchases at the shop, including both 2010 and 2011 Special Reserves, and we make our way back down the hill to the road. Shopping done at the other local businesses, we head back to the ferry terminal. When it comes, we watch the island fade into the darkness. The memory of a great day out, however, remains.
November 20, 2011