Organic delights from the Highland heroes
Saturday 15 January 2022
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My last visit to Black Isle Brewing in the heart of the Scottish Highlands is something I’ve thought about a great deal over the dark days of 2020 and 2021. The simple pleasure of throwing a bike into the back of the car, driving a few hours up the road, hanging out with a few kindred spirits and exploring the gloriously sunny Cairngorms National Park on two wheels. Little did we know.
Two years isn’t such a long time for one of Scotland’s oldest craft breweries though, and it’s great to find Black Isle’s passion undimmed. Setting out in 1998, with a mission to bring flavourful, organic beer to Scottish drinkers, it’s fair to say that Black Isle was ahead of the curve in several respects; the brewery certainly gave me one of my first tastes of craft beer, when I curiously picked up a bottle of Yellowhammer at an Edinburgh farmer’s market.
The brewery’s founder David Gladwin certainly believes in what he’s doing (though never in a preachy way). One of the more unusual and impressive aspects of Black Isle is David’s 125-acre organic farm, which supplies most of his barley needs. He’s concerned by many of the industrial farming practices he’s witnessed, and proud to have proved the naysayers wrong by achieving excellent crop yields through purely organic farming techniques. Returning to more sustainable food sources with solid provenance is arguably more relevant today than ever.
“We’re still ahead of the curve in that respect,” comments David. “It’s actually a little disappointing how few producers, not just breweries, champion organics. There’s no doubt it makes things harder to produce, and a high baseline for costs, but ultimately if we all do it a slightly harder way, we’ll still have a planet left at the end of it. Recently, as you’d expect, we’ve seen demand increase due to our organic status. It makes sense; we can all tell just by the weather that things are changing in our world, and not for the better. If we all just do a little bit, it’s adds up to a lot.”
Tucked away among the rolling countryside just north of Inverness, it can feel like Black Isle’s beautiful farm brewery is a million miles away from the buzzing centres of UK craft. For me, and for many long-time fans, this is part of its enduring appeal. But don’t be fooled into thinking David or his brewing team lack ambition or drive.
“Scotland’s craft scene today is unrecognisable. Really. When we started up I think there were 14 commercial breweries in Scotland, and there’s now how many? 180? Every entrant started as a small craft brewery, some are now of course much bigger than others, but the rapid increase has brought healthy competition and choice to the consumer. It’s helped us, I’ve no doubt about that; the rising tide that floats all boats and all that.
“But it’s really the availability of more and better organic ingredients that has allowed us to continue to evolve. We can get all sorts of interesting hops now, and that hasn’t always been the case. To keep customers happy and interested, we’ve kept an eye on trends, but also invested heavily to improve quality and consistency. Our best selling beer is still the same as it was a decade ago, but if you drank the beer from back then next to today’s iteration, it would be completely different. We’re in a state of constant evolution.”
As you’d expect in this part of the world (particularly at a brewery just off the legendary North Coast 500 route) adventure and the great Scottish outdoors permeate the culture at Black Isle. With so many people having stayed in the UK for their holidays over the past couple of years, this is an ethos that, again, has probably never resonated more. I remind David of our previous mountain biking adventure, and ask whether Black Isle has any plans to work with the Mountain Biking World Championships again next year.
“Ahhh, great adventures,” he says. “It’s so much harder these days to make plans for events like the World Championships. We have many irons in fires, but of course you have to wait for it to be viable, and these days safe, to do so. Personally, I’m always in the mountains at this time of year; that’s the benefit of living in a place like this, adventures are on your doorstep. For the business however, we’ll have to bide our time and ride out the rest of this pandemic.”
With a fiercely loyal local fanbase, and great bars in Inverness and Fort William (the pizza is insane), I’m confident that Black Isle will not only weather the current storm, but come out the other side with the same adventuring spirit that has always set it apart.
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