Gimme shelter

Bryce Kitcher, Beer52’s Chief Customer Officer, finds a chilly slice of Scandinavia in the Scottish archipelago of Shetland


The phrase “dynamite comes in small packages” comes to mind when I think of the Shetland Islands. The Shetlands aren’t widely populated by breweries (or people), but in this small archipelago, buffeted by the tempestuous North Sea, you’ll find some of the best brews in the entire UK. 

Travelling in February, I quickly realise my timing isn’t exactly ideal. While we may think of it as part of Scotland (maps of the UK often show the islands in a little box, placed deceptively close to the Scottish coast) Shetland has a distinctly Nordic feel, culturally, geographically and meteorologically. So a sensible person might have been prepared enough to pack waterproofs. Readers, I am not a sensible person. When it isn’t snowing, it’s raining. When it isn’t raining, there’s hail. And through all of this, a constant, cold wind which feels like getting run over by an iceberg.

I’m neither a masochist nor Wim Hof, so this obviously takes some of Shetland’s wonderful natural attractions off the table. Making the best of a disappointing situation then, I decide to spend a fair chunk of my time in some of the local pubs in Lerwick, where I get the opportunity to sample the region’s best beers.

There were only two breweries in the Shetlands until very recently. That roughly worked out as one brewery per 12,000 people. For context, in America, there is roughly one brewery per 4,000 people, so these two small breweries had a lot of work to do in supplying the locals with tasty beers. 

One of these is Lerwick Brewery, situated in Shetland’s capital. The brewery was opened in 2013 by three brothers (John, Jimmy and Graham) and boasts an array of varying beer styles. If you like a particular style of craft beer, Lerwick Brewery has it for you. During my visit I sample everything from pale ales to oatmeal stouts, to black IPAs, to a beer combining honey, ginger and chilli. There are truly no limits to what Lerwick Brewery can do to its beer, and it seems to have a large following in the Shetlands, with their beers in nearly every bar I visit.

The other Shetland brewery Valhalla, has the claim of ‘Britain’s Most Northern Brewery’ due to being situated in Unst, the most northerly island of the Shetlands. It’s a fair claim, too. Unst is literally closer to Torshavn in the Faroe Islands than it is to any major cities in Scotland. Unfortunately, Valhalla Brewing closed very recently due to the ill-health of its owners. According to the Shetland locals I spoke with, the brewery was sold and came under new management shortly after this, but not much has been heard from it since. 

With that, Shetland was left with only one working brewery in the whole archipelago, leading to an increase in imported beer from Scotland and abroad. In several Lerwick bars, I witness the likes of Fierce and Six°North, as well as Amundsen and Lervig from Norway. All of these names are top, critically acclaimed breweries. They have also all been featured in more than one Beer52 box in the past, so a lot of readers should be very familiar.

For those planning to visit the Shetland Islands at some point, first off, don’t go in February like this idiot. I am reliably informed by Google Images I missed out on some outstandingly beautiful scenes – in fact, it seems you pretty much can’t move without tripping over one. But if you do find yourself in Lerwick and you’re wondering where to go, I would highly recommend The Dowry in the centre of town. In here, you can find many of the beers I mentioned above, as well as a vast selection of excellent food. However, as Beer52’s resident ‘Black IPA advocate’, I must implore you to try Lerwick Brewing’s Black IPA. You will not be let down. When you’re done, nip over the road to The Shetland Fudge Company to have your mind blown, and you’ll have had a fantastic day in Shetland’s largest town.

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