Island living

On the north-west tip of Orkney, the winds rush past Swannay off the Atlantic Ocean, a maelstrom of sea salt and spray.
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On the north-west tip of Orkney, the winds rush past Swannay off the Atlantic Ocean, a maelstrom of sea salt and spray. But at the Swannay Brewery, there is no rush, no hurry to make anything other than perfect beer. The brewery, centred in a cluster of farm buildings, is a labour of love, a mix of cow sheds, barns and coldstores that once hosted beasts and cheese. Now they are home to not one, but two brewhouses. “It’s all slate roofs and stone walls, very picturesque, but it’s a bit ‘rustic’,” jokes Lewis Hill, whose father Rob founded the brewery. “We’ve got a big project that we’ve been working on for a year.. We’re actually going to do up the main buildings we use. It’s still going to look rustic, but ‘new rustic’.”

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That’s one of the USPs of Swannay: that it’s not just a bunch of industrial estate tanks. Surrounded by fertile farmland, it harks back to the days of the local farm brewery, supplying workers with ale to quench their thirst from working in the fields. Swannay is very much a local brewery, still selling a quarter of its beer to the island.

“Just recently, we are starting to brew more and more with locally grown barley, bere barley, a historic grain which we’re lucky enough to get access to. We try and weave Orkney into our beers and ideas,” says Lewis.

All the names highlight something about the island’s history and maritime links. Its Duke IPA is named after HMS Iron Duke, once the flagship of the Grand Fleet based in Scapa Flow. Banyan, Swannay’s session beer, is Navy speak for a holiday or a party, usually on a beach. “I thought it was a fitting name for a sort-of session beer than you can drink a lot of,” says Lewis. “It’s got Simcoe, Mosaic, Citra and Motueka hops, so quite a medley. The style of it - drinking it in the sun would be nice.”

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When Lewis’s father Rob, a former head brewer for The Orkney Brewery, first started brewing on his own in 2006, the local market was a bit of a hard sell. “It was definitely a traditional beer-drinking market,” says Lewis. “I got involved in the brewery maybe 2011 and back then there was a handful of accounts up here that would have Orkney Ale on tap, and now more or less every bar and hotel has at least one of our beers on tap, and most of that is still cask but more and more people are putting on kegs of ours as well. The most recent place that opened in Orkney actually has seven keg lines, three of ours, one that’s a rotating guest, and three BrewDog taps. I guess it mirrors everywhere, people are turning more away from Tennents, Export, Guinness and Belhaven Best and moving more towards craft products. We get a good support up here.”

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The brewery currently uses two brew plants, one 20-barrel kit (roughly 3,000 litres) that does most of the volume, and a smaller five-barrel kit for experimentation. “The small kit is perfect for doing 500-litre batches,” says Lewis, who joined the business after moving to Edinburgh to study economics. It was on this kit that Swannay brewed its first beer, Scapa Special – its flagship pale ale that still accounts for around a third of its output – back in the early days, when Rob was making the beer as well as delivering it, washing casks, managing sales and basically running the whole company himself. Not long after, the small kit was up to four brews a week using just three fermentation vessels. With Lewis’s arrival, the 20-barrel kit was commissioned and today there are six people brewing Swannay’s range of beers four to five times a week.

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Now Lewis and Rob have set their sights on grander things. As part of the renovations to the existing buildings, they will make space for a proper tasting room on-site and extra production capacity. “We’ll have more staff, which will get me out of the office, which will be a big thing,” Lewis enthuses. “We’d also like to bring some kind of packaging back in house, not for any financial reasons but we want to have that quality and provenance - it would be good to have a range that said ‘Brewed in Orkney, bottled in Orkney’. Hopefully this building and extra staff will enable that.”

It’s not just buildings and equipment that will be changing, as Lewis explains: “To date, every beer that we’ve ever done has only used one yeast, which is a pretty old-school English ale yeast. We still buy it in from Moorhouse’s. But recently, Dad got some Lallemand New England yeast that we’re going to do a batch with, so hopefully it will be the start of a few experimentations with different yeasts. He ordered that yeast after saying for ten years that we’re only ever having one yeast in the brewery.”

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Not that things haven’t been working out with the old yeast: “All of our core range brands have won awards at national or international level – totalling over 100 in just over ten years of brewing – surely making us one of the most decorated Scottish breweries of recent times,” proudly proclaims the brewery’s website. With distribution now in Finland and Norway, the success of Swannay is evident, and the partnership between father and son is clearly a match of strengths.

“My dad’s been a sort of thirty-year practice brewer who grew up in the North of England (though he’s actually Glaswegian) so he grew up drinking Boddington’s and Timothy Taylor’s, and in his eyes he’s not changed that much. You’ve got to give him credit for that, and that’s still what he wants to do; he just wants to make really well made, high-quality cask beer. I’m keen to push things forward, but not at the expense of the dedication to quality that’s worked so well; we don’t want to be chasing too many gimmicky trends, just want to stick to quality and be known for that and have a long-term business.”

Strong, steady, and delicious, we can’t wait to see how Swannay’s plans for the future pay off.

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