There’s a theory among some of the residents of Orkney that the remote cluster of islands, around 10 miles off the northern coast of Scotland, is in fact the centre of the universe.
Proponents of the theory point to the existence of ancient Neolithic settlements (over 3,000 years older than the Great Wall of China), the use of the island’s as the headquarters of Vikings during the 8th century, and more recently as the strategic base for British naval forces during the first and second world wars.
Appealing though the theory may be to the 22,000 odd people who live on the 20 inhabited islands of the archipelago, the reality is that Orkney remains a hugely remote and challenging place for business to survive and thrive. Adverse weather conditions can often lead to cancelled deliveries, while direct flights to the island are infrequent and expensive.
Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped independent, small and creative businesses from springing up across the mainland, from a cheddar cheese factory to a number of small jewelers, distillers and craftspeople. The island is also home to two breweries, The Orkney Brewery, and Swannay Brewery. Veteran brewer Rob Hill has worked for both, and knows the challenges of island brewing life only too well.
“Transport is probably the biggest challenge that we face here,” he tells me as we take a tour around the converted dairy farm that Swannay call home. “You have to carry a little bit more stock than you would normally do just to keep things rolling. If the ferry doesn't run we could end up not brewing, and we can't afford to do that.”
Rob’s brewing journey began in Burnley, where he worked his way through the ranks at Moorhouses after turning his back on the career of an engineer. After thirteen year’s with the Lancashire brewery, having eventually reached the rank of head brewer, he took his wife and son Lewis and decamped to Orkney, seeking a new challenge with The Orkney Brewery.
“I picked up the brewers magazine one month from the brewers guild and saw the advertisement and I said to my wife 'do you fancy a change of life?',” he says. So we decided to give it a go. I applied for it and got the job.”
After nearly a decade with the Orkney Brewery, Rob was made redundant. Taken with the island way of life, he decided to set out alone, founding what was then known as The Highland Brewing Company on the northwesterly tip of Orkney's mainland, a wind-battered area known as Swannay.
“It was all about survival,” he says. “We had to remortgage the house and cash in the pension and the whole bloody lot. It wasn't easy.”
“We actually picked the location because I came to buy a clock from here! Lewis actually came round this site on a school tour when it was a cheese factory! I came to pick him up from school and saw the clock. The dairy had been shut for about nine years so I ran the old boy who was the manager here and asked him if he still had it. He invited me to come and look around and I said 'This would make an amazing brewery." And he said 'It's for sale if you want it!'
At the time, Rob was still employed by The Orkney Brewery, and so the idea was put on the backburner. Six months later, finding himself out of a job, he returned to the farm determined to build himself a brewery.
“It took me a year to get the funds together,” he adds. “But eventually it all dropped in together and amazingly it worked!”
For Rob’s son Lewis, following his father into brewing was never the plan. Determined to escape the island, he fled to Edinburgh to study economics, discovering good beer in the city just as BrewDog exploded onto the UK scene.
“When dad was working in the brewery and I was growing up we lived in the brewery so I'd come downstairs and there would be a door on the left straight into the brewery” he says. “I grew up in that environment and initially I wanted to get away from beer and leave Orkney.
“I'd always been interested in business, and then when I got the beer bug I started helping out in the summer, and then one summer I just didn't go back to Edinburgh.”
After initially starting out delivering beer and washing casks, Lewis’ role has evolved to become more office based, but his interest in modern beer has helped shape the direction of the brewery. Spearheading the brewery’s new Mutiny range, Lewis is determined to ensure the brewery remains relevant, while Rob continues to indulge in his passion of making traditional cask ales, such as the brewery’s flagship Scapa Special, which still makes up 40% of total production.
While the duo’s different approaches may seem at odds with one another, both father and son insist that the brewery can deliver for both demographics in the market.
“I think that ultimately our goal is the same, and that is just to make really good beer that has a good reputation and does Orkney proud,” says Lewis. “I totally respect the traditional historic brewers like Fuller's and Timothy Taylors, and all the German and Belgian breweries that have been going for so many years, and that is where I want us to be in 50-100 years.
“We are definitely going in the same direction, it's just that sometimes we might disagree on how best to reach that end goal.”
“Way back when the breweries which survived were the ones that didn't follow the trends,” adds Rob. “Breweries like Young's didn't jump on the keg bandwagon, they just kept on brewing their beers and survived (until recently) against all the odds. They did good cask beers and it stood them in really good stead.
“That being said, what Lewis is doing with the modern beers gives us relevance and keeps us interesting.”
The approach seems to be working, with the brewery making and selling more beer each year for the last three years, both on the mainland and in Orkney. They have also recently drawn up plans to renovate and expand at the farmhouse site, installing new conical fermentation tanks and a taproom Lewis states was inspired by Anchor Brewing in San Francisco.
“We are quite far from the population base of Orkney but the little shop we already have on site is a very busy place in the summer,” Lewis says. “Lots of people come in for takeouts and stuff, so if we put a bar in here we can start doing crowlers and stuff to take away.”
“Phase three of the project we may go back to making cheese in a sort of a Trappist style brewery way! Take the whole thing full circle.”
Despite the obvious drawbacks brewing in such a rural location present, Lewis insists there are ways in which the brewery can use its setting to its advantage, pointing towards the use of Bere Barley , a six-row barley currently cultivated almost exclusively on the island, in two of its beers.
Becoming more animated, Lewis talks passionately of one day wanting to create, brew and sell a beer made entirely with Orkney produce (the brewery currently imports most of its ingredients, and sends the beer to the mainland for packaging).
“A beer that is made in Orkney and bottled in Orkney, with 100% Orkney ingredients is the goal, or certainly one of my goals anyway,” he says. “It would also be nice to do something like that and then have it only sold in Orkney as well. I know that Highland Park do a similar sort of thing and you do get people who fly in on a Saturday morning to buy a bottle and then fly home again!”
“We could slap a great big greenhouse up in the courtyard outside and grow hops in there,” Rob adds, half jokingly. “It would be a selling point, and it would give us somewhere to go and sit and have a coffee in the middle of winter!”
Existing on a small island with such a small captive market, it would be easy for Orkney businesses’ to become rivals, but in fact the opposite is true. Swannay and Orkney Brewery co-exist peacefully and even cooperatively, helping with ingredient shortages and splitting the cost of sending pallets to the mainland.
“One of the key things about Orkney is the community,” Rob says. “Everybody is looking out for you; it's just astounding. Even the Orkney Brewery, the people there now we work together.”
While Orkney is never likely to become the centre of the universe, or indeed the brewing universe, there’s enough passion and talent around to ensure that for Swannay, and other small, independent producers, the future remains bright for those who chose to make the islands their home.