INTERVIEW: Dougal Sharp, Innis & Gunn

‘To get back into brewing is a huge milestone for me’

Dougal Sharp Terry pic

It’s a story that has been told countless times, the tale of the distillery workers who were so fond of the beer being used to flavour whisky barrels that instead of throwing it away they preferred to drink it and take it home in buckets, watering cans and empty bottles.

When management realised what they were doing they knew they were on to something. That “waste” beer became Innis & Gunn and the story of how it came into being still fascinates even those who claim it is nothing more than a marketing trick.

“I can assure you it is 100% true,” says Dougal Sharp who recalls how William Grant & Sons had asked Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh where he was working to produce a special beer to season the casks.

Sharp was running the production department at Caledonian and the decision to create and market the beer was a turning point for him and the Scottish brewing industry.

In 2003 Innis & Gunn – which are the middle names of Sharp and his brother – was launched as a joint venture with William Grant and became one of the first of a new generation of craft beers in an industry that had been almost crushed by mass-produced ales. Since the peak of 1840, when Scotland boasted 240 breweries, the number dwindled to just 11 by 1970. But it was a perceived deterioration in the quality of the beers, rather than the number of production facilities, which prompted the proliferation of “micro-breweries”.

The now-shelved new build brewery plan
The now-shelved new build brewery plan

In the 30 years that Sharp has been in the business, the industry has been reborn and, according to the Campaign for Real Ale, the number of breweries has risen to 80, many of them still housed in modest units with small production runs.  Some have grown into international businesses as the taste for craft beer has become a worldwide phenomenon. This week’s acquisition by Innis & Gunn of Inveralmond brewery in Perth might be seen as the start of an inevitable consolidation of the Scottish sector.

However, Sharp never intended to buy a brewery. He wanted to build one.

He led a management buy-out of Innis & Gunn in 2008 and now owns 90% of the business. It is now selling its beers in North America and Europe, but has never had its own brewery. It was brewed at the Caledonian until Scottish & Newcastle bought the brewery in 2004 and moved Innis & Gunn to the Belhaven brewery at Dunbar. When that ran out of capacity in 2010 production was transferred to the Tennent’s Wellpark brewery in Glasgow.

Sharp – determined not only to have his own brewery, but to bring the beers “home” to the east of Scotland –  last summer launched a £3 million “beer bond” to build a dedicated brewhouse, bottling line and barrel store.

The lack of any updates in the months that followed prompted whispers that something had gone wrong, although the company privately said the plan was still on track. Two undisclosed sites to the north and south of Edinburgh were considered, but it was a chance conversation with the team at Inveralmond that gave Sharp another idea. Why not merge the businesses and build on the existing capacity in Perth?

Buying the land for a new building, getting planing permission, building regulations, sorting out gas and electricity, and so on was going to take at least two years, he said.

“The project to build our own brewery was going to take a long time and being an impatient bunch we looked at how we could accelerate our plans.

“Also, I’ve known the guys running Inveralmond for years and they are making some great beers. It made sense for us to work together.”

They only began talking at the turn of the year and with the deal now done, it has achieved the “acceleration” that Sharp was keen to achieve. Now he can’t wait to invest in expanding the facilities.

“It was relatively quick because there was a willing buyer and a willing seller. It is just brilliant and a great way to mark my 30th year in the business. To get back into brewing is a huge milestone for me. Having our own production facility and a place for me to experiment and innovate is very exciting.”

The combined business will remain headquartered in Edinburgh and Sharp says it will also continue to brew in Glasgow.

Dougal Sharp beer kitchenPERSONAL CHECKLIST

Birthplace: Aberdeen, grew up in Elgin, moved to Edinburgh at 14 when his father got a job with the Lorimer & Clark brewery.

Age: 43

Education: George Watsons College; Sheffield University (chemistry)

Career highlights: Work experience in the Caledonia brewery at the age of 14; later began making recipe changes to Caledonian 80 shilling, Deuchars IPA and Gold Promise, the three core products of Caley, and they started winning awards;

Best advice you have received?

You are never too old to learn.

What advice would you give someone entering the industry?

Much the same, and keep an open mind.

What would you have done if you had not been in the brewing industry?

I really don’t now. It has become a passion. I love great beer.


Photos: Dougal Sharp (by Terry Murden)

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