John, Graham and Jimmy Mercer started up The Lerwick Brewing Company in 2011 in the heart of Shetland, following a successful career in gas and manufacturing. They set up a fully-customised brewery and bottling plant and as of June 2013 their first beers hit the open market – a Pilsner and a Dark – in the form of Skipper’s Ticket and 60° North. As the location is so remote, Lerwick face some unique challenges in getting their beer into pubs and onto shelves, but have just signed a deal with Cairngorm in Aviemore (in mainland Scotland) which have increased their bottling capacity from 6,000 to 20,000 bottles a day. At this rate, you’ll most likely be seeing some beers from this new brewery some time soon. We scored an interview with Graham Mercer, Lerwick’s distribution manager and one of the three brothers who own the brewery and are championing quality craft beer, here is what Lerwick is all about:
What is your take on beer and brewing – what is it that Lerwick adds to the industry?
The small and micro sectors of the brewing industry in Britain today are in great shape. There is plenty of passion, enthusiasm, skill, enterprise, innovation, flair, verve, style and entrepreneurialism there already. What does the Lerwick Brewery bring? Well, we like to think we can add a cheeky dash of grey to the industry’s rainbow palette. You may be surprised that I said ‘grey’ – but we focus on delivering to our customers a consistent product in the requested quantities, at the agreed date and location. That – and we make beer which we think people will want to drink, not which we think people should want to drink.
As Lerwick is such a new brewery what inspired and motivated you to begin brewing beer?
We’ve always been keen on the idea of having our own brewery – let’s be honest, who has never had that daydream? So why now? We were facing a fair few start-up hurdles that others maybe weren’t, so we needed to wait until the microbrewing industry supply side was mature enough to allow us to minimise the risks associated with all our initial expenditure. For example, you can just imagine the logistical challenges for us in sending cask, or even kegs, away hundreds of miles away and then trying to get them back. Recent developments like single use kegs could open that market up somewhat.
Why have you chosen a Pilsner and Dark as your initial flagship beer?
We did some informal research on the Shetland beer market, and we concluded that those are the types of beer people up here are currently drinking, so they made perfect sense as our initial offering. Simple as that. Time will tell if we got it right!
Do you face any unique issues with the location of your brewery and, if so, how do you overcome them?
Our remoteness obviously makes our logistics more costly, and it affects our business planning. For example, the traditional start-up route of supplying local pubs with cask ale was obviously not available to us (the nearest real ale pub is over a hundred miles away and only accessible by sea or air), so we had to build a bottling plant into our start-up costs. That was a sore one. But it’s not all bad news: we benefit from a remarkably suitable climate. Ambient temperatures are perfect for brewing beer (rarely below 6 or above 12 degrees Centigrade), and our water supply is even more constant, rarely changing by more than a couple of degrees. Shetland is a great place to live and a great place to brew beer, it’s just not a great place to move goods to and from.
Have you decided on more beer styles and can we have a sneak preview of what’s brewing in 2014?
We are actively looking at building our range. We are currently experimenting with a more heavily-hopped pale ale, like an IPA, with some new world “C” hops. That’s very trendy on mainland Britain right now (less so here in Shetland) so that one might be more for our export market. We are also testing out a lighter, paler, more floral lager.
Where is your current distribution and how long until world domination (and where can people get your beer right now)?
People often ask me if we want to be the next Brewdog. I always say that I’ll answer that question once we’ve taken over In-Bev. Seriously, we have been careful to grow our geographical range in a sustainable manner – as I stated earlier, we aim to be the producers who keep all of their promises, and we didn’t want to over-reach ourselves. We started out locally, and our beers are now widely available in most or all of the independent retailers in Shetland, via both of the locally-based distributors (JW Grays and Hughson Brothers). We also supply the Co-op supermarkets on the islands directly. We recently started getting the Cairngorm Brewery in Aviemore to bottle some of our beer, and that makes the distribution to Britain simpler. Williamson’s Foodservice in Inverness now carry it, and supply throughout most of Northern Scotland and the Western Isles. Imports Scotland, based in Glasgow, supply it to a range of flagship beer shops throughout Britain. We are currently looking to take on more distributors, and are already in discussions with a few. We are also participating in this year’s Aldi Summer Beer Festival. We hope to get valuable feedback from that regarding any British regions where local tastes are particularly aligned with our offering.
What’s your favourite beer (or style) that isn’t one of yours?
I’m one of three brothers who own this venture together. My favourite beers over the past couple of months have been William Brothers’ Joker IPA and the Wickwar Brewery’s Station Porter. John prefers Burton Ales, barley wines, Baltic porters and imperial Russian stouts – dark and strong – and Trade Winds has always been one of Jimmy’s favourites.
What’s the best experience you’ve had so far getting into the brewing industry?
Selling our first bottle! That’s when it felt real.
We’ve noticed both your beers are vegan friendly which is quite unusual, is this going to be a running theme for your other offerings?
Yes, our two beers do happen to be vegan. Going forward, it would depend how easy our new beers are to clarify – it may be that some are and some aren’t. As I mentioned earlier, we have the climate for it, so we’ll only have ourselves to blame if we have to start using isinglass.
We want to say a huge thank you to Graham for taking the time to answer our questions and we are genuinely wishing the Mercer brothers and Lerwick Brewery the best of luck. There’s not a huge amount out there about Lerwick at the moment, but there’s a great introductory post by Rich of The Beer Cast and it’s a good idea to keep up with Diary of a Beer Girl, the daughter of one of the Lerwick Brewery founders for more updates.
We’ve also got our hands on some Skipper’s Ticket and 60° North so be sure to check back and find out what the beer is like!