Graham Mercer, Lerwick Brewery
We’re looking to celebrate the UK’s new wave of brewing by meeting a young brewer each month. First up is Lerwick Brewery from the Shetland Islands. Sitting on the latitude line of 60° North, the Lerwick Brewery is based at the very edge of the UK. It was established in 2011 by the Mercer brothers – John, Graham and Jimmy – and they reckon that the brewery’s location, combined with clear water and fresh air provides the vital ingredients to brew beer with individual character and a unique dimension.
The Guest Ale caught up with Graham Mercer, distribution manager for Lerwick Brewery, to learn more, and we’ll be reviewing Lerwick Brewery’s beers in the coming weeks.
Introduce us to Lerwick Brewery: how long have you been going and what inspired you to brew?
Lerwick Brewery has been three years in the planning – we started selling beers just last summer. The inspiration to start came from a combination of things. I’ve been working closely with my brothers John and Jimmy for many years and, having built up another business to a £10m turnover, we were looking for a new challenge. We are born and brought up in Shetland so know that it has plenty of pure, fresh water and a perfect ambient temperature for brewing.
It was John who first mentioned the idea – many years ago he worked on the design of the cooling system in the Guinness Brewery in St James’s Gate, Dublin and he always retained an interest in brewing. So, before we knew it, we were installing equipment into our new plant in Lerwick and receiving our first order of hops.
What are you brewing right now?
We launched with two beers last summer and are concentrating on getting those into the Scottish and wider UK market.
Our golden, Pilsner-style lager beer, 60°North, describes the latitude position of the Shetland Isles. Bittered with Perle and flavoured with Saaz hops, it pairs well with a wide variety of foods: fish and shellfish; chicken and gammon; smoked salmon; hors d’oeuvres and goat cheese – plus spicy dishes from around the world. It is best served at 8-9°C in a classic Pilsner flute to capture the sparkling effervesces and colours of the beer while maintaining its head.
Skipper’s Ticket – named to indicate the importance of mariners to the livelihood of the Shetland Islands – is a rich chestnut-red ale with fruity flavour and spicy notes. Scottish barley malt and Perle, Williamette & Savinski Goldings hops combine to create a smooth, yet refreshing, beer. Its mellow, balanced flavour perfectly complements traditional hearty British dishes: mixed grill; roast beef, lamb, pork and chicken; steak and kidney pudding; shepherd’s, cottage and (obviously) steak and ale pies. Best at 11-13°C, served in a tulip glass to trap and enhance its aromatic essential oils, it is a delicate twist on a traditional style comes in a 330ml bottle at 4.0% alcohol.
With no isinglass, both our beers are suitable for vegans.
What have been the key challenges getting up and running?
Shetland is right on the edge of the UK, closer to Bergen than it is to Edinburgh. In many ways it is the perfect location for brewing – for example, with an ambient temperature of 8-12 degrees, we don’t have the same refrigeration problems which many brewers face, and the water is soft and of excellent quality. However, because of our remoteness, we are subject to the highest transport costs in the UK, and we have to take account of that in the way we do business. We have to move beer in bigger quantities than most breweries, to keep transport costs down and we have partnered with Valhalla Brewery in Shetland to share shipments of supplies (hops, barley, etc.) into Shetland.
We also have 10,000 bottles in stock on the mainland so that we are able to respond to demand in a timely fashion. We know the vagaries of the Shetland weather all too well. Planes can be grounded at short notice and ferries prevented from sailing, so having a stock of beer outside Shetland is key.
The guys from PBC (Brewery Installations) who came to install the equipment into the brewery certainly got more than they bargained for when they came up to Shetland. The January weather took them by surprise. I remember they got the ferry – which is a 12-hour crossing from Aberdeen – and really struggled with sea sickness on the way. By the time they got their sea legs, it was time to berth and they had real trouble getting their ‘land legs’ back, so it felt like the ground underfoot was continually moving.
I did feel for them as January crossings can be quite lively. I’m sure they wished we had set up in June, July or August instead, when the balmy days mean that the sea can be flat calm and crossings wonderfully smooth. I’m pleased to say they did a great job, nonetheless and I’m sure they had lots of stories to tell when they got back home to Bury.
What advice would you give any aspiring brewer looking to start out?
Don’t feel like you’re on your own – make contact with fellow brewers and people in the industry. Everyone in the industry is so helpful – from the associations to brewers, suppliers and the wide range of companies involved in the industry – and they won’t hesitate to give you guidance where you need it. We have not been short of advice since we set up. Everyone has been so helpful and open. There’s very little sense of competitiveness. Companies’ recipes, of course, remain closely-guarded secrets, but dos and don’ts and best practice are widely discussed. So do make the most of your fellow experts.