“I never used to like the smell of beer,” confesses Samantha Faircliff as she leads the way through the warehouse at Cairngorm Brewery in Aviemore. “I was born in Leeds in Yorkshire but grew up near Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire, at the heart of the English brewing industry. The smell of the beer used to make my stomach churn as a kid.”
Fortunately, the managing director at Cairngorm Brewery soon learned to live with the odour that’s come to dominate her life over the past 15 years. Outside the shop and visitors’ centre in Strathspey, the rich malty notes of fresh ale linger in the air while, inside the brewery itself, it’s the crisper citrus aromas of the hops that waft towards the nose.
Cairngorm Brewery is hallowed ground for any long-time fans of Scottish beer. The company was launched in 2001 on the site of the former Aviemore Brewery, which had been brewing since 1997 and which in turn had taken over the operations of the nearby Tomintoul Brewery. One of Faircliff’s first moves was to combine the two existing brands under the “Cairngorm” banner, ahead of the Cairngorms National Park being created in 2003. Back at the turn of the century, Cairngorm was one of only a handful of breweries operating in the North of Scotland, with Black Isle and Orkney being among the other notable survivors from the time.
Fast-forward to 2016 and the situation couldn’t be more different. Scotland now boasts around 100 craft breweries. Although Gordon Brown’s time as Prime Minister may have left a bad taste in the mouths of many entrepreneurs thanks to the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing recession, his reign as Chancellor did include. But the introduction of small breweries’ relief in 2002, cut the level of tax for micro-producers.
Despite the lower rate of excise duty, brewers in Scotland faced another challenge. Due to a lack of bottling capacity, many were faced with the prospect of sending their beer down to England in tankers to be bottled before being sent back up to market. The high cost of buying and installing a bottling line means that it’s just too expensive for every micro-brewery to have its own facility. That’s where Cairngorm played a key role in boosting brewing in the North of Scotland.
In 2012, the company undertook a £1.6m expansion, which involved installing a bottling line. The old building houses the 20 barrel brewey capable of producing 6,500 litres a day, along with the shop and visitors’ centre, while a new structure is home to the bottling line, a warehouse and offices. Installing the bottling line – which was funded with a £660,000 loan from Bank of Scotland, grants of £150,000 and £100,000 from Highlands & Islands Enterprise and the European Regional Development Fund and funds from shareholder Martin Riley – not only allowed Faircliff to scale-up the size of Cairngorm Brewery but also to help fellow brewers by offering contract bottling.
So far, 14 breweries have used Cairngorm to bottle their beer, including Lerwick Brewery on Shetland, Loch Ness Brewery, Spey Valley Brewery, and Speyside Craft Brewery. “As well as bottling their beers, we also sell some of them in our shop too.”
When Faircliff was recruited as managing director in 2001, the company was turning over about £150,000 a year and had just eight staff. Now, revenues have grown to around £2m and the headcount has reached 36 workers.
“Cairngorm Brewery is owned by Martin Riley,” explains Faircliff. “He grew up in Strathspey – his parents had the Heatherbrae Hotel in the village of Nethy Bridge. Martin is an accountant to trade and made his money in information technology (IT) in Hong Kong and he wanted to give something back to the local community here in the Highlands.
“He wanted to prove that you could stay in the Highlands and have a career. The brewery is all about creating careers, not just about creating jobs.”
Faircliff herself is a prime example of the benefits of creating careers in the Highlands. After studying business at college in Burton-on-Trent – which included work experience at brewers Bass and Marston’s, helping to overcome her hatred for the smell of beer production – she worked for a commercial estate agent in Birmingham, selling shops, offices and industrial sites.
“At the age of 21, I thought to myself that there’s got to be more to life than this, so I took a year out and came up to Aviemore to go skiing – and I never went home,” she laughs. “I worked for Stakis at its Coylumbridge Hotel as ‘Cyril the Squirrel’ in the entertainment department, which was great fun, and then I worked in the hospitality department.
“I then went to work down in Edinburgh for a marketing company for a couple of years and then I came back and worked at Rothiemurchus Estate as commercial manager for ten years. I wanted to come back to this area because I had missed it.
“Now, this is home. I’ve been longer in the Highlands than in England. When I came up here skiing, every bar had live music. When she’s not distracted by that view, Faircliff is masterminding Cairngorm’s continued expansion. The company took over the running of the Winking Owl pub in Aviemore 18 months ago and has pushed it from 43rd to first in the TripAdvisor rankings for the village. Run in partnership with Heineken, the bar acts as a shop window for the brewery’s beers in the area and picked up the “Taste Our Best” accreditation from national tourism agency VisitScotland in recognition of its work with seasonal, local ingredients.
Exports are also high on the agenda. Only around 3% of the company’s sales currently come from overseas, highlighting the size of the prize for Faircliff. Different beers go down well in different markets; Australians love Sheepshagger, Cairngorm Brewery’s pale ale, while Scandinavian markets like Denmark, Finland and Norway enjoy the unusual ingredients in some of its speciality beers, such as coriander, ginger, orange peel, or the elderflower in Trade Winds, one of its best-known tipples.
“We’ve been working with Scottish Development International (SDI) and we took part in the ‘meet the buyers’ event at Gleneagles,” Faircliff explains. “We’ve also been talking to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) in Canada.”
Growing exports is likely to also come through partnerships. Cairngorm is already working with other breweries in the North of Scotland to export beer, as well as combining pallets to fulfil orders from the supermarkets and other large multiple retailers in the UK.
“We’ve just been getting on with it and doing it for years,” says Faircliff. “But we’ve not done it under a single brand or created a wholesale entity unlike, say, the Craft Beer Clan of Scotland.”
Craft Beer Clan was founded by Simon Hannah, who runs Glasgow-based wholesaler JW Filshill, with drinks industry veterans Chris Miller, David Moore, JongWoo Kim, Joe Tcheng and whisky writer Charlie MacLean. In April, it secured an £850,000 contract to supply Asda with craft beers from companies including Eden Mill, Loch Lomond Brewery, and West Brewery.
The Brewers’ Association of Scotland (TBAS), which was launched in January 2015, could also help drive other routes to market. Cairngorm was one of TBAS’s founders – alongside Fyne Ales, Harviestoun, Innis & Gunn, Inveralmond Brewery, Stewart Brewing, WEST and Williams Bros – with the association designed to act as Scotland’s development agency for the craft beer sector, a single point of contact for the Scottish Government and other public bodies.
“It’s still early days yet for TBAS, but we’re starting to make progress,” says Faircliff, who is the association’s treasurer. “We attended the Craft Beer Rising festival in London in February as a group and now we’re looking at ways of making it easier to get Scottish beers into London. “Think of the number of craft breweries that there are in Scotland now and then imagine the situation in London. It’s easier for a wholesaler in London just to deal with its local breweries, so we need to work with them to make it easier to get Scottish beers in London.
“TBAS is also looking at setting up a craft beer tourist trail in Scotland – that’s worked really well for the whisky industry. We could have a route that tourists could follow to breweries that have visitor facilities.”
Tourism is already playing an important part in the development of Cairngorm’s business. The brewery hosts two tours each day, rising to up to four during the high summer season, with the site acting as a popular stop-off point for many coach parties. Visitors are taken on a tour and can sample beers in the shop.
“Consolidating orders for export is another area that TBAS is looking at,” Faircliff adds. “The advantage of having an organisation like TBAS is that it gives the industry in Scotland a voice. Other bodies – like the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) or the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) – have a UK-wide remit, but TBAS can speak just for Scotland. It’s a model that’s worked well for other bodies, like the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).”
As well as opening her bottling line, one of the other highlights for Faircliff of scaling-up the size of the business has been the continued success of Cairngorm’s beers in competitions. One of the walls in the brewery’s shop is a mosaic of certificates and accolades, celebrating all of the prizes and awards that the firm has picked-up for its ales.
“Black Gold is currently CAMRA’s champion beer of Scotland – we picked-up the same award ten years ago for Black Gold, so it proves that it’s consistently been a quality product,” Faircliff beams. “When we win a national award then that’s a fantastic feeling.”
While Black Gold – the brewery’s stout – may be grabbing all the headlines, it’s the lighter beers that Faircliff would prefer to take home at night. “I’m not a fan of darker beers – I like Trade Winds because it’s light and refreshing with the added elderflower. I like White Lady because it’s got orange-peel and coriander. I like Cairngorm Gold because it’s nice and light.”
And how about beers made by – dare it be said – other breweries? “I like Southern Summit, which is Fiona MacEachern from Loch Lomond Brewery’s award-winning pale ale. And I like Yarl, which is made by Fyne Ales.”
It might be Black Gold and Trade Winds that are winning plaudits, but it’s one of Cairngorm’s other beers that brought it a certain amount of fame at Westminster. In 2012, the brewery created “Ginger Rodent”, a red ale named in honour of Danny Alexander, who served as the Liberal Democrat MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey.
Alexander, who was chief secretary to the Treasury during the Lib Dem’s coalition with the Conservatives, had been branded as a “ginger rodent” by Labour opponent Harriet Harman, who later apologised for the remark. The beer even went on sale in the Strangers’ Bar at the Houses of Parliament, with Alexander and Harman joining Faircliff to pour the first pints.
“Before he was an MP, Danny was the press officer for the Cairngorms National Park and so I knew him through my work in helping to setup the park,” Faircliff explains. “He was a really good sport – when I approached him with the idea for a ‘Ginger Rodent’ beer he said ‘Let’s go for it’.”
Alexander may have lost his seat in the 2015 General Election, but the spirit of the beer lives on. Its successor, a full-bodied ruby red ale called Autumn Nuts, is still going strong, with the brewery making a donation from its sales to the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s red squirrel project. Many of the firm’s beers are named after the wildlife in the Cairngorms, with donations from sales of Caillie and Wild Cat also going to charity. “It all revolves around that idea of giving something back to the Highlands,” adds Faircliff. “As well as creating careers for residents, we’re also helping to protect the wildlife that makes the Cairngorms so special.”