Exploring Orkney's larder - Orkney beer
Discover new products and recipes from Orkney's food and drink producers with our feature, Exploring Orkney's Larder.
Our regular food blogger Rosemary Moon has been sampling a bottle or two of Orkney's finest beers from our two award-winning breweries, the Orkney Brewery and the Swannay Brewery. Keep reading for a delicious recipe for you to try at home too.
Having Red Macgregor named the CAMRA Champion Bitter of Great Britain in their 30th anniversary year means that there is plenty to celebrate at the Orkney Brewery. The fruity ruby ale is made with Cascade hops which bring out red fruit notes in this darker style of beer, a favourite in the brewery’s range since its introduction to celebrate their 10th anniversary.
My first visits to the Orkney Brewery and its excellent cafe and visitor centre were when we were on holiday here in Orkney in 2014, staying near Tingwall in a cottage with no wi-fi. What could be better than a brewery offering tasting trays of their beers, good snacks and connectivity? Many walks ended up at Quoyloo, which seemed to be on our way home from everywhere.
Champion Bitter of Great Britain is the latest in the brewery’s many awards. Head Brewer Andrew Fulton says the recognition is important as CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) has moved with the times and, acknowledging that great beers are now available both in bottle and cans as well as the more traditional casks, it remains very influential and consumer focused, helping to spread the word about craft beers. As 99% of the brewery’s business is outwith Orkney (they are listed throughout Scotland by Tesco, Lidl and Morrisons), the CAMRA award is important for their business, but also for spreading the word about Orkney food and drink.
Orcadian-born businessman Norman Sinclair has owned Orkney Brewery since 2006, along with the Atlas Brewery, originally on the west coast near Fort William. Both Orkney and Atlas beers are now crafted at Quoyloo and Latitude, an excellent Pilsner-style lager, and the other beers in the Atlas range will soon be available in cans, which is a growing segment of the beer market.
Cans mark the different generational approaches to brewing at the Swannay Brewery. Owned and set-up by Rob Hill, once the brewer at Quoyloo, Rob was joined in the business by his son Lewis in 2010 and Lewis’s edgy, new-wave modern beers such as Banyan, Muckle and Voe are already available in cans for the growing number of can devotees. Lewis’s beers are more heavily hopped than Rob’s and are great with modern bistro cooking. Such beer-friendly food can be enjoyed at The Old Library and Helgi’s in Kirkwall, where a selection of Rob and Lewis’s beers are always on tap.
Rob’s more traditional beers include Scapa Special, the flagship beer of the brewery, a pale ale which accounts for at least 30% of everything brewed at the old farm buildings which are now Swannay's HQ. Scapa Special is widely available in bottle and on tap. Both father and son are producing unique Orkney beers made with bere barley, Orkney’s famous ancient grain. Rob’s Scapa Bere is made seasonally when the bere is available for malting and has a rounded, deep and slightly minerally flavour. Lewis introduced his take on a bere beer in 2018 with Bygg: it remains an occasional treat so try it if you can.
All of Orkney’s numerous hostelries have the local beers on offer. I chatted about local beers to Rupert Ponsonby of the Beer Academy which was set up in 2003 to promote a greater appreciation of craft brewing. Rupert says that 12 years ago there were 300 micro breweries in the UK - now there are 2800, giving a better geographical spread of local beers than there has been for almost 150 years. These smaller breweries have reached a younger audience and also turned more females, like myself, into beer drinkers. They can get new products to market quickly, which we certainly see with Swannay and their seasonal and special event beers. Appreciation of hops and malts and a wider range of eateries offering beers have also led to a greater interest in food and beer matching, and in beer tourism. As Rupert points out, when pubs are stocking local beers in cask, the freshness of the beer from the brewery is guaranteed.
NorthLink Ferries do a great job in supporting Orkney’s breweries, which was recognised by Andrew at Quoyloo. I also asked him about working with the traditional Orkney butchers and heard about a creation at the Dounby Butchers, where Barbara includes some Skullsplitter ale in her sausages - obviously a favourite with the brewery team. Jollys of Orkney also, very creatively, flavour a smoked salmon with Orkney Brewery’s Dark Island Reserve. Dark Island, the brewery's flagship beer made with chocolate malt and full of deep, figgy fruit flavours, is matured in ex-Highland Park whisky barrels and it is this twist in the flavour profile of the beer that makes it work as a smoked salmon seasoning. With local food and drink collaborations like that, it is easy to see how the craft beers that are produced in Orkney are doing more than just promoting themselves - they are underlining the fact that Orkney is a great place for food and drink for everyone.
I’ve created a quick and easy recipe for beer and sausages, to celebrate Orkney’s breweries and the fact that we have four excellent traditional butchers. Beer makes wonderful casseroles with beef, buffalo, pork, lamb or greylag goose in season, but it is much quicker to produce my hearty dish of sausages with a beer and onion gravy. The bitter flavours in beer tend to be accentuated during cooking, so be prepared to add a spoonful of honey or sugar as well as salt and pepper when you season the dish. You probably need to make this often, at least until you have tried every combination of local sausages and beers.
Sausages with beer and onion gravy
This is a great recipe for an evening in with friends. You’ll just need to decide how many sausages each person will eat: I think 3 is a serving. This recipe is for 4. Choose a dark beer for beef sausages and a lighter one for pork.
2 large onions
Parsley to garnish
1 tbsp oil, rapeseed oil is good for this
1-2 tbsp dark brown sugar
1.5 tbsp beremeal or plain flour
2 tbsp mustard - honey mustard is ideal
2 tbsp raisins (optional)
Finely slice the onions and then chop a few of the slices - this gives a good texture to the gravy. Finely chop the parsley.
Heat a skillet that has a lid, add the oil over a low to medium heat then add the sausages and brown them on all sides. Don’t cook them too quickly as they will split. Remove the sausages from the pan.
Add the onions to the pan with salt and pepper and toss them over in the juices. Cover and cook over a low heat for 5 minutes, then stir in the sugar, cover again and cook for a further 5 minutes. This slow cooking brings out the sweetness of the onions.
Stir the beremeal into the onions and cook for a minute or so, then gradually add the beer, stirring all the time. Bring to the boil, add the mustard and raisins then return the sausages to the pan, burying them in the gravy. Cover and simmer for a further 10-15 minutes until the sausages are cooked.
Season to taste, remembering that you might need to add a little more sugar as well as salt and pepper. Stir in some parsley, keeping some for a last minute garnish. Serve with Orkney tattie mash or clapshot, and some green veg like kale or cabbage.
Thanks to Andrew Appleby from the Fursbreck Pottery for the loan of the beautiful serving plate.
Rosemary Moon ‘retired’ to Orkney after a long association with the salmon industry in the islands. The author of 19 cookery books and countless more recipes, including writing for Waitrose and Lakeland, she has brought journalists and food writers to Orkney in the past to show off our diverse and delicious food and drink. After several holidays here Rosemary and her husband Nick have settled in South Ronaldsay but, once a cookery writer always a cookery writer, Rosemary is finding it impossible to stop jotting down the new recipes that she is creating with the island produce.
Rosemary also writes and vlogs about whisky and is particularly interested in whisky and food matching. You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram and on her rosemarymoon.com and myorkneylarder.com websites.
The Digital Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Programme.