“I bought it because I wanted to get a clock. That’s how it all started.”
Not many people could visit an old farm to enquire about buying an antique clock and walk out with a brewery, but that’s basically what happened to Rob Hill, founder of the Swannay Brewery in Orkney.
“I was shown around when I came to look at the clock and I thought that the place would make a nice brewery,” recalls Rob. “I was told it was going to be up for sale soon, but at the time I had a job so I gave it no further thought. When that changed, I rang up to see if it was still available, and here we are.
“It’s probably the most expensive clock in Orkney!”
Rob is speaking in the heart of his brewery out on the north west tip of the Orkney mainland. The former Swannay Farm buildings have been home to the award-winning business for more than a decade.
The attraction to the area is obvious. The old buildings sit in a valley and feature stunning stonework, slate roofs and archways. There is a loch opposite and huge cliffs and swirling seas behind.
It’s an ideal location, and one that has helped inspire the small team here to become a hugely respected brewery around the world. Its core range, including Scapa Special, Orkney Blast and the recently-named Champion Beer of Scotland, Orkney IPA, is complemented by the modern Mutiny range, porters, and limited-edition beers in keg, cask and bottle.
But, after a period of steady organic growth, things are now set to change at Swannay, as the brewery is getting ready to embark on a massive expansion and renovation project.
Thanks to funding from Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Scottish Government’s Food Processing and Marketing Scheme, plus the business’s own funds, these beautiful old buildings will soon be getting a serious makeover.
“We’re going to completely overhaul our production area, as well as adding in a tap room, a café/restaurant and a retail space,” says Lewis Hill, Rob’s son and director at the brewery. “We’ve been chipping away here since we started and it was always the plan to do the place up, but we’ve never really been in the position to do it until now.”
Lewis has grown up in the beer world, with dad Rob working at another brewery in Orkney when he was at school. Time spent in Edinburgh at the start of the craft beer resurgence opened his eyes to what could be done back at Swannay.
“I just began to get excited by what other breweries were doing, and by the craft beer market as a whole,” reflects Lewis. “I do like to visit other breweries and bars and see what’s happening, and I’ve always wanted to bring some of that inspiration to Orkney.”
At the moment, the brewery produces around 7000 litres of beer per week, the equivalent of about 14,000 pints. That’s relatively small for a well-established brewery like Swannay. The renovations will expand and modernise that production capacity, but also open up new markets to sell beer to.
“There are a lot of guys who have come along after us and have grown a lot quicker, which has obviously been their plan from the outset,” continues Lewis. “Now we’re at this stage I’m hoping it’s just the foundation for the next level.”
A project of this scale requires an incredible level of planning, including liaising with the builders, the electricians and the plumbers. In amongst all that upheaval, the team has to continue doing what it does best – brewing some world class beers. Years of experience in the trade means Rob knows what to expect.
“The big shed with our brewing plant at the moment will go and be replaced with new buildings, and the whole place will be getting a facelift,” he says. “We have to do it, we can’t stand still. We’ve patched and repaired things here for twelve years, so it’s time to bite the bullet. It will be painful, but it’s also going to be fun!”
Work is due to start early in 2019, with the aim to have the new, improved brewery up and running towards the end of the summer. Whatever happens, beer will still be coming out of the old archway and into bars, shops and hands across the world.
“We’re confident we can do this,” says Lewis, with a smile. “It has already been a lot of work, and we know there’s more to come. But, when it’s all over, we’ll be able to make more beer, and hopefully make it better. And we’ll also be able to welcome local folk and visitors to Orkney in and show them what we’re doing.
“We just want to try and make our beers known as some of the best.”
The Digital Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Programme.