In 2003, after brewing a beer aged in Scotch whisky casks for a distiller, Dougal Sharp saw the possibilities inherent in oak-aged beers - and became so enamored that he launched Innis & Gunn Brewers. Now the maker of best-selling British bottled beer in Canada and the leading imported ale in Sweden, the brewer is increasing its push in the US on-premise market, recently releasing two oak-aged brews - Bourbon Stout (exclusive for the US) and Scottish Porter. Both beers are matured over oak in Innis & Gunn’s proprietary oak-aging percolators known as the Oakerators (think coffee percolator). What does his beer bring to a madly crowded US craft market? We find out.
Craft beer is booming but not so much craft imports, at least in bars and restaurants - what kind of an approach do you have to take to bring bar and restaurant operators around to your brands?
Because we have our own people on the ground now in the US, having conversations with on-premise owners and operators and bartenders and sommeliers isn’t hard. But the keg size used in the US isn’t the format that the rest of the world uses, so we’re working on that because we’re aware of the role draft plays on-premise and how important that market is to our success in the US. Once we have the correct sizes sorted out, we believe there’s a huge amount of potential for our beers in the US. The market here until recently has been dominated by big, hoppy, bold flavorsome beers, and now the trend is toward beers in our style - oak-aged with lots and lots of flavor but not that big hoppy head.
Is the oak aging what provides you with an important difference and opening in the market?
It is when you consider that beers that have been oak-aged do tend to go very, very well with food, the process of maturing in oak tends to mellow and provide lots of lovely flavor characteristics. The process creates a brilliant match with food - Innis & Gunn has been incredibly popular in some of the markets because food matching has been an important part of the success.
Where do you see the opportunities on-premise, given that local seems to matter so much?
We get the local thing - it’s going on here in Scotland and all over the developed world. Consumers are looking for it, but where local cannot produce naturally - for instance, you can’t get a Scottish ale matured in a Scotch whiskey barrel made in America because those two things are hard to find here. We see opportunities because we’re delivering something different - you can get an American beer aged in a bourbon barrel but not one like ours. We’re all about crafting incredible flavors and over the 12 years we’ve been doing it, we hope that the barrel aging skill comes through. The US drinker has been trained to try new things and it’s an exciting opportunity for us to bring our beers into that environment.
Limited editions and seasonal expressions have proven important here - this is something you’ve been doing for some time.
Limited editions have always played an important role in our business. We regard them as a great opportunity for our brewers to test the boundaries of things like the type of cask, the length of maturation, the temperature and time aged, etc. Last year, we produced a beer we couldn’t bring here called “Malt Whiskey Trail - a Scotch ale aged in different whisky barrels from each of the four malt whisky regions and blended them together as the best expression of the different qualities of Scotch whisky. It was a nightmare to make and very complicated but the beer was absolutely stunning. It was a great opportunity to try new things but the endpoint has to be that the beers are flavorful and exciting.
What’s next as you work your way into American operations?
The US is such a huge and fragmented market with many very good brands. We tend to be a little more expensive - just as US craft is in the British beer market - but within five years I want to have a team of 50 in the US as passionate about flavorful Scottish beers as I am. We’re off to a great start and we’re expanding here - the American palate is always evolving and I firmly believe that products like Innis & Gunn have a part to play.