Barrels on the Black Isle

New friends, old friends, collaboration, and barrels of barrels. Rob catches up with Black Isle’s Mike Gladwin on their adventures in barrel-aging, and two beautiful new sharing bottles that begin this exciting new chapter…

We’ve been rambling off record for longer than we probably meant to before I warn Mike Gladwin of Black Isle, “Right, I better start recording this,” and, ominously, the first words I record are Mike chuckling: “Please feel free rewrite everything.”

Sharing a laugh with the folks of Black Isle Brewery has always been easy. They are a notoriously nice team, are great to chat to always, and of course today has been made all the easier by the fact we’ve only one thing to talk about: beer.

Not the banalities of spreadsheets we usually natter about. Today is just about the beer.

For those that do not know, Black Isle Brewery are a 100% organic brewery bases on the Black Isle Peninsula, just north of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands (not a bad spot for a brewery, eh?). Moreover, with no intentions to cause any blushes or draw attention to wrinkles, but Black Isle are no upstart, fresh on the scene, rather turning a healthy 21 years young this year. Black Isle are one of the great foundational pillars for the Scottish, and indeed wider UK, brewing revival.

Black Isle’s idyllic setting isn’t all just for show, either. When I get us on track asking if these two most recent Black Isle bottles is the sign of more to come from Black Isle and their obviously knack for producing sharing bottles, Mike answers: “Absolutely, it’s something we want to major in.

“Obviously we are blessed with being surrounded with fantastic highland distilleries and we have access to a lot of casks and traditionally our dark beers have always been excellent… and dark beers age well in oak. Our bore hole produces fairly hard water and it complements dark beers”.

Mike’s flow through the vision for the barrel aging process gives an air of calm and casualness that belies the meticulous planning required for a successful barrel aging project. Everything is thoughtfully approached, even down to that water for these dark beers.

“No, we don’t [treat the water]. It does its talking for itself, because it suits dark beers,” he tells me. “We’re just blessed having our own bore hole, we don’t get any of that effect you get from chlorine, so it aids fermentation having the natural water. Most of our followers, that would recognise Black Isle as a brand, would know we have a particular flavour, and I reckon that comes from the water that comes from our bore hole. It’s a pretty unique aspect to us.”

I quickly jump in, seeing an opportunity to say something that really is nothing at all, noting that the bore hole is really unique and adds a unique sense of place to the beers, but more so that most town and city councils might be less than pleased if breweries starting digging for water beneath them. The stupid patter obviously works a treat as we share a laugh and Mike chips in: “This thing is 300 feet down, it’s really quite deep, and that the water has been there for 10 years, and it’s a pure as anything and it produces really good beer, really good dark beer and we can treat it and soften it up for beers IPAs and lighter beers.”

Black Isle are obviously fortunate for the wonderful microcosm they inhabit for producing all those brilliant barrel aged dark beers. Colonel Custard, an imperial beer that has become an annual release to commemorate the past brewery dog Coo Coo, has always been a testament to this.

A warning though, try to box Black Isle into a tightly confined niche at your own risk. An organic brewery? Yes, but not only. Excellent at dark beers that compliment oak? Yes, but the script does not stop there. And, as Mike expands on the barrel ageing program, that fact becomes abundantly clear.

“Yes, first and foremost, we are organic. Yes, that’s what we concentrate on being, 100% organic, and there aren’t many 100% organic breweries out there so that’s a point of difference for us. But the barrel aging programme, we are definitely ramping that up and I’ve just made enquiries into virgin oak barrels actually, because we want to do some Brettanomyces inoculations in them and get some sort of Solera Brett project going in them. So, yes, definitely going forward we will always have 750ml barrel aged beer released or about to be released.”

Soleras, for anyone not familiar with them, are wonderful – lots of barrels of great liquid feed into each other over the course of time, topping up then next run in the system. It means younger beer feeds into older beer, brightening it up and constantly evolving the end liquid into something more complex as the Solera itself ages. The Soleras themselves develop into almost an organism of their own, expressing something very individual. What better way to convey the uniqueness of the location of the Black Isle and indeed the Black Isle Brewery itself. What could be better?

Well, Mike does not leave me long before he makes it better: “We will hopefully be using more and more locally sourced fruit and that sort of thing.”

Combining the water, organic malts, Solera system, and local fruits becomes a really compelling reason to get excited about the potential for Black Isle’s barrel aging process to really convey something of a postcard about where they are from and what they are all about.

This isn’t all a daydream for tomorrow either, Mike continues and reveals some secrets from the barrels: “We have a collab that we did with Gamma Brewing, who are one obviously one of the hype breweries at the moment, and we are very fortunate that Pete who does brews with them, he started off with us before he went to Beavertown … and is now at Gamma. He came over because he’s from up here. He came over about a year ago and we put a Flanders Red into barrel and its gone into loads of different barrels – it’s gone into some ports, and red wine, and some whisky barrels.

“We were going to do some blends and see how they come out but some of the barrels are producing some really interesting flavours and would probably  benefit from some fruit additions so maybe some cherry, blackcurrant, or raspberry. Where we are, Black Isle, is a famous raspberry growing area, so we are thinking some raspberries and maybe blackcurrants – these are things we have to hand.”

Collaborations are nothing new, or rare, in beer. We even began our journey with Black Isle here at Flavourly by producing some great collaborations with them. What is interesting about Black Isle is, mirroring the bountiful natural resources around them, they have a full harvest of people lining up to work with them.

Mike sounds delighted and proud that this isn’t going unnoticed “Yes, we’ve just done a virtual collab with Mark at Burning Sky, a really interesting beer, style bounding, a spelt beer that Torstein and Mark came up with. They wanted to use an old grain, spelt being a precursor to the hybrid wheat we have now. That beer we are about to stick in 440ml cans, I tasted it last week in tank – it’s unusual but very refreshing. Mark really sort of drove that and it pushed us into this style-breaking beer.

“We are fortunate that people want to brew with us. I think it’s maybe less about our organic principles and more about where we are and who we are. We’re 21 years old now, we’re just celebrating our 21st birthday here and a lot of cool young guys and girls that trained at Herriot-Watt, they spent their formative beer years drinking our beer in and around Edinburgh.

“They went on to do some remarkable things and, whenever we contact them, they are very interested to do things with us. And, you know, being in the Highlands, it’s not a bad place to come and visit and put a brew through.”

We’ve been nattering on and off record for about 30 minutes before we finally get to what we intended to chat about: two specific beers, Equations 1 and Full Circle. Both collaborations with some incredibly interesting partners.

The Equations 1, brewed with Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes (BFM), could almost hide in the shadows while the Full Circle basked in the glory until you start to read the fine print about what is an exciting journey has begun.

“Jerome and his team were kicking about in the highlands,” Mike starts. “They had been over meeting with the guys at Overworks (Brewdog’s Sour beer facility) exchanging ideas. We dropped a line to Jerome telling him to drop in when he was in the area and the full team came over.”

The incredibly haphazard way in which Mike describes inviting over one of the team from one of most sought-after breweries in the world could catch you off guard if you hadn’t been hanging on every word.

“We put this Saison through. They brought over their famous 225 yeast strain to inoculate the barrels with. We always try and maximise each brew and make a unique brew for every collab.”

Proving that behind the relaxed composure of Black Isle is some seriously exciting vision Mike explained how they aim to achieve that here: “We split this [beer] three ways. The one we sent you (Equations 1) is the virgin beer, so to speak, so it hasn’t been adulterated in any way. It’s the straight Saison that was in tank.

“We then took some of that and popped it into port barrels and red wine barrels, and the inoculation [with 225] was done into those. The Saison had already been fermented with standard yeast. So, there are two more beers from that one collab that will be ready really in another month or two, I’d say.

“So, you’ve only had a third of this. We’re really looking forward to the other ones. You can never really tell what is going to go on in the barrels. “That’s the beauty of barrel aged projects, you’re never completely sure of what you are going to end up with, and that’s the great thing… most of the time”.

The modest way in which Mike chats through some of the collaboration partners that Black Isle are working with could make you forget, quite the calibre and pedigree of the people who Black Isle have and have had working with them.

That is until some of them come Full Circle. That leads us to the second beer brewed in collaboration with Salt Beer Factory and one of those very people, Colin Stronge a much-celebrated brewer who has been everywhere from Marble to Salt Beer Factory, and not forgetting Northern Monk and Buxton, but also, in the middle of it all, Black Isle.

Asking Mike what it was like to welcome back old faces, he’s emphatic in his response: “It’s fantastic. When Colin came to us he’d been working with the guys down at Marble in Manchester and that was his first experience of brewing down there. When he came up, he was already a respected brewer and he came up to us so he could get some experience where he could flex his muscles and experiment and have a lot of fun playing with a big new brewery, which is what we had then.”

There is a very genuine fondness in the way Mike reminisces about the days of Colin living in a cottage on the farm. They attended each other’s weddings, and keep in regular contact as well, exchanging notes on equipment and brewing. Admittedly, Mike does say that it’s not in person as much anymore, because the Black Isle is quite far from anywhere.

Mike jokes that Equations could have been the name for this beer, with all the old faces that popped up to create Full Circle, but decided that Full Circle was the right name.

“It was a celebration of Colin coming back up and putting a brew through wearing his Salt cap. It was just a really great couple of days. We obviously had to have a pint or two, we went to the bar for pre-match and post-match beer. And we put through a big dark beer.”

And that is what Full Circle is. It’s an imperial barrel aged Schwarzbier, a big black lager. That’s something that neatly brings together the talents of Black Isle’s new brewer Torstein, lager, and their old brewer Colin, big bold dark beers. Wedding these two together has produced something thoroughly wonderful that captures Black Isle’s stylistic and defining drinkability.

The synergy between the new and the old seems to have been seamless. “It was just fun,” says Mike. While this Collaboration brought some journeys full circle, it is obvious Black Isle are quickly turning the first page on a new adventure into a very exciting world of barrel aging. If this outing is anything to go on – it is very going to be an extremely exciting new chapter.

Check out Black Isle’s New Beers here! 

Words: Rob Gilmour

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