Black Isle was started by David Gladwin in 1998. An unemployed beer lover, he set out to make world-class beer using barley and hops, grown on organic farms, without the use of destructive chemicals.
When I asked David Gladwin what inspired him to start up his organic craft brewery, Black Isle, back in 1998, I didn’t expect this reply: ‘I was completely unemployable’, he said simply, and so ensued one of the most humorously inspiring interviews I’ve carried out at Flavourly.
David later added that, in truth, he’s just better suited to working for himself and the reasons for this became apparent as the interview went on – David is far more motivated by doing what’s moral than what will make him the most money. It’s this drive that helped his brewery, “we have the widest range of organic beers in the UK”, the success that it is today.
Still, it would be many years after the brewery, at Allangrange in The Black Isle, opened that people would fully understand the extent of the damage that pesticides are doing to the environment and it would be just as many before the craft beer movement would gain any momentum in the UK. David’s passion for good beer and clean organic produce kept him going through the many challenges he faced but being ahead of the game helped too:
“Like so many things in life it was all about timing, ” he explains. “When I first started there were so many bars and pubs that wouldn’t look at what we now call craft beer.
“I’d try and sell beers to pubs and they’d say ‘Oh no! We never buy dark beer, we never buy beer that’s over 5%!’ and then, ten years later, I’d go into those same bars and find them serving some kind of 9% nitrogen chilli beer!”
Starting out before others caught on had its disadvantages too, though: “I wanted to make a really good beer, first and foremost, but I wanted to do that using organic barley and hops and that was the real challenge.
“There just weren’t that many good quality organic hops around. There was a little barley but not much plus it wasn’t reliable – it would grow one year but not the next.
“It wasn’t easy, ” he remembers.
David’s search eventually took him to the other side of the world, New Zealand. He imported the first pallet of New Zealand organic hops into the UK and has since started buying worldwide – he jokes that a career as an organic hop importer may have been more lucrative.
When he realised Black Isle was going to take off, David moved the operation out of his kitchen (much to the joy of
his wife) and today it occupies 150 acres of land which is also home to a hostel and bar which are located in Inverness, not on the farm, the ‘glowing garden’, which provides fresh produce, and various farm animals including the Hebridean sheep who keep the grass short and eat any waste product from the mash tun.
Even now though, it’s harder and more expensive to source organic produce than GMO alternatives – meaning Black
Isle spends hundreds of thousands of pounds more, on ingredients, than their competitors each year.
Most publicans and consumers aren’t willing to pay any extra premium for his organic beer, but, David explains why he’ll never give up on it: “People are very much in favour of it all, they love the fact that we make delicious organic beer but with all of these extra costs that people aren’t willing to pay for, it’s an uphill battle, so it’s got to be something that you’re always going be principled about; you need to believe in it and do it for a reason.
“I would love people to really think more about it and make more of an informed choice – buy less, buy better quality.
“I’m an honest guy, if we were making crap beer I wouldn’t expect anyone to buy it but we’re making really great beer and it’s organic, so it means you can go out, have a good time and enjoy yourself and still doing your bit to save the planet.”
As well as making a contribution to saving the planet, many of the Black Isle’s beers are brewed in dedication to other causes close to their heart; this year’s Christmas brew ‘Colonel Custards Christmas Ale’ is an ode to a beloved pet, the late Tusker, a Jack Russell. In 2017, a Citra Saison ’23 trees’ was created to raise awareness after 23 ancient trees were cut down by one of the brewery’s neighbouring farmers who was looking to make more space for crops.
Another part of their organic mission involves taking on ‘Wwoofers’ (Willing Workers On Organic Farms, if you’re curious) who help out by volunteering whatever skills they have, in exchange for food and accommodation and to learn about the organic brewing process: “We’ve had such interesting people,” David says.
“We had a couple who met here, an American and an Australian, and a few years later their parents came back and showed me photographs of their baby, it’s fantastic.
As for the future of the project, David hopes to open some new bars and attract more visitors to the Black Isle. He also says ‘without trying to sound too evangelical’ he hopes that he and his team will be able to convince more drinkers to go organic.
So, Flavourly readers, it’s your mission to try the great selection of beers in this month’s discovery box and spread the word – don’t stress yourself out too much while trying to complete this difficult challenge.