We are all familiar with big beer names such as Heineken, Stella Artois and Budweiser. Companies like these brew millions of liters of beer per year, available for purchase almost anywhere in the world. They have glossy advertising campaigns and sponsor high profile events…
By Charlotte Mountford

t the other end of the scale sit the microbreweries. Instead of hundreds, they produce one, four, or maybe fifty barrels of beer a week. They are more likely to donate raffle prizes to local schools or fund the annual competition at the gardening club than sponsor an international football game. And yet microbreweries are growing in importance, and their beers are getting more popular by the year.

For microbrewers, it’s not just about sales, it’s about lifestyle, community, and a culture as alive as the beers and ales themselves – literally; because unlike big commercial brewers, microbrewery beer is ‘real’ which means neither filtered nor pasteurized : it continues to ferment and mature in the cask and the bottle, as ‘living’ ale.

On Islay, a rugged island with a wild beauty off the west coast of Scotland, Islay Ales is one such microbrewery. Paul Hathaway founded the craft brewery in 2003 with two partners, after moving to Islay with his family.

There was a catch: Islay is world famous for whiskey, not beer, hence Hathaway’s slogan “ales from the isle of malts .” It took time to persuade locals to stop drinking whiskey, or big brand Tennent’s lager, and try the craft ales. “We sell a lot of ales to visitors on the island,” says Hathaway, and community support has now grown.

Unlike big brands, microbreweries focus on the local. “Our brewery often feels more like a family than a business,” Hathaway smiles. “It’s a two-way street. The community shows us support by buying our product, so we get involved with the community. It’s our way of saying thank you.”

“The major difference between big brewery and craft brewery is that we put a lot of time and effort into our live beer,” he continues. “We use pale and crystal malts for beers like our Black Rock Ale, and lager and wheat malts for ones like our Saligo Ale, perhaps adding un-malted roasted barley or Styrian Goldings a hops for flavour.”

The term “Micro brewery” originated in the UK in the late 1970’s, as a term used to describe the new generation of small breweries and their focus on producing good quality real or live ales and beers. From there the concept has taken off all around the world, particularly in North America.

Thousands of miles from Islay on Vancouver Island, off west coast Canada, Matt Phillips runs Phillips Beer, a non-traditional microbrewery. Phillips believes beer and food belong together: the brewery holds ‘beer dinners’ where chefs cook meals to compliment beer and publish free recipes on their website.

“Food and beer simply pair well,” says Phillips, “it adds another dimension. I’m fascinated by flavors, and because the range is so vast, the array of pairings that can be explored is almost limitless.”

Phillips takes this food passion one step further, infusing flavours into the actual brewing process to create beers with names that make you hungry, like his Raspberry Wheat Ale, Espresso Stout, Oatmeal Stout, or Longboat Double Chocolate Porter. “It’s like food pairings in the bottle. Beer is such an amazing base for flavours, you are really just limited by the imagination.”

Phillips Beer also stands out for its quirky bottle labels, outstanding works of art in their own right. Designed by Shawn O’Keefe, they reflect the energy in the brewery.

It was Phillips’ dream to have an artisanal brewery, and through a lot of hard work, and clever use of credit cards, Phillips Beer became an award-winning reality. “It’s more than a commercial enterprise,” he explains. “I love the culture of beer.”

This growing beer culture has been pivotal in the success of Islay and Phillips – two very different, but successful, microbreweries. Phillips comments on this difference: “While beer culture is growing, it’s by no means the same all over the world. … but it is cool to see the more traditional beer cultures, like in Europe, now taking on styles that have developed in North America – craft beer culture is losing its borders!”

Is beer culture like wine culture? “No,” says Phillips. “Sure, there is an appreciation of a fine beverage, but there is a much more welcoming and fun tone to beer culture. Anyone can join – the best bottle of beer isn’t much different in price from the least interesting bottle. Also beer is better fresh, so it keeps the collectors from having interest. And unlike wine, no one really takes ‘hard core beer geeks’ too seriously. … enjoy it, share it – no spitting!”

At Islay Ales, Paul Hathaway has definitely noticed the growth in beer culture. “The most important thing is there are now more breweries in the UK than there were in 1940, and many of them are small,” he observes.

“Brewing has therefore gone the full circle. It began small and local in the 40’s, it went through the mergers and takeovers of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, and now it has gone back to where it started, what it always was supposed to be: small, local breweries supplying beer for the local area. That’s why you have so many different styles and flavors of beer, because beers were traditionally brewed for local palates.”

Islay Ales produces eight distinct brews – something that is a rarity when compared with large-scale producers, according to Hathaway.

“The big brewers tend not to operate like that; they will hit on just the few major brands and flog them for all they’re worth. But the public knows this, and they are making different choices today. It feeds back into people getting increasingly interested in the provenance of food and drink, and concerned with food miles and the environment,” says Hathaway. “Our third director, Walter Schobert is from Germany, and apparently there, anybody who appreciates beer refuses to drink anything that’s advertised on TV!”

“And at the end of the day,” Hathaway finishes, “we produce something that’s different. I always say you can get a McDonald’s anywhere in the world. Same goes for a Stella Artois or a Budweiser. Why do that, when you can try something local and unique?”

For more information on Islay Ales:

For more information on Phillips Brewing Company:

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