When your father is one of the biggest players in your nation’s beer scene, it’s only natural to want to follow in his footsteps. But becoming more successful than him? That’s a dream few people can say they’ve achieved. (Sorry millennials.)
Dougal Sharp got his start in the brewing business as a teenager alongside his father at Caledonian Brewery back in the ’80s. At the time, it was Scotland’s biggest producer of beer. About 30-some odd years later, he helped Grant’s in 2002 to create a beer to season their oak casts for their whiskey. That whiskey went on to become critically acclaimed, and the beer turned into the iconic Innis & Gunn Original— you know the one!
A year later, he founded the Innis & Gunn Brewing Company. The rest, as they say, is history. Fourteen years strong, Innis & Gunn is Scotland’s most-awarded brewer and a leader in the craft beer movement. Some would even argue Sharp started the craft beer movement with his barrel-aged process, something no one else in the beer game was doing at the time. We’ll drink to that.
Beer, especially craft beer, has really blown up over the past few years. Being an insider in the industry, how do you explain that interest and popularity?
It’s an incredibly motivating time to be a craft brewer. The growth globally in the category has been phenomenal as more and more people are looking for high quality and flavoursome beers. When I started Innis & Gunn in 2003, you could say the industry was sceptical. Our barrel-aged beer was too different to everything else in the market, and at that time craft beer was seen as very niche. In recent years, beer drinkers have become far more discerning in their tastes, and more experimental in their choices. It’s inspiring to see consumers embracing the pioneer spirit of our industry, which has always pushed boundaries to create new and exciting beers.
How has it changed your business?
Quality, innovation, and flavour are in the DNA of Innis & Gunn, and as our business grows we keep our passion for great beer at the heart of everything we do. The boom in craft beer has shaped the dynamics of our business in terms of the pace of growth and created opportunities to expand our international markets to over 28 countries, as well as open our Beer Kitchens, which put a focus on high-quality food and beer pairing.
You’ve hit your 30-year anniversary being a brewer. What’s been the thing you are most proud of and what do you want to accomplish in the future?
The realisation that I’ve been in the brewing industry for 30 years fills me with equal measures of achievement and absolute horror. Where the hell did the time go?! Our mission is to open people’s minds to help them find the beer they love, and I’m most proud of the absolute dedication and passion of our team at Innis & Gunn. Every single day, we give 100 per cent commitment to making amazing beer for people all over the world to enjoy. International growth is an area we are hugely ambitious for, continuing to focus on key markets for us such as Canada, US, Sweden, and there is massive potential in emerging craft beer markets like France, South Africa, and most recently China and the Far East, where we’ve started distributing.
Any plans to go for that MBA?
That was the plan after university, but brewing is in my blood and I did a brewing pupillage with Timothy Taylor (of England’s Timothy Taylor Brewery), where something clicked and there was no going back!
Do you think your background in chemistry was an advantage compared to others in the brewing industry?
I studied chemistry at university and it undoubtedly instilled scientific discipline in my approach to brewing, always asking questions and challenging assumptions to get the best possible product at the end. I feel very lucky to combine science and creativity every day as a brewer.
What are the fundamental foundations of a great brew?
It’s all about the balance of flavour. Craft beer can be complex in its combination of ingredients, beer styles, and techniques. It takes great craftsmanship to get it right.
What tips do you have for the budding home brewer?
Remember the possibilities for beer are endless. There are no rules when it comes to flavour. Experiment, persevere, and be patient!
What do you think is the next hot trend in beer?
Barrel-ageing is a huge trend that we’ll see continue to grow with the category. At our barrel-store in Perth, we’ve barrel-aged beers from a jalapeno-flavoured imperial stout to a raspberry saison, the possibilities are limitless to broaden drinkers’ horizons with the remarkably rich depth and variety of flavours that barrel-ageing returns to the beer. Food and beer pairing is another trend I think we’ll see really take off in the next few months.
If you could only drink one brew for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I have to say Innis & Gunn Original. It’s the first barrel-aged beer I made and there’s still nothing else quite like it for me.
If you weren’t a brewer, what do you think you would be doing instead?
In another life, I’d be a musician. I play the guitar and it’s a huge passion of mine.