Lerwick will soon be home to a brewery after permission was granted to transform the former Rearo gas depot at the old North Road.
The idea came from self-employed chemical engineer John Mercer, one of the family who run gas company Rearo Supplies.
With the company’s move to new premises in Staney Hill, the old gas depot became vacant and real ale enthusiast John, together with brothers Graham and Jimmy, saw the opportunity to convert the premises. Their aim is to develop a range of quality beers with a Shetland brand.
Although two of the siblings live south – John works in Aberdeen and Graham is based in Glasgow – they are keen to promote the Shetland name. They have established a new company called the Staney Hill Brewery, although it is likely to trade as the Lerwick Brewery. They have already worked with a pilot plant, or micro brewery, to get them going on their venture, and have been “testing” recipes to see which ones they like best.
They are now in the process of obtaining consent from the North of Scotland Water Authority and Sepa for drain connections, and have got the all-important licence to operate a brewery from HMRC.
John, a member of CAMRA, the campaign for real ale, hopes the brewery will eventually produce a range of beers including stout, a golden ale and a pale ale.
He said: “It has been a dream [of mine] for many years to open a brewery, now it’s become realistic we’re going to give it a go. So far we’ve hit no major problems. Everyone’s been really helpful.”
John described his emotions at this early stage as “hope tempered with reality”. He said: “We’re all [three brothers] excited about it. We hope it’s something people will be interested in. Other places have their own brewery. Why not Lerwick?”
Trials with the micro brewery went well, he said, but the crunch would come when the “big equipment”, now on order, arrives.
He said: “You can’t always scale things up. It’s a long process, making beer. We don’t want to make promises we can’t keep.”
The equipment should arrive by February and, if everything goes well, beer could be available in the summer, although John is very reluctant to set a date.
He said the project had been made possible by the rise in the number of smaller breweries throughout the UK – 20 years ago malted barley and hops would only have been available either in small quantities for home brew or on an industrial scale. Now, however, the “infrastructure” for small breweries is in place, but he warned: “That doesn’t mean it’s going to be a success.”
The brothers hope to start by producing a Pilsner-style lager, he said, and an “80 shilling-style” beer. Although John is a “beer buff” who likes “obscure” beers, the venture will start with the more ordinary types. He said: “We’ll see if these are a goer and see about expanding after that.”
The beer will be sold in 330ml bottles – they are waiting for a bottling plant – and will then have to design labels and think about names. The beer will be sold in shops and pubs, certainly in Lerwick, and hopefully south “once we have proved we can make beer”.
The key would be producing a consistent product, John said, one which was always of high quality so as to promote consumer confidence. Different types of barley, yeast, hops and even water all have an effect on the finished taste. However, he said: “I’m fairly confident we will produce a saleable product. It needs to be pleasant but consistent.”
Although there is already a brewery in Shetland, Valhalla Brewery in Unst, John insists he will not be competing with Sonny Priest’s business and feels there is plenty of drinkers to buy the produce of both outlets.