Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Interview with Innis and Gunn's Dougal Sharp

During Starfish Production's 2012 Philadelphia Craft Beer Festival. I had a chance to interview Innis and Gunn's founder, mastermind, and brewer, Dougal Sharp. His award winning Scottish craft beer brewery has been gaining lots of fans and superlatives since it's inception in 2003.I grabbed an Innis and Gunn Rum Cask had a few words with the man who is making some of the most innovative and tasty beers on the planet.

Trey: Congrats on your success, you have achieved quite a lot in a short time. I was shocked to learn your brewery is less than ten years old and formed by accident!

Dougal: I was working at my Dad's brewery in Edinburgh at the time. We were contacted by a distillery, William and Grant to make a beer for them to impart beer flavor into whiskey. So we brewed them a special beer with a real sweet and malty character. After a month or so , they began to to store the beer in bourbon barrels. They added whiskey to the barrels and were pleased with the results. This was back in 2002, they began to order thousands and thousands of barrels of beer. They only regarded beer as a byproduct of making beer. The workers, this could only have happened in Scotland, were not keen to throwing beer away began to say it's too good to throw away. We put the beer on a tasting panel and everyone rated the beer as a 9 out of 9. We spent twelve months doing market research, we were originally going to call it something way different than what it is now. My father said to me , you should call it the middle name of your and your brother's, Innis and Gunn. After some market research we decided to launch the company as Innis and Gunn.

Trey: Oak is so vital to the wine and liquor community. Are you shocked to see barrel aging in beer to be a relatively new phenomenon?

Dougal : Well, yes and no. Yes, well looking back at this now, using bourbon barrels seems obvious. Oak was originally used in barrels of transporting the beer. The key thing is to use bourbon barrels. We have used rum barrels and even Irish Whiskey barrels, and there are still others to try. The thing about barrel aging is that it implies a whole new layer of complexity and flavors to the beers beers. We believe that oak helps us achieve balance. Our approach to making beer is to be balanced. If you think about great wines and spirits that are revered, they are balanced. I think that oak aging is the best way to integrate alcohol into the drink, in our case, beer.

Trey: Just to clarify, are all Innis and Gunn Beers are barrel aged?

Dougal : Yes, correct. We are experimenting all the time. What the key to our product is is flavor. There is a lot of different barrels, with different flavors. It's all about barrel aging for the US.

Trey: I was very pleased to hear about all the success and awards of your Rum Cask beer, so it's safe to say you aren't opposed to working with any barrel.

Dougal: No, there is no point in limiting yourself. It's worth trying everything at least once. We have discovered different ways to achieve different flavors.

Trey: I was happy to learn that your flagship beer, Innis and Gunn Original is now available in kegs. You must be excited.

Dougal: Oh Yes, we thought long and hard about it. I was reluctant to do it too soon. What I wanted to was focus building a business on bottles. What we know is that when people try Innis and Gunn for the first time, they have never had anything like it before. The most important thing is flavor. But we were getting asked by lots of customers for draft beer. For us it's less about volume, and more about awareness.

Trey: The beer community is surprisingly homogenous. Collaboration beers are the rage. Are you opposed to any collaboration projects?

Dougal: We have not done and yet, but we certainly aren't adversed to them.

Trey: I have not been able to find any info on which distillery your barrels, come from, is the source a secret?

Dougal: We have a policy of never naming the company that supplies our barrels. Which is fun , because a lot of people like to speculate. I like to sit and listen to people guess.

Trey: Are you surprised at the popularity of food and beer parings?

Dougal: What I am surprised about is that it took this long. As an industry beer has had it's ass kicked by the wine industry for 500 years. Some people think that wine is the only beverage that food can be matched with. Why restrict yourself? Beer does not go with every food, but it does go with some foods, just as wine does not go with all foods, but some foods.

Trey: I saw there was a cooking class featuring Innis and Gunn that had to add another class due to demand.

Dougal: The thing about matching food is just the natural evolution of craft beer. Beer and steak go well together, but how many people have actually tried it? They are lovely together. The fun is in trying. There is no fun in not trying.

Trey : Sales of been escalating by year for your brewery, some of your beers have a lengthy maturation process, do you have a hard time keeping up with demand?

Dougal: No. We have to be thinking quite far ahead.

Trey: Your brewery is now available for sale in 10 countries and 17 states, what is next in the horizon?

Dougal: Continuing to focus. We have doubled our work force. That is all about being able to focus on our existing market. Our consumers are the most important in our lives. As a business we want to get even better at relating to our customers. They are the people we want to focus on.

Trey : Canned beer is becoming far more expected than I expected, where do you stand on canned beer?

Dougal: We are watching it closely. We really want to see what happens in the US first. We are watching and learning.

Trey: Thanks for your time. Congrats, on your success and I looking forward to greater availability of your beer, both nationally and locally.

Dougal: Thank you.

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