The Big Interview: Dougal Sharp, Innis & Gunn's founder and master brewer
After 30 years in the industry, having started out in his teens, Innis & Gunn founder and master brewer Dougal Sharp stresses that making beer is his “first passion” to this day.
“Beer is what made Innis & Gunn famous and it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning,” he says. “My whole career has been making great beer.”
Such devotion has even extended to his Border Collie, with Barley having developed something of a discerning palate. Sharp explains that this became evident during a party, and people had put down their glasses and forgotten about them.
“I actually quietly watched him… he was going round all the glasses on the floor and he was leaving the mass-produced stuff and drinking the Innis & Gunn,” Sharp laughs.
Barley’s preference sits very much in line with broader trends, with the Scottish Licensed Trade Association saying in June that according to quarterly research produced in conjunction with KPMG, 50 per cent of more than 700 on-trade outlets surveyed reported an increase in craft-beer sales.
Innis & Gunn itself sold more than 23 million bottles of beer last year, saying this makes it the second-biggest supplier of craft beer to the UK off-trade. It also saw annual turnover reach £11.8 million in 2015, having frothed up by 29 per cent since 2012 and almost doubling its volumes.
Sharp is adamant that craft beer is no fad. “Having lived through two beer revolutions, one in the ’90s and this one now, [the latter] just feels like it’s got real longevity,” he says. “I don’t think we’re ever going back to a world where mass-produced international brands dominate the bar.
“There is a place for them but it’s not an exclusive relationship that they have any more with drinkers, and I think that’s really exciting. Our mission is to spread the word about good beer, to open people’s minds to help them find the beer that they love.”
His career started out at Edinburgh’s Caledonian Brewery, with his father having led the management buy-out of the firm in 1987. Working at weekends and during school holidays, Sharp says he “slowly but surely became passionate about beer-making”.
A pivotal moment came late in his schooldays when he was in a rugby team. “We had this losing streak and Dad in his wisdom, said ‘Right, if you guys win the next game, you get a night in the sample cellar of the brewery’.
“So of course we were thereafter unbeaten and I think that’s where very much the passion for beer and breweries started with me.”
He adds that as part of the Caledonian team, they built it up from “this little cottage business” to an industry giant when it was sold on. He then started again with Innis & Gunn, with the company formed in 2003 and triggering what he calls a “craft beer revolution”.
Looking back over three decades, he says: “I’ve loved every minute of it but it’s been a real hard slog, and of course I’ve had to have two hats — one a business leader and one a brewer.
“For the last 14 years I’ve been leading [Innis & Gunn], managing its growth and really fighting for every millimetre of ground that we’ve taken and every bit of growth that we’ve achieved.”
However, now that changes have been made to the business’s organisational structure, with a new managing director and larger senior team, this has allowed him to “get back to what I really love and what I’m really good at, which is beer-making.”
This entails focusing on brewing and pursuing innovation on the creative side, and “that’s where I feel I can add most value to the business in the future”.
The firm has recently announced innovations such as virtual-reality “beer goggles” to be used while drinking its beers, aiming to unlock a “whole new realm of beer-drinking”.
Additionally the company has unveiled “the first-ever spreadable beer marmalade” Marm & Ale as well as a limited-edition marmalade IPA “using Innis & Gunn’s trademarked beer percolator that allows the brewer to infuse beers with accent flavours from a wide range of artisanal ingredients”.
Sharp insists that innovation will not come at the expense of quality, and comes as it looks to see its beers reach as broad an audience as possible.
He says: “If it doesn’t taste good we ain’t going to launch it, put it that way. We’re not in this for gimmicks.
“Innovation for innovation’s sake is not what we do but if we can find a way to innovate which causes an amazing flavour as a result, or an amazing flavour experience then we’re all over it.”
As for where such innovation lies, he just says: “What’s happened in the past is a good guide to what might happen in the future.”
His deep enthusiasm for flavour, saying he can find inspiration in virtually anything, was at the root of its launch and expansion to-date.
Sharp explains that when it launched its original flagship beer in 2003, it was to a sceptical industry who felt the beer was “too different to everything else out there” and had too much flavour.
“Well, not for me it didn’t, and that’s been the underpinning mantra at Innis & Gunn ever since – does it taste good, does it have a deep, rich impressive flavour that we think people will get behind and enjoy?”
The company has also branched out into the pub/restaurant sector with The Beer Kitchen. “Obviously with a fast-growth business like Innis & Gunn, and we’re very ambitious not just for our brewing business but our bars business too – we want to roll our bars out.”
Sharp notes plans to open a third Scottish site within months and is “actively considering” how to roll out the concept into England and international markets, with Canada and Sweden “obvious choices”.
But he noted that with such plans: “We need funding. That can’t exclusively come from cash flow, so we are actively considering how we fund future growth in the business.”
Innis & Gunn last year raised £3 million by issuing BeerBonds in the business, offering a four-year, fixed-term bond with an interest rate of 7.25 per cent for investments of £500 or more, and individual investments reached more than £100,000.
In July this year the first annual interest payment was issued, with £211,500 paid out to bond-holders over two tranches. Sharp says: “It’s been a fantastic thing for our company to have done.”
The capital raised by the programme enabled it to acquire The Inveralmond Brewery, based in Perth, in April, having previously intended to build an entirely new brewery. Innis & Gunn said at the time that it would be investing to develop Inveralmond, “creating a new state-of-the-art brewing and maturation facility”.
Sharp says that without the 1,000-plus bond investors, “we couldn’t have made the purchase” and believes the acquisition accelerates its ability to innovate.
He says Inveralmond is “a fantastic brand which we are massively ambitious for. We can see it has real potential. We just think it’s a great beer and through our distribution both in the UK and internationally we can see where we think we can take that so we’ve got high hopes for the Inveralmond family of brands”. The deal brings the brewer’s headcount to about 65, and he says it adds a team of skilled brewers. “The results are already beginning to come through,” he says, but he rules out more acquisitions.
In terms of his own career, having developed two fast-growth businesses, “it would be very easy for me at this stage to be absolutely worn out and jaded and thinking ‘what am I going to do next’ but it’s just not the case.”
Now with Innis & Gunn reaching the stage it has, his role includes continuing to look after the Canadian market and the South African market, with Innis & Gunn now exporting to more than 40 countries.
Sharp also flags changes to the way it is imported Stateside. “We’re incredibly ambitious for our business in the US as a result but we’re every bit as ambitious in Canada, Sweden and in the UK.
“I think the next two biggies are going to be France and South Africa,” he adds. Regarding the former, Innis & Gunn and Grupo Diego Zamora in April announced the creation of joint-venture company Paris-based SIP DRINKS to import and distribute their respective drinks brands throughout the French market. Regarding South Africa, Sharp highlights the potential of the emergence in the country of the “middle-class premium beer drinker and craft fits right into that”.
Back in its domestic market, Sharp also notes statistics released last month by VisitScotland showing the growing importance of craft beer to Scotland. The tourism organisation in fact said the sector is worth nearly £900m a year to Scotland’s visitor economy, while the potential growth available in Scotland to capitalise on totals £881m.
Looking ahead ten years, Sharp would love to see “craft beer in every bar in every international hotel brand, in every little pub in the Highlands. I just want to see craft beer achieve its real potential. That would feel like a real win.”
And in terms of his own career at present, he says: “I feel a sense of excitement and relief. Innovation is what we love to do, and the new structure of the business and the brewery now completely frees me up to go and focus on this.
“I genuinely feel like I’ve been reborn in the business and it’s a really exciting time for me personally. I feel very lucky.”
Born: 1972, Aberdeen.
Education: George Watson’s College, Edinburgh, before studying chemistry at Sheffield University.
First job: Cask washing and barrel rolling at Caledonian Brewery.
Ambition: To be a musician. I’m pretty good on the guitar but sadly my true talent lay in chemistry!
What car do you drive: Land Rover.
Music: Mumford & Sons, U2.
Kindle or book: Either.
Reading material: Rebus, I look forward to John Rebus having his first pint of Innis & Gunn!
Can’t live without: My kids.
What makes you angry: Thoughtlessness.
Favourite place: West coast of Scotland, preferably at sunset with a pint of Innis & Gunn, a huge seafood platter and good friends.
Best thing about your job: Being creative, and working with passionate and talented people to build a great brand.