Caledonian's Deuchars IPA has this year become the first Scottish Champion Beer of Britain. Ben McFarland discovers the brewer is ready to capitalise on its victory.
The Champion Beer of Britain prize at the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) can often be a poisoned chalice.
In the past, when the coveted award has been bestowed on smaller brewers in recognition of their brilliance, the brewing capacity of some has been stretched to breaking point as they struggle to cope with the ensuing upsurge in demand for the product.
This sometimes means the brewing of the champion beer has to be licensed out, the quality and consistency falters, and before you know it all the good work is undone with nothing left but a shiny gong on the mantelpiece and a few nostalgic newspaper cuttings!
This misfortune, however, is unlikely to befall the latest victor at the GBBF. In fact, for Caledonian Brewery, which became the first Scottish brewer to win the award with its Deuchars IPA brand, the timing could hardly have been better.
"It's been a long time coming but it's a very happy coincidence," said David Brown, marketing director. "This time last year, we would have perhaps been embarrassed but now we're all set up capacity-wise. We're looking to maximise the win and we're waiting for the phone to ring."
The victory at Olympia is testament not only to the growth of Caledonian and Deuchars but also the resurgence of cask ale north of the border.
When Deuchars was first launched in 1991, volumes of cask ale in Scotland were high but quality was very low. Ten years on and the reverse is true, with brands adopting a premium niche in a beer market still dominated by mainstream lagers.
Managing director Stephen Crawley attributes both the growth of its brands and the resurgence in the Scottish cask ale sector overall to a greater focus on the quality issue. "The joke used to be that beer is rubbish in Scotland but now people are realising that what you get in the glass is as important as the advertising," he said.
Caledonian has undertaken a number of quality initiatives, including a programme with JD Wetherspoon, and is the first Scottish brewer to back the Cask Marque scheme. "We have tried to maintain the quality all the way through and we like to think this has helped arrest the decline of cask ale in Scotland.
"We have done with cask ale in Scotland what Bulmers has done with the cider market. We have taken an increasing share of a declining market but we want to grow that market and the arrival of English pub groups will help grow the sector even further."
Having gained an established following for both Deuchars and its stronger 80/- brand in Edinburgh and around the east coast, where 80 per cent of cask ale in Scotland is drunk, Caledonian has more recently secured listings in Glasgow where lager very much rules the roost.
"We want to become the Guinness of Edinburgh," said Stephen. However, the ultimate goal lies south of the border. "The big opportunity is England, and we now have 100 permanent accounts and in some we are knocking the local hero off the bar."
So far, Caledonian has forged links with Laurel, Enterprise, wholesaler East West, Carlsberg-Tetley and the Beer Seller among others.
"As the distribution system has matured, it has been easier to gain a foothold in the English market and volume has grown."
Brand awareness down south will no doubt be raised by the city's increasing popularity as a weekend destination.
Since the arrival of the Scottish Parliament and low-cost airlines such as easyJet and British Midland, the capital has become an ideal hot spot for those looking to get away.
Not that Stephen is relying solely on word of mouth as a marketing plan. Since being appointed as managing director last November, he has installed a whole new team to move the business forward and mastermind the brewer's Anglo-expansion.
"We are changing from a brewer into a sales and marketing company with a bloody good brewery," said Stephen. "Sales in England were expected to grow by 30 per cent in the on-trade but I'm looking at 50 per cent following the GBBF victory".
David Brown, previously at Allied Domecq, has been appointed as director of marketing while Martin Kellaway, former senior national account manager at Fuller's, has come on board with the unenviable task of "looking after England".
"Martin is a key appointment," said David. "He's someone who knows the London market back to front and it's a very important market for us - there are a lot of Scots and cask ale is popular."
A relaunch of Deuchars has been earmarked for early next year and David is looking at introducing new bottle sizes (both big and small) in an attempt to break into style bars and food-led outlets.
David was quick to dismiss fears that Deuchars was going to arrive in England in a blaze of tartan, kilts and bagpipes. "The Scottish card is a very important one but we don't want to play it in a cheesy way - sampling is a crucial part of the marketing mix as we believe the most important thing is to get a quality pint of Deuchars into people's hands."
Deuchars IPA wins gold at GBBF (8 August 2002)