Edinburgh & South-East Scotland

Campaign for Real Ale

Campaign for Real Ale

Russell Sharp

Wednesday 12 July 2023

Russell Sharp, who helped save and revive the fortunes of the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh, died earlier this year, aged 83.

The success of the Caley, as it’s popularly known, and its leading brand, Deuchar’s IPA, helped kick start a beer revolution in Scotland. Inspired by Caley, scores of new breweries have come on the scene, offering choice to drinkers in a country dominated by the thin lagers of McEwan’s and Tennents. The brewery was launched in 1869 by George Lorimer and Robert Clark who used the hard waters of the “Charmed Circle” – wells beneath the city of Edinburgh – to fashion beers for the local market but also for North-east England.

They used the Caledonian Railway that ran alongside the brewery to send supplies of a distinctive beer called Scotch Bitter to pubs serving mining and shipbuilding communities in Newcastle and Sunderland. In 1919 the large Vaux Brewery in Sunderland bought Lorimer & Clark but the decline of heavy industry in the region post World War Two and falling sales of Scotch Bitter led to Vaux closing Lorimer & Clark in 1987.

A buyout was led by Russell Sharp and Dan Kane, CAMRA’s Scotland Organiser. They changed the name to the Caledonian Brewery and designed a portfolio of traditional Scottish beers, including 70 Shilling and 80 Shilling ales. The beers were produced with equipment that included coppers heated by direct flame. Russell claimed the system created a good “rolling boil”, drawing bitterness and aroma from the hops, and stopped the wort – the sugary extract boiled with hops -- becoming stewed.

Russell’s background was in the whisky industry. He worked as a chemist for 16 years for Seagrams, best known for its leading brand Chivas Regal. He rose to become chief chemist and took an intense interest in how alcohol aged in wood – an interest that helped his sons in later life.

Production at the Caley was small to begin with but sales grew to 50,000 barrels a year with the success of Deuchar’s IPA (3.8 per cent). Tragically, Dan Kane died of leukaemia in 1992 but with Russell he had researched and launched Deuchar’s, which went on to account for 65 per cent of the brewery’s output. The recipe came from Robert Deuchar’s Brewery that started life in Newcastle in 1869 but moved to Edinburgh in the 1920s. It was bought by Newcastle Breweries in 1954 and closed in 1961. In Scotland, IPA-style beers are more often known as Export – as seen with McEwan’s malt-driven Export -- and Deuchar’s interpretation was more in the English tradition of being pale in colour with a strong hop character.

The recipe has changed under different owners but the Sharp and Kane version was based on Scottish Golden Promise pale malt with a touch of darker crystal malt and English Fuggles and Styrian Goldings hops.

Sales of Deuchar’s boomed in Scotland and it became a national brand when it won the prestigious CAMRA Champion Beer of Britain trophy in 2002 and was available as far away as Cornwall. But there was a downside to the success of the beer – it attracted attention from bigger players in the brewing industry. In 2000 Scottish & Newcastle Breweries bought a 30 per cent stake in Caley and went on to buy the remaining 70 per cent in 2008.

But before he stepped away from the brewery, Russell helped his sons Dougal and Neil create a new beer business that went on to achieve international success.

Dougal was head brewer at Caley and he and Russell were intrigued when the whisky distiller William Grant asked them in 2002 to supply some strong ale for one of their Cask Reserve whiskies. The plan was to infuse the casks with flavour from the beer that would then be discarded but workers at Grant’s sampled the beer and found it delicious.

Dougal and his brother Neil decided to create a business making oak-aged beer and in 2003 Innis & Gunn was borne, using the brother’s middle names. Russell used his expertise from his Chivas Regal days to advise the brothers on oak-ageing.

There are now several beers in the I&G portfolio but Original (6.6 per cent), the main brand, has a 77-day maturation period. This includes a 30-day rest period in American white oak casks. The beer then continues to age in a “marrying tun” where the flavours infuse and mellow.

Original has become an international phenomenon with sales to the United States, Canada and many other countries. It has won the coveted Queen’s Award for Industry.

Russell became chairman of I&G and helped design other oak-aged beers using Irish whiskey casks and rum casks.

When he finally retired he left a legacy of saving a historic brewery and fashioning new beers with his sons. In his final days he saw an important element of his work destroyed when Heineken, which had swallowed Scottish & Newcastle, announced it would close Caledonian and axe a vital element of Scotland’s proud brewing heritage that Russell had done so much to cherish.

This obituary by Roger Protz first appeared in What's Brewing.