How do you start a brewery? For Sonny Priest, of Unst — which is the northernmost of Scotland's Shetland Islands and thus the northernmost land mass in Great Britain — it all began after an evening of, well, beer.
"I'd never even been inside a brewery when I got the idea to do this," Priest tells me when I visit him in early July at his Valhalla Brewery — which is, not surprisingly, the U.K.'s northernmost brewery — near the Unst hamlet of Haroldswick, about as far up as you can go in the Shetlands without getting wet.
The Shetlands — often called just "Shetland" — are a sub-arctic archipelago forming part of the dividing line between the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. The islands are fewer than 200 miles from Denmark's Faroe Islands and are about 200 miles closer to Bergen, Norway, than they are to Edinburgh, Scotland's capital.
Not surprisingly, the Scandinavian influence here is strong. Place names like Skeld, Vidlin, Laxo, and Yell betray Nordic roots, and indeed the Vikings conquered the islands in the eighth and ninth centuries A.D., and Shetland was a Norwegian province until 1469. The citizenry here used to speak a variation on the Norse language known as Norn, and even today the official motto of Shetland is "Með Lögum Skal Land Byggja" — which means "the land shall be built by laws" and is identical to the motto of the Icelandic national police.
Thus "Valhalla" — the mythological hall of slain heroes, home of the god Odin, that is often described as the Viking version of heaven.
"I'd left school at 15 and had no qualifications whatever," the amiable Priest explains, "but I got a job working as a carpenter." After the discovery of new oilfields in the North Sea in the 1960s, the Chevron Corporation established a large base on Unst, and an airport was built at Baltasound to transport workers back and forth to the offshore oilfields. Priest got a job in the control tower there and worked at the airport for 16 years.
Then Chevron relocated further south in Shetland and in 1996 the airport was mothballed (the runways are maintained and it is still used for occasional emergency landings and training flights). "Suddenly," says Priest, "39 workers were made redundant [laid off]. I didn't want to go back to being a carpenter, so tried to think what else to do." The Shetland Islands Council offered some financing to the laid-off workers to generate new jobs. "I thought I might open a launderette," Priest says, "because there wasn't one on Unst, but then my cousin opened one in Lerwick [Shetland's capital, far to the south] and got the Royal Air Force contract that I'd hoped to get."
One night, Priest and some similarly out-of-work friends went to the firehouse to have a few beers. "In fact, we had quite a few," he confesses. "There were three steps coming out of the firehouse and the doorframe was low, and you had to duck your head down. I went out through the door and one of my friends came right after me, but he forgot to duck and he went sprawling and skinned his elbow. Just like that the idea came to me, and I said 'I'm going to set up a brewery to keep you all drinking.'"
He got in touch with one of Scotland's best-known beer experts, Graham Stewart, emeritus professor of brewing and distilling and Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, and asked him how to proceed. "He said I should either take the time to learn how to brew myself or hire somebody who knows what he's doing," Priest continues. "I hired a graduate brewer from the university for six months and learned everything I could and then took over." He set up a small operation in a building in Baltasound in 1997. "Since then," he adds, "I've trained half a dozen brewers myself.”
He also moved slightly further north to Saxa Vord, the abandoned site of an RAF radar station that had been redeveloped as a modest "resort" property. There, in a large converted warehouse, Priest now makes six ales, each very different from its counterparts but all of them full of flavor. Auld Rock (that being what expatriate Shetlanders call their island) is dark and rich, with a malty nose and a surprisingly crisp finish. White Wife — named for a ghost said to sometimes appear in the cars of lone males driving near the brewery — is, says Priest, "like an IPA, though it isn't one." It's light in color and has a pleasant bitterness. Simmer Dim is the local dialect for the phenomenon observed on Unst on June 21 each year, the longest day of the year, when the sun sets after midnight and rises again a few minutes later. It, too, is light and bitter, but finishes drier and more astringent than the White Wife.
The darkest, richest ale Priest makes is Sjolmet Stout. "Sjolmet was a Norn word meaning a dark-bodied animal with a light color on its head," Priest tells me. He points to a poster on the wall of his little tasting room, showing 63 different sheep, each with its own distinctive markings. "Norn was a very concise language," he says. "They could say in one word what it takes us 10 to say." The ale is chocolately, with a toasty malt flavor — Priest hopes to soon start malting his own grain — accented by sharp hops; the foamy head is appropriately light.
The two remaining Valhalla ales make use of an ancient variety of barley called bere, considered to be the oldest continuously cultivated grain in Great Britain, today grown almost exclusively on Shetland and its neighbor just to the south, Orkney. Old Scatness, named for an important archeological site in southern Shetland, is a light, bitter, but faintly smoky ale made from bere, oats, and wheat, with a touch of heather honey added — a reference, Priest says, to the favorite tipple of the Vikings, mead.
Finally, Island Bere is a medium-light ale made entirely with bere. "It's very difficult to use," says Priest, "because it's so pungent." He experimented with various kinds of hops, settling on Cascade, American hops that lend a citrus note to the ale, offsetting the richness and fruity flavor lent by the ancient barley.
Priest has talked to American importers a few times, he says, but nothing has come of it. His production is small enough that he doesn't really need to worry about export markets — but Valhalla ales are widely found around Shetland, and are available (and well worth looking for) at some specialty shops and pubs in Edinburgh. Priest has also shipped some ale to Valhalla country itself — Norway — where it is reportedly much appreciated.