A short distance north east of Bridgend on the Port Askaig road, a sign points off to the left to "Islay House Square". Islay House Square was once the estate buildings and the steadings for Islay House, but is now home to a range of businesses, many run by local craftspeople. Hidden away in a corner of the square are the premises of Islay Ales, which are well worth seeking out.
Islay is an island with no fewer than eight distilleries, but only one brewery. Islay Ales' aim is to produce hand crafted, high quality, cask and bottle conditioned beers (more usually known as real ales) for sale in pubs and hotels on Islay, Jura and Colonsay or, in the case of the bottled product, more widely. For visitors to Islay who may know more about whisky than beer, real ale is usually defined as beer which has been brewed from traditional ingredients; which has been matured by secondary fermentation in the vessel (usually a cask or a bottle) from which it is dispensed; and which, critically, is served without the use of additional carbon dioxide to provide pressure or blanket the ale.
Visitors to the brewery find that Islay Ales' premises have two main areas. The shop and reception is an attractive space in which bottles of the company's ales can be purchased: and which has handpumps to allow the different ales produced to be sampled. This is also where last minute preparation such as labelling takes place.
Next door is the brewery itself. Small real ale breweries tend to occupy fairly functional spaces, and Islay Ales is no exception. Visitors calling in as part of a tour of Islay's distilleries might be surprised to find the whole brewing operation taking place in a single room which in terms of scale and style has little in common with modern distilleries.
Despite this, elements of the process, and some of the ingredients, are common between brewing and distilling. Islay Ales buys in its malted barley, like most distilleries, though the types used by the two industries are specific to each. The grain is then mashed, again as in a distillery, and the resulting brew is then fermented. The first major difference between the two processes happens before the fermentation begins. Most beers have an essential ingredient not used in making malt whisky: hops. These are introduced to the process when the wort - the liquid containing all the sugars from the malt - is boiled prior to cooling and fermentation, and provide an important part of the flavour of the ale that eventually emerges from the process.
In a distillery the moderately alcoholic liquor that emerges from the fermentation is the starting point for the real heart of the process, the distilling. In a brewery, what emerges from the fermenting vessels is close to the finished product, which is then placed in casks or bottles for its secondary fermentation.
The use in combination of different malts, different hops, and slight variations of process and timing, mean that many different styles of ale can be produced. At the time of writing Islay Ales produce seven different ales, though it is worth noting that a brewery's product range tends to evolve over time with new ales being introduced and older ones fading away. At Islay Ales the range extends from "Finlaggan Ale", a fruity hoppy ale with 3.7% alcohol by volume (ABV), to "Nerabus Ale", a "winter warmer" style of ale with a much darker colour and a higher alcohol content at 4.8% ABV.
Islay Ales was founded in 2003 by real ale enthusiasts Paul Hathaway, Paul Capper and Walter Schobert. Their shared interest in both beer and Islay led them to the natural conclusion that an island with so many distilleries really needed a brewery, and Islay Ales is the result.