#HappyBirthdayJarl – The Story of Jarl
Water from the Glen Fyne hills, malted barley and a little wheat, our house yeast and Citra hops. A handful of simple ingredients making up a simple recipe, brewed on a simple brew kit, in a repurposed dairy barn in a quiet corner of Scotland in early summer 2010 – it’s fair to say our flagship beer had fairly humble beginnings.
This is the story of Jarl, celebrating its tenth birthday this summer, in the words of those who have watched it grow from a one-off festival special, to one of Scotland’s favourite beers. We’ve heard a lot of different versions of the Jarl origins story over the years, from brewers, writers and drinkers, so it’s probably about time we went on record with our version of events.
Jarl was first brewed in 2010, created by then Head Brewer, Wil Wood, who had moved up from Peterborough four years earlier. Wil previously brewed at Oakham Ales, which is where the story really starts.
“Each year I’d travel back down to Peterborough to visit friends and family for Christmas,” shares Wil Wood, Fyne Ales head brewer from 2006-2012. “While down visiting in December 2009, I caught up with some of the Oakham team who told me they’d just got in this amazingly fruity new American hop, Citra, after flying it over from the USA the previous month. I thought ‘I’ve got to get hold of some of that’.”
It wasn’t until January that Wil was able to order the hops from our UK supplier, Charles Faram. “I said – ‘how much Citra can you give me?’ and he replied ‘how do you even know about that?’” Wil remembers. After some back and forth, Wil was able to secure 70kg, enough for ten brews of a simple single-hop Citra ale.
The Citra hops didn’t actually arrive in Glen Fyne until April 2010, at which point the decision was made to wait a few weeks and time the first brew of the new Citra beer to launch at Fyne Ales very first beer festival in early June 2010, making it the first Citra beer brewed in Scotland, and second in the UK. But what should it be called?
From 2003-2009, Fyne Ales annual summer special had been called Somerled, a 4% classic British mildly-fruity blonde ale designed for drinking in the sunshine.”Somerled was named after the 12th century lord of Argyll and Celtic hero who drove the vikings out of Argyll, so in naming our next summer special, we wanted to flip history on its head and give the vikings their revenge – driving the Somerled beer out of the west of Scotland,” explains Fyne Ales Head Brewer, Malcolm Downie, who worked under Wil during the creation of Jarl. “Jarls were the viking lords or ‘earls’ and it was a simple, one-word name that we all liked.”
Wil goes a bit further “There’s a legend that I love, that the 11th century king of Scotland, Edgar, told the viking jarls that they could claim any land they could sail to – intending that they could take all of the islands off the west coast of Scotland,” he explains. “However, there’s a 1-mile stretch of land separating East and West Loch Tarbert, so instead of sailing south and around the Campbeltown peninsula, the vikings simply ordered their men to pick up and carry their longboats across the isthmus so they could claim the lands on the other side too.”
So we had a recipe featuring one of the world’s newest and most exciting hops, a name inspired by the history of Fyne Ales home in Argyll – all we needed to do was brew it, and throw a party to launch it.
“It was a fairly uneventful brew day, as I remember. I think at that point we were only brewing five times a week on the 10BBL kit, so things weren’t crazy,” reflects Malcolm. “I do remember digging out the copper after the first Jarl brew and being overwhelmed by the incredible smell – I remember thinking ‘bloody hell, if that’s how much is left in the spent hops, how much has gone into the beer!”
In the time between Oakham’s first brew at the end of 2009 and the launch of Jarl on Saturday 19 June 2010, word had gotten out in the beer world about Citra and there was a good level of buzz around the launch of Jarl – set for the very first FyneFest (then just known as ‘Beer Fest’) in June 2010 – an event staffed by Fyne Ales drayman, Archie MacInnes, and enjoyed by Scottish beer writer, Robbie Pickering.
“Oh it was busy, people went mad for Jarl” remembers Archie. “We didn’t stop pouring until it ran out – people were getting in the queue for it, getting their pint and then joining the back of the queue again to get another pint.”
Robbie, in his post-event review, seemingly wasn’t wowed by his first Jarl experience: “ Well, it tastes pale and hoppy. It’s a damn good beer but Citra is so over-hyped that any actual beer made with it will be underwhelming compared to the expectation” he wrote at the time, though he’s perhaps had a change of heart over the last ten years… “I was very surprised when I reread what I’d written – I don’t know, I remember it being delightful when I think back to the festival now and I’m still drinking it ten years later so I must have liked it well enough.”
When Jarl was first brewed, Fyne Ales already had three pale and hoppy beers in our year-round line-up – Piper’s Gold had been joined by Hurricane Jack and Avalanche in 2008 and 2009. According to Wil, he knew Piper’s Gold’s days were numbered pretty quickly after seeing the response to Jarl – “I remember being at the festival and watching people enjoying Jarl and turning to Jamie [Delap, Fyne Ales MD] and saying ‘there’s our new year-round beer’ – I knew we were on to a winner.”
“Before Jarl, we’d been looking to make the ideal session beer, a quintessentially British cask session beer with a long, gentle bitter finish that refreshes and makes people come back for another pint,” but Jamie wasn’t convinced it would definitely be Jarl. “The initial response was amazing, but I don’t think I was certain that it would replace Piper’s Gold right away- we didn’t know if we were going to be able to get enough Citra for a start!” In time, Wil’s prediction came to pass and Jarl became a permanent fixture in the brew schedule from 2011, after securing plenty of additional Citra.
Following its FyneFest debut, Jarl found its way to Edinburgh a week later to appear on the bar at the Scottish Real Ale Festival – earning the title of “find of the festival” from TheBeercast’s Richard Taylor, who also went on to name it one of his Best New Beers of 2010. A rebrew was almost immediate, and Jarl’s star was on the rise.
Jarl’s reputation grew and grew – bolstered by picking up a host of regional Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) and Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) awards in 2011 and 2012, before going on to win three major CAMRA awards in 2013: Champion Beer of Scotland in July, followed by Overall Champion British Golden Ale and Bronze Champion Beer of Britain in August. Unsurprisingly, we needed more Jarl.
“At the time we were still brewing on the original 10BBL (1600-litre) kit and between 2009 and 2013 we went from brewing five times a week, to nine times a week, and it still wasn’t enough beer,” remembers Malc. “The beer was sold before the casks were filled, and from 2011 to 2013, we went from brewing Jarl once a week, to twice a week, to four, five, six times a week – we couldn’t make it fast enough.” Plans were put in place in 2012 to significantly expand the brewery’s capacity and in 2014, the new 40BBL (6500-litre) brew kit was commissioned, significantly expanding our ability to brew our year-round beers and helping Jarl grow into one of Scotland’s favourite and best-known cask beers.
“For me, Jarl cemented the direction we were travelling in, as a brewery,” reflects Jamie. “When we started in 2001, we were making fairly traditional, very British style beers but as we got towards the turn of the decade, things started to shift. We’d already brewed Avalanche and Hurricane Jack by 2010, but Jarl to me was the proof of concept that we could bring together the best of British brewing traditions with the best of modern craft beer.”
And is that the key to Jarl’s success? Why, such a simple beer has gone from strength to strength over the past ten years? “For me, it works because it is what it is – simple, unfussy but well-made and with enough flavour to appeal to traditional and modern drinkers alike,” Malcolm ponders. “I know we like to call it a ‘modern classic’ on the website and all that, but to me it is a good description – it brings together those two separate worlds and I don’t think there’s many beers that do it quite as well as Jarl does.”
It’s perhaps fitting that for many, the place where the beer made its debut is the place it’s best enjoyed – it’s not uncommon for folk to join us as FyneFest and, of the 250-plus beers available, drink only one all weekend – such is the power of Jarl.
“Nothing comes close to drinking Jarl fresh from the source in Glen Fyne, with a plate of freshly shucked Loch Fyne oysters to hand,” Matt Curtis, writer & founder of Pellicle magazine, counts himself among Jarl’s fans. “It’s surely one of the finest beer experiences in the world.”
Perhaps had 2020 worked out differently, there would have been 3,000 people singing happy birthday to Jarl, pints in hand, at FyneFest earlier this summer – as it is, we hope you’ve enjoyed reading the story of our little Citra hero, hopefully with a pint, can or bottle in hand and will join us in raising a glass to many, many more years of Jarl!