Chatting with a brewery owner isn’t uncommon in my day job. However, when the brewery owner in question reveals they were formerly a minister at a Scottish Baptist Church… well, that is unique.
You can imagine my fascination when Fergus Stokes revealed this when we discussed his background leading up to the launch of Highland brewery Ardgour Ales, which he now runs with his wife Lizzy.
And that’s not all.
The 64-year-old was also a drug and alcohol counsellor in a primary treatment unit, a private practice psychotherapist, and later the CEO of a charity providing services to adults with a learning disability or autism.
“Running a brewery tap and running a church are not that different,” says Fergus, who was a Baptist minister from 1983 to 1992.
“There are lovely people who need to talk, unpleasant and aggressive people who need to be managed, and most of all a community to attend to.
“In both settings, peoples’ experience is what matters – they may not remember what the sermon was about or how the beer tasted (although each of those things is hoped for), but they will always remember how they felt in that place.”
He has had quite the career journey, so let’s get into what ignited his love for craft ale.
Raise a glass and cheers to the beers that can be enjoyed ‘anywhere in the British Isles’
Fergus didn’t hesitate in sharing that Ardgour Ales is in fact his first stint in the food and drink industry.
The brewery’s first test batches were made in the summer of 2020. Shortly after – in September – its first beer was sold.
Initially planning on being a cask-only brewery, this had to alter due to the pandemic and “all the pubs being closed”.
“We started to package beer into bottles as well as casks and established an online shipping service,” Fergus says.
“Bottles can be shipped anywhere in the British Isles. They can also purchased in all the village stores in Sunart, Morvern and Ardnamurchan.
“The cask ales travel to pubs in Inchree, Fort William, Glencoe, Strathyre and sometimes further afield but can always be found in our tasting bar/beer tent in Ardgour.”
Fergus and Lizzy employ seven local people at the business to brew, package and sell the ales, as well as serve customers.
“Most brew days last about eight hours,” he adds.
“Then it takes about a week for ales to ferment, two or three days to chill and then package into a sealed cask or bottle for secondary fermentation.
“It therefore takes a minimum of three weeks from deciding to make a beer to being able to drink it. Barley wines take a lot longer to brew, and lagers take a lot longer to ferment at a lower temperature.”
Why you should hop to Ardgour Ales’ brew-tiful tasting bar and beer tent
Ardgour Ales sits on the grounds of the village’s old manse on the edge of the remote Morvern and Ardnamurchan peninsulas.
It is based in a brewshed, which was built on the grounds of Fergus and Lizzy’s home.
The tasting bar and beer tent sells wines, spirits, ciders, soft drinks, the brand’s beer porfolio, and more.
Snacks and light meals such as venison burgers, bacon rolls and vegetarian options are also available. Pizza is often served on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons, too.
Fergus said: “Drinkers and diners have views to Glenscaddle, Caol, Blarmachfoldach, Ben Nevis and the Ballachulish Horseshoe from the grounds.”
As for Ardgour Ales’ portfolio, it comprises 10 different products. They are named after the feral goats of Ardgour.
Eas Geal (white waterfall), Bainne nan Gobhar (milk of the goat), and Gobhar Reamhar (stout goat) are some examples.
“My personal favourite is Gobhar Odhar (dun-coloured goat),” adds the brewery owner. “It is a malt-forward 4.3% Best Bitter that feeds the soul.
“The most important ingredient in our beer is Highland water. The hops come from all over the world — Poland, Slovenia, USA and England — but our malted barley is grown in the UK.”
From discovering ‘the real ale experience’ in the 80s to turning a former ‘crumbling manse’ into a successful Highland brewery
Fergus and Lizzy moved from Scotland to Lancashire for work in the late 1980s.
Fergus said: “We discovered that the beer there was very different from the fizzy, bland offering that was then on offer in our pubs.
“My palate was soon trained to appreciate the real ale experience. This was all long before the emergence of the current American-influenced kegged craft beer.
“As plans firmed up for our final move to the West Highlands, my wife, hoping to prevent the onset of BRHS (bored retired husband syndrome), suggested we investigate starting a microbrewery.
“I made enquiries with a brewery near where we lived and they were happy to accept my offer of free work in exchange for knowledge about the brewing process.
“That experience was invaluable. Along with undertaking formal brewing training, it set me on the road to opening Ardgour Ales.”
The couple purchased and renovated their then “crumbling manse” in 2012.
Now, Fergus is encouraging anyone with a vague plan for a lifestyle business to “give it a go”, like he did.
“I have particularly enjoyed the creativity of designing new beer concepts, building recipes and methods and then seeing and tasting the finished product.
“The joy of creating a really fine beer by hand from simple ingredients then having it recognised as excellent by winning blind-tasted awards at competitions is immense.
“Now that the Corran Ferry is back on, we hope to develop the on-site hospitality further for next season. It’s lovely to see families, climbers, dog-walkers and beer-tickers all enjoying the views, the food and the ale together.”
You can also read Karla’s latest articles in the P&J’s Food and Drink magazine, which you’ll find inside your Press and Journal newspaper every Saturday.