ROBERT LINDSAY OWNS AND OPERATES FOUR SIX°NORTH BARS ACROSS SCOTLAND, AND DUNDEE DYNAMO. HE ALSO COUNTS THE MARINE HOTEL IN ABERDEENSHIRE AND THE ADJACENT BREWERY IN HIS PORTFOLIO. JASON CADDY CAUGHT UP WITH HIM IN EDINBURGH’S SIX°NORTH ON HOWE STREET.
A mere six degrees of separation between us all is no guarantee of being united with everybody on the planet but Robert Lindsay, 49, aka BrewBob, is a man who does his darndest to unite beer lovers via his multiple pub business, six°north. He named it so because the HQ, in Laurencekirk, Aberdeenshire, is six degrees north of Brussels and Belgian beers are close to his heart.
Belgium was, in fact, the inspiration behind his six°north bars, of which there are five and counting. The first one opened in 2013. Today, and five licensed premises and a brewery later, the beer offering has diversified beyond strictly Belgian and Robert employs 80 people, owns Stonehaven’s Marine Hotel, as well as four six°north bars located in Aberdeen, Glasgow, Stonehaven and Howe Street in Edinburgh, which is where we met for our catch-up. He also owns Dundee Dynamo. His first premises was The Creel Inn, in the wee fishing village of Catterline, which he sold in 2012 to finance the building of a brewery next to The Marine Hotel, which he opened in 2013.
As we got down to business, and Robert’s someone that exudes a professional yet friendly reserve, it was obvious that this is a man who knows his onions. Said Robert, “There are some 2,000 breweries in UK so the marketplace is crowded. I don’t complain about access to trade at all and I don’t complain about people being in this environment, but this is a busy environment in which you really have to work hard to get your product out there. Everybody’s dream used to be to retire and run a pub. Now the dream is to run a brewery until they find out it’s too much like hard work and change their minds.”
Robert’s also witnessed some seismic shifts in the rapidly evolving world of beer. “The beer world moves very very fast, “he said. “In just over a decade the landscape has changed beyond recognition, and that has been led by Brewdog initially and many others coming up behind them nationally. The bigger brewers – like Beavertown and Camden Town – then they all moved on to the next evolution of their journey and there are many people that have come behind that who are occupying space they held previously. Maybe not in as dominant a position as their forerunners had because there are now far more of us.”
And what about the profile of your typical beer drinker these days? Said Robert, “The beer drinker has evolved over time. They have educated themselves through trial and error and they have been educated by the plethora of ‘meet the brewers’ and takeovers that have been happening across the country. Now the routes to market, through distribution, through individual brewers efforts, means that good product is available in grassroots bars. There’s also a good gender and age mix, although the predominant age range is 25 to 45, I’d say.
“The beer market is extremely competitive too, of course, and while you do require to have a good product and a product that stands out, you’re also required to have a brand that backs that up, but not only a brand, but service and people.”
As sole proprietor I also had to ask him what he identified from that vantage point as being the pressures of running a business. He said, “Time. That’s a biggie. If you run a business personally, it’s a difficult balance to be able to give as much time to the people that you want to, especially as the business grows. You have to change your style and adapt to what’s there.”
He continued, “There are financial pressures too of course. People assume that running a brewery is simply making beer cheap and sell it at ‘x’, but wage overheads have rocketed through the roof in the last few years and the same has happened with rates and rents. Then there’s the legislative stuff – there are lots of hoops you must jump through. The margins are tight and as a result we are seeing breweries close. It will get to a point where we will see breweries drop off and breweries come up. I think that we’ll continue to see growth but it’ll be flatter than it has been.”
So why the emphasis on Belgian beers and how did the business first get off the ground? Explained Robert, “I’d been in the hospitality industry when I first left school and worked in hotels, bars and restaurants in Perth and Aberdeen. I managed The Station Hotel in Perth and The Globe Bar in Aberdeen. It’d always been my desire to come back to it, but maybe on a wage that you could live on! I always had it in the back if my mind that I wanted to run a hotel with a good bar and restaurant. It wasn’t a burning ‘I must do tomorrow’, though.”
He continued, “I was fortunate enough to get a job in Belgium in 1999 and so moved over there. I didn’t go to college that was too much like hard work instead I went into IT and ended up in various industries, from telecoms to oil and gas, to the NHS, in Scottish telecoms and then ended up working for Belgium’s mobile telecoms equivalent, Proximus.” He soon began immersing himself in the Belgian culture, which is more than Poirot and The Smurfs did. Said Robert, “I didn’t really do the ex-pat thing, I shared an apartment with a Belgian guy and we become quite close friends and so I got to know a lot about Belgium through him and his family. We remain friends to this day. He led my hand in the ways of Belgian cuisine and beer.
“I was there for two to three years from 1999 and I ended up travelling around Belgium and discovering lots of different breweries and beer. Nowhere’s far. The coast was an hour from where I was, The Ardenne was an-hour-and-a-half, and it was brilliant. I’d always loved good product, but I also fell in love with the cuisine.”
It was at this point that he returned to Scotland to get a qualification under his belt. “I wanted to study brewing when I came back but I wasn’t really interested in doing a masters in distilling and brewing at Heriot Watt, plus the choices were reasonably limited. I ended up studying in Sunderland. It was Brewlab at the time and they were doing one of their earlier courses. It was about four months long and it was a good opportunity to learn at a very early stage and at a very practical sense. I solidified whet I learned when I worked at the Houston Brewery in Houston, Renfrewshire,” he said.
But, as Robert explained, it wasn’t long before he set his sights on making his dream of his own business materialise. “The main idea was to return home and open a brewery in 2002. We looked at a number of sites and none of them really came off at the time. It was always really important to be able to serve the product to the customer as well, rather than just brewing beer. It’s about a culture. It’s about a story you tell when you’re brewing your beer. The joint experience.”
He continued, “The plan was that I always wanted to have an outlet and in 2002 The Creel Inn came up for sale. I thought I would do that first because the brewing sites hadn’t come off. But it was always my intention to take the brewery to fruition after that. But it was my first business and I got a little waylaid.”
It was at this point that Robert started importing Belgium beers. He told me, “We had Belgian beers on draught and we cooked with Belgian beers and I suppose that we were one of the first to be doing that in Scotland.”
Next step on the acquisition trail for him was Stonehaven’s The Marine Hotel in 2007. Said Robert, “The Marine had kind of fallen on its arse a bit from being a tremendous beer bar in real ale terms back in the late 90s. We refurbished it from top to bottom and really took it back to where it was. We were champion beer bar of Scotland in first year. Now we have 24 taps there and 100-odd Belgian beers. The landscape has changed hugely since 2007 and the product line-up reflects that too. It’s a real mixture of beer bar, community bar, restaurant and hotel.”
It was 2012 when Robert first put the wheels in motion to build the brewery. He said, “I sold The Creel in 2012 which enabled the purchase of a building that was ideal for the brewery and close to The Marine Hotel. We opened the brewery with the first brew happening on March 30th 2013. Then we saw a site in Aberdeen for six°north that really was the Nirvana I was chasing and we took it on and we basically ran out of beer very quickly so we had to, reasonably smartly, try to find another site for the brewery, which did, down in Laurencekirk. The oil industry was really high at that time, local rents and rates were astronomical in Aberdeen and Stonehaven so we went slightly further south.”
Robert is proud of having created a business that employs a lot of people. He said, “We built our business around the local community and employed many people from families, and we have tried to identify where people would want a career. I’d say that we have been blessed with good people, and this has helped us grow.”
He continued, “You get to the point where you run out of ammunition coming through so you have to look a slightly broader field, and now that the industry is slightly more mature, there are a lot of good professionals out there in the beer environment. And we have started to take on a few, as we look towards out next evolution, while still maintaining those that have got us this far.”
There could also be an expansion on the horizon for the company. Said Robert, “We added Dundee’s six°north in December last year and we’d like to expand further. What I find exciting about the future is the fact that beer can now come back to people’s locals and we no longer have to create beer-specific venues. People can actually go back home and drink at their local with family and friends and get a quality product with a bit of diversity. I’d consider opening in England too, because it has some of the best beer bars you can find, especially in the north, like Newcastle’s Free Trade Inn.”
Away from the job, Robert is a keen cyclist but the business is clearly never far from his thoughts. He said, “Customers like to see the owner, the events like to see the owner, the export customers like to see the owner. Luckily I enjoy the social aspect, but as you get older the waistline becomes harder to maintain, so I’m cycling more than I used to. But I still recognise that I have to support people, plus I’m the founder after all and if I don’t really drink and socialise, then it doesn’t really work, does it!”