Tastings School - Scotland's biggest little brewery

Tastings School

From basics to more advanced topics, the Beer School has all the info to expand your knowledge and enjoyment of your beers, ales and lagers.


Scotland's biggest little brewery

Ben McFarland visits Harviestoun, a brewery at the forefront of craft brewing in Scotland.

No-one knows quite how it happened but it has.

Where once they scoffed, beer boffins are now fawning over Scotland’s beer scene like a broody deer on IVF. The country that gave the world Scotch ales, shilling beers and potent brews packaged in purple tins so beloved by denizens of the United Kingdom’s “al-fresco community” is now leading the beer revolution like a frenzied Braveheart after one too many Irn Bru.

Scottish beer finds itself in fine fettle, part of an emerging “New World” brewing order (alongside the likes of Italy, Denmark and Japan) snapping at the heels of more established brewing nations with some esoteric ales and leftfield lagers.

Brewdog, Scotland’s answer to California’s Stone Brewing Co, is ruffling feathers with its big and boisterous beers; Innis & Gunn has wooed drinkers with whisky barrelled elixirs; the Orkney Brewery is creating some superb, seductive suds further north; ancient Scottish brewing recipes, involving heather and gooseberries, are being brought back to life by the William Bros brewery in Alloa; and there are many more micros and craft concerns brewing up some brilliant boutique beers.

Scotland’s engine of innovation was, however, first jump-started back in 1984 by Ken Brooker, a former Ford worker from Dagenham in South London. Some years earlier, the car company had sent Ken to Caledonia and, inspired by a home-brewing boss and the dearth of decent local beer, he abandoned automobiles for ales and set up his own brewery.

In a land of stoic, malty beers where the national tooth is sweeter than a baby chimp in a bikini, Ken opted to go against the grain, quite literally. On a homemade brewery installed within the thick stone walls of a farm in Dollar, a rural town between Edinburgh and Glasgow at the toes of the Hillfoots, Ken initially eschewed the local inclination for malty brews in favour of highly aromatic beers brewed with a variety of fresh and flowered hop varieties.

“We only use whole hop flowers,” said head brewer Stuart Cail, who joined Harviestoun 13 years ago. “It makes a huge difference to our beers. The beers simply wouldn’t be the same if you used oils or pellets. It’s like a Michelin-star chef using freeze-dried herbs and spices in lieu of fresh ones.” Within a few years and with demand rising, Ken’s makeshift microbrewery made way for a larger 10- barrel brewing system on which Ken and fellow former home-brewer Eric Harris concocted an array of adventurous ales.

Yet it was a citrusy, hop-laden blonde beer that captured drinkers’ imaginations. Named after Ken by his wife, Bitter & Twisted was a new take on the traditional bitter style. Brewed using four hop varieties – (Challenger, Hallertau and Celeia from Slovenia) and late-hopped with Styrian, it couldn’t have been less Scottish if it had tried but it rolled out the red carpet for the hordes of British golden ales that followed.

In 1999, Bitter & Twisted was named Champion Beer of Scotland and, four years later, it was crowned the Champion Beer of Britain by CAMRA. Demand for its aromatic charms both necessitated (and paid for) a 2004 move to a bigger 60 barrel ex-St. Austell brewery down the road from Dollar and a long way from the bucket that Brooker began brewing with in 1984.

And the awards kept coming, in 2007 Bitter & Twisted was awarded the prestigious title of World’s Best Ale in the annual World Beer Awards.

While this particular beer currently represents approximately 60 per cent of Harviestoun’s 7,500 barrel annual output, the brewery’s critical and commercial success can be equally attributed to its other beers.

Schiehallion, named after a local mountain, is a rare example of a caskconditioned lager. It’s bottom fermented at low temperatures using a lager yeast yet served at cellar temperature without filtration or added carbonation and hopped with Challenger, Hersbrucker lager hops, Styrian Golding and Hallertau.

It’s not all airy aromatics however, there was a dark side to Ken’s creativity. Old Engine Oil is Harviestoun’s blackest, most distinctive drop and was a daring departure from its flowery stable-mates. An ebony, opaque after-dinner ale, it works one’s bolts loose and coats one’s cogs of consciousness in a slick, silky shine. A high temperature mash, curtailed early to ensure the inferior ‘heads and tails’ are left behind, segues roast barley with oatmeal and pale malt for a gloopy, globular mouthfeel oozing dark chocolate tones and port flavours. A healthy dose of hops, the earthy Fuggles and tobacco-tinged Kent Goldings, steer it away from a stout towards an old ale with spice and liquorice.

Old Engine Oil flies in the face of the laws of fermentation by using the same bottom-fermenting lager yeast as the lighter beers. “We use one yeast strain as it behaves really well and gives a great flavour profile, it doesn’t overpower the hops and speciality malts in Bitter & Twisted and Schiehallion and nor does it complicate the dark malts and deep flavours of Old Engine Oil,” said Stuart.

“We originally used a lager and an ale yeast but the latter was prone to infection so we brewed the ale using the lager yeast and it worked just as well – if not better.

“Yeast doesn’t know what’s up or down or where to go, it just does what it does – eats sugars and releases CO2 and alcohol,” added Stuart. “Top and bottom fermenting yeast is not the important thing, it’s more the type of fermentation receptacle used and where you add the yeast. Lager yeast just happens to work better at lower temperatures.” In 2006, with more than 20 years on the clock and more silverware than a cyberman’s wardrobe, Ken handed the keys over to the Caledonian Brewery who tuned-up the marketing, the packaging and the distribution but dared not tinker with Harviestoun’s finely-tuned brewing machine. Yet when Caledonian was bought up by Scottish & Newcastle and subsequently Heineken, Harviestoun regained its independence via a management buy-out.

In the same year and to enormous acclaim – especially in the USA, Harviestoun unleashed the unique Ola Dubh, a beer borne out of Old Engine Oil yet reared in Scotch single malt whisky casks. In the world’s first official collaboration between a brewery and a world renowned whisky distiller, Harviestoun signed a 10 year deal with the award-winning Highland Park distillery in Orkney, one of only five whisky producers that still use traditional methods of malting and peating.

The joint venture, which sees Harviestoun get the pick of Highland Park’s barrels, has produced a trio of barrel-aged beers aged in casks that had previously housed either Highland Park 12, 16 or 30 year-old.

Pronounced “O-la doo” and meaning “black oil” in Gaelic, Ola Dubh is an awe-inspiring, extraordinarily elegant ale that, unlike some barrel-aged beers, isn’t onedimensionally wooden or whisky-ish.

While added complexity comes with age, a voluptuous, viscous vortex of vanilla, peat, port and spicy chocolate adorns all three expressions.

Served in snifters a slither below room temperature, they’re incredible alongside game or lamb, an ample cheese board and simply sublime with crème brulee that’s been given a jolly good brulée-ing.

The first batch of Ola Dubh, available in slickly packaged, numbered and boxed bottles, was snaffled up by the oh-so eager American market but Harviestoun is now dropping its dip stick into the UK speciality market too.

Tasting notes BITTER & TWISTED 4.2% It’s the delightful, delicately hoppy Bitter & Twisted that’s driven Harviestoun’s growth over the years. There’s a biscuity backbone of pale malt, with wisps of wheat to fluff up the head, and a kaleidoscopic coming together of peppery Challenger, Hallertau Hersbrucker and, for the aroma, the Celeia variety of Styrian Golding from Slovenia. A refreshing light ale full influenced by pear drop, lemon and grapefruit.

SCHIEHALLION 4.8% A lager so good, even CAMRA likes it.

Bottom-fermented lager yet caskconditioned at temperatures more readily associated with ale. A floral, honey-tinged aroma, medium-bodied with mellifluous citrus notes. Terrific texture.

PTARMIGAN 4.5% Harviestoun’s hidden treasure. Dark-copper coloured pale ale. Fruity, tangy and maltdriven with a spicy hop flourish on the finish. Treads on the toes of Scotch ales.

OLD ENGINE OIL 6% Darker than a Vietnam veteran’s flashback, kickstarted with rich, slightly scorched coffee, dark toffee, spicy hops, molasses and a delicate chocolate coating. Complex and indulgent.

OLA DUBH SPECIAL 12 YEAR OLD RESERVE 8% Glorious and gloopy, porter-like old ale oozing chocolate, espresso and vanilla pod.

OLA DUBH SPECIAL 16 YEAR OLD RESERVE 8% Opaque, indulgent and intense with a pitter-patter of peat, mocha, truffles and chocolate-orange. Earthy with a backdrop of resinous hops.

OLA DUBH SPECIAL 30 YEAR-OLD RESERVE 8% All hail Harviestoun’s ultimate after-dinner elixir. Deep maroon in hue and resembling the kind of viscous substance normally seen on sorry looking sea-birds. Blackberry and dark cherry, chocolate and blood orange with smoke, wood and vanilla layered on a sturdy trellis of toasty, roasty malt and oats. Marvellous.

Contact HARVIESTOUN BREWERY Alva Industrial Estate, Alva Clackmannanshire, FK12 5DQ Tel: +44 (0)1259 769 100 www.harviestoun.com