Old Engine Oil not pictured
As soon as we decided to divide our beery adventures into country-specific chunks, we could only really start in one place. With over eighty years of cumulative ale drinking between us, Scotland had to be the first stop. The four beers chosen for the debut edition are from some of the most respected brewers to be found here. But they have some standards to live up to – their predecessors have been producing beer for over 5,000 years. Before the hop era dawned, they were using heather and herbs as main ingredients. Afterwards, the industry prospered – in 1509 Aberdeen had over 150 brewers, all of them women (the original Alewives). When joined to England in the 1707 ‘Act of Union’, taxes on Scottish beer were reduced dramatically, and taxes on Malt removed completely. Brewing flourished, and Scottish beer drinkers still enjoy the results today.
1. Three Sisters Scottish Ale (4.2%abv)
The Atlas Brewery, Kinlochleven.
500ml glass bottle
The Atlas Brewery sits on the site of an old aluminium smelter in the town of Kinlochleven, a few miles south of the Highland town of Fort WIlliam. The brewery was founded on the site after it ended its 75 years of production, in 2002. Using local water with five varieties of imported hops, they have several seasonal beers and three favourites – Latitude, Nimbus, and Three Sisters Ale. The latter is named after a mountain range in nearby Glencoe. You can contract Atlas to brew a personal beer for you, which they will produce to your specifications and either bottle or put in kegs before delivering it to your door.
What They Say – “A lightly malted beer with a short, hoppy, bitter finish.” [The Good Beer Guide]; “A dark, fruity, refreshing ale with chocolate and crystal malts to give it a dark ruby colour, and a characteristic toasty and liquorice flavour.” [Atlas Brewery]
What We Say – “It’s bitter but flavoursome, smells malty, tastes malty. It gets better the warmer it gets.” [Shovels]; “First off it smells of whisky, but it tastes darker than it looks. It’s a grower, not a pub beer as it’s got a strong taste – but it’s nice.” [Mr B]; “It tastes of chocolate, but is very bitter – and it doesn’t keep it’s head. It’s an acquired taste, not immediately drinkable. Not really sure I like it.” [Richard]
2. Old Engine Oil Dark Beer (6%abv)
Harviestoun Brewery, Alva.
330ml glass bottle
Originially sited in a 200yr old stone barn, Harviestoun now produce their wares in a modern site on an Industrial Estate in central Scotland. They have been lavished with awards, the undoubted pundit’s favourite being Schiehallion, which has won seven CAMRA British champion medals in the nine years it has been produced. They won the Champion Beer of Britain in 2003 for Bitter and Twisted. Their brewery is sited in Alva, a small town of 5000 in the foot of the Ochil Mountains, near Stirling. It was founded by Ken Brooker, a former worker at Ford’s Dagenham motor plant – hence the name given to their darkest product.
What They Say – “A near black brew with a silky-smooth rummy aroma, a coffee-ish palate, and a suggestion of the darkest chocolate.” [Beer Hunter]; “The palate is full and malty, with dark burnt fruits and the promised liquorice and chocolate in abundance, with a slightly wine-gum-like quality offset by a bracing coffeeish hop bitterness.” [Oxford Bottled Beer Database]; “Strong and dark but wickedly, wickedly smooth. Chocolate dominates the flavour, which is nicely balanced by the bitterness of the hops. A delicious “after dinner” beer which leaves a bittersweet aftertaste to savour.” [Harviestoun Brewery]
What We Say – “Not fruity at all, there’s all kinds of things going on. Jet black – there’s no light coming through it. Big coffee/liquorice flavour.” [Richard]; “It really looks like oil, it’s blacker than Guinness. Very syrupy – it’s stronger than the last one.” [Shovels]; “It doesn’t smell of anything much, but there’s a bit hit on the back of the tongue. I get some rummyness and coffee – it’s nice.” [Mr B]
3. Arran Blonde Premium Beer (5%abv)
The Arran Brewery, Brodick.
500ml glass bottle
There are only 621 people in Brodick, but they are lucky to have a brewery right on their doorsteps. Arran (not to be confused with the sweater-loving Aran in Ireland) is Britain’s ninth largest island, an hour’s ferry ride from the mainland. Production started in early 2000, and now outputs 200 barrels a week, plus additional bottles for the busy supermarket trade. They have an amber ale, a malty dark, and a hoppy blonde in their range – the last one of these was sampled by the panel.
What They Say – “Arran Blonde has a floral hop and new mown grass aroma, the taste is well balanced with citric fruit and a good hop character. A clear tasting pale golden beer in a continental style.” [Arran Brewery]; “A hoppy beer with a substantial fruit balance, the finish is increasingly bitter. Aromatic, it drinks below it’s weight.” [The Good Beer Guide]
What We Say – “One of my favourite beers. Not as nice a smell as others, but easy to drink quite a lot of this in a night.” [Mr B]; “Hoppy, not malty. It looks like a lager and goes down much easier than the other two. It’s my favourite so far.” [Richard]; “This is quite tasty, despite the smell. It’s better than any lager out there.” [Shovels]
4. Black Isle Organic B.C. Wheat Beer (4.5%abv)
Black Isle Organic Brewery, Munlochy
500ml glass bottle
Whilst Arran is an island (and two islands if you count Irish Aran), the Black Isle isn’t. Surrounded on three sides by water (the Moray, Cromarty and Beauly Firths), the other side is a river. North of the highland capital Inverness, the Black Isle Organic Brewing Corporation started in 1998, and are based in an 18th Century building. They only use locally malted organic barley and wheat, and four of their six regular beers are bottle conditioned – live yeast ferments for a second time after production, resulting in a thicker brew with some sediment, but also more taste.
What They Say – “A semi-cloudy Belgian-style wheat beer brewed with orange and coriander. Delicious served with mussels and crusty bread.” [Black Isle Brewery]
What We Say – “It smells like a root vegetable, tingles the top of the mouth.” [Shovels]; “There’s a cooked garden pea/cabbagey smell to it – but it’s very refreshing. If you get the dregs it’s a bit chunky.” [Mr B]; “This smells quite bad, and it looks like bathwater. But it’s really good.” [Richard] *
* We found during tasting that we were actually drinking a bottle almost three months out of date. This possibly made it taste better, but smell worse…
So based on the three-member panel, it would seem Arran Blonde came out a clear favourite. Join us next time for the other five Scottish beers in the second half of Episode 1 – a similar range from lighter ales to darker stouts. Stay tuned for the debut BeerCast podcast, reaching the airwaves as soon as it’s been edited and compressed into something worth listening to (hopefully). Also, coming very shortly – our special post on the first BeerSnack tested. Tried along with the Black Isle Wheat Beer, as promised in the previous post it’s the most famous British beer snack ever. It is, of course, the humble pork scratching. Deserving of it’s own entry here, find out what they are, how they are made, and whether we liked them. (I’ll give you a hint – all the panellists totally agreed on that last aspect).
Until then, enjoy your beer.
Panellists – Mr B, Shovels, Richard