These days, with the way the world is, secrets can be hard to keep. This is particularly true of the modern British beer scene, with so many drinkers, bloggers, festival-goers, tweeters, Facebookers and UnTappders (UnTappdians?). Even though the industry has flourished through the thousand-producer mark, remaining below the parapet can be difficult, if not practically impossible. In large part, that’s because beer is a hugely social pastime; and that conviviality, that exuberance, makes it a rare occasion if you encounter something few, if any, people have drunk before (unless, of course, it’s from a new producer – which at the moment is a weekly occurrence in itself).
But, despite being shoehorned onto these thirsty, rain-lashed islands, a few furtive gems remain to be uncovered – and here in Edinburgh, those in the know are spoiled by one of the very finest. Stuart Mcluckie delivers his beers in person to a handful of outlets across the east of Scotland, produced on his one-barrel kit once or twice a week. If this were London, and Stuart a young, beard-toting hipster, the public would be clamouring to get hold of the beers he creates. As it is, he’s a softly-spoken, jumper-toting, ex-Maths teacher who brews in complete anonymity in the outbuildings of an abandoned, crumbling distillery in central Fife.
Luckie Ales began in 2008, with Stuart initially creating his beers on a farm in Dunshalt. Two years ago, he moved to a small lock-up unit on the site of the old Haig’s Distillery in Markinch, a stone’s throw from Glenrothes. Visiting Stuart, there’s an eclectic mix of light industry occupying the old redbrick complex – car tuning, local radio, a carpet warehouse – and, behind a steel grille, Luckie Ales. This really is a secret – Stuart keeps the outside deliberately unexceptional to deter thieves – and is a world away from most other breweries I’ve been to. Inside, a cheerful jumble of equipment on shelves, a few stacks of plastic casks, and his three fermenting vessels (also plastic).
Brewing to this nano-scale means that very few people outside of Edinburgh, Dundee or St Andrews may have even heard of Luckie Ales, but it also serves to keep the demand constantly high. Being small-scale maintains the mystery – you could call it the ‘Kernel Effect’ – and Stuart’s tiny runs are often snapped up as soon as they hit the shelves. This scarcity is often exacerbated by the Luckie style – being a font of historical recipe ideas, his beers are usually strong, complex and fascinatingly interesting, so once brewed they sit, maturing silently, in Stuart’s garage before being driven to their destination.
Chatting to Stuart, his favourite style to brew is undoubtedly the Old Ale, but he turns his hands to anything historic that appeals. As such, his beers are often tagged with the year they were created, or archived – Ushers 68/- (1885), Imperial Stout (Barclay Perkins, 1832), East India Pale Ale (Amsinck, 1868). Produced in a 300litre copper, these big beers are made as faithfully as possible – “It has to be authentic,” Stuart says “I’m a bit of an old sod, really. Well, no, a purist,” he corrects, quickly. His latest beer is Resurrection 56/-, a rendition of a Maclays beer produced in 1909, and on our visit two of the three plastic FV’s were filled with another 68/- and one of his core range, Midnycht Myld.
Stuart clearly revels in the freedom that small-scale production confers, and seems content to remain at his current level – although another, neighbouring, unit would give him a bit more space to even things out a bit. Recently, he’s begun to tentatively reach out on social media, writing tweets and setting up a Facebook page. I get the feeling he sees this as a necessary modern evil, something that has to be done even though, as it stands, more interest can’t mean more beer.
Some secrets are guarded jealously, kept out of the hands and away from the eyes of others. For me, Luckie Ales are a different kind of secret. The amount of beer that comes out of the Markinch lockup won’t be increasing vastly anytime soon, other than maybe an additional cask here or the odd cornie keg there. The fact that more people will hear about his beer doesn’t leave me perspiring, frightened I’ll miss out in future. His beers are worth talking about, because others deserve the chance to find out for themselves how good they can be. Luckie Ales are just that – rather than best-kept, they are Scotland’s best secret.