Friday, 4 January 2013

Three of a kind

This poster is preserved in the
Bridge of Allan Brewhouse.
Harviestoun from Alva in deepest Clackmannanshire have been one of the most successful breweries to come out of the 1970s real-ale revival, having survived and grown while contemporaries fell by the wayside. They’ve been around as long as I’ve been drinking beer, although as you can see from the poster reproduced on the right, their range today has changed quite a bit from the beers they started off with.

Back then you rarely saw their beer in Glasgow, while nowadays it is ubiquitous to the point that you start taking it a little for granted. 
The past decimation of the Scottish brewing industry by consolidation and closure means that Harviestoun is, rather ridiculously, something like the sixth oldest still operational brewery in the country, despite being established less than forty years ago (I usually forget one when I try to count them up but I think only Belhaven, Broughton, Tennent’s, Caledonian and Traquair House are older). 

Old Engine Oil, 6% in the bottle, is a reliable supermarket purchase — it’s remarkably good value for money and tastes good without being chilled (two preconditions for drinking-on-trains beer). It’s a versatile beer which occasionally also appears in a 4.5% cask-conditioned version (I actually encountered this just a few days ago and thought it, though pleasant, a bit thin with little of the magic of the stronger versions). Ola Dubh, a stronger barrel-aged version of the same thing, is probably Harviestoun’s best known product in America, though in Scotland their main business is pale and hoppy session beers.

These are all basically the same beer, but, unfortunately, every time the brewers are kind enough to explain the exact method of production to me, I have forgotten by the time I come to write it down.

Ola Dubh is one of the very few whisky-barrel-aged beers I don’t give a wide berth, because for me it strikes just the right balance without the whisky character becoming overpowering. Sometimes breweries do their whisky beers in cask as a special for CAMRA festivals, and sometimes it’s a horrible mess, but in the case of Ola Dubh it has been spectacular every time I’ve had it.

I know the picture is crap. It was dark and I was drunk

To be honest, though, I’d almost always rather have my whisky and beer in separate glasses. So I was intrigued to discover that there is a special edition – Old Engine Oil Engineer’s Reserve — produced for America and not sold in Scotland. Just my cup of tea, Ola Dubh without the whisky. I urged the brewery to sell the damn stuff here too. No luck with that, but they were nice enough to slip me a couple of sample bottles.

I paired them with a standard Old Engine Oil and Ola Dubh to compare. Old Engine Oil has the familar chocolate and roast coffee flavours as well as a slight tinniness. Engineer’s Reserve is sweeter, recognisably related, slightly smoky with tar and malt, richer and more satisfying, with a splendidly soft carbonation and smooth mouthfeel. Finally the Ola Dubh itself, very similar to Engineer’s Reserve, with the addition of sweet spirit (only just noticeable), soy sauce, vanilla, caramel and charred oak – all the flavours you’d, indeed, expect to get from a whisky cask. It was really interesting to compare the three.


  1. I also usually avoid whisky beers but I'm tempted now...

  2. A bit of digital magic improves the picture.

  3. where can i buy one of those?

  4. I agree re: Whisky and Beer. Big fan of Harviestoun though, they do what they do incredibly well and can be somewhat underrated. Down here, anyway!