What’s the oldest brewery in Scotland? Caledonian? Belhaven? Traquair House? In fact, the oldest is – Tennent’s of Glasgow. Though today it is a massive, not particularly romantic beer factory, brewing has been recorded on the Wellpark site in Glasgow’s East End since 1556, making it not just the oldest brewery, but one of the oldest surviving enterprises of any kind at all.
Despite this, Tennent’s marketing in recent years has been relentlessly modern and laddish, concentrating on music and football sponsorship. Now, in view of the spectacular success of Innis & Gunn with its fake heritage, someone at Wellpark has evidently thought “Hang on – we have all this genuine heritage – surely we could make that work for us?”
The first evidence of this new tack is at the brewery itself, which has recently been festooned with a huge banner featuring archive photos from the early twentieth century and the comically modest claim “We’ve been doing this for quite a while now.”
Alongside that is the website to promote a new product: Tennent’s Beer Aged In Whisky Oak (I think that is its formal name) which is also full of this sort of stuff.
Drinkers who know that Innis & Gunn is contract-brewed at Tennent’s may suspect this is the same beer in a different bottle. Sources at Tennent’s assure me this is not the case. I believe them, but I wonder how they are going to convince consumers of this; it seems an uphill struggle, similar to the trouble they have trying to explain that the Tennent’s Super brand is nothing to do with them (InBev kept this particular brand when they sold the rest of the Tennent’s business to C&C).
The main difference in the process is that the Tennent’s beer uses whisky-infused oak (we are not told exactly how the infusion takes place), whereas I&G uses plain oak. Just to prove the beers are different, I did a blind tasting. Cynics will note the two beers both come in clear glass and to the lay person appear exactly the same colour.
Beer A: immediately very lightstruck, amber in colour, plasticky, a little oak, bit of toast. The taste is sweet, caramel, sweeties and wood shavings. Considering the strength, there's not a lot to it, very sweet, vanilla, just tastes artificial.
Beer B: grainy in aroma, head almost completely gone. Not much flavour at all, bit of sweetcorn. Unlike the first this does have some hops in it, though not enough to detect more than a slight balancing bitterness. Slightly metallic, much dryer than the other beer, a little bit of whisky but not much ... if you didn't know you wouldn't notice. The wood (barely discernible) just kind of sits on top of the beer but does dry it out a bit.
Beer A is Innis & Gunn and Beer B is the Tennent’s whisky beer; but the differences are so obvious we don’t need to check the labels.
Innis & Gunn have been known to tell American consumers concerned about lightstrike in their clear-glass packaged beer that it doesn’t matter because the beer has such a low hop content (seriously). My experience with this bottle suggests this is bullshit.
Tennent’s say their beer is made with four different hops, though none impart a distinctive character to it; to me it tastes pretty much like Tennent’s lager with some caramel in it, that’s had some wood shavings waved at it briefly.
They are definitely different beers; on the other hand, neither of them are exciting either. However, the Tennent’s product is much less offensive than Innis & Gunn and has no defects as such; it’s just rather timid in flavour.
Just a kilometre or so to the south of Wellpark, however, is German-style brewery West, who have gone outside their lagery comfort zone to produce a cask-aged Scotch ale under the name of Opus Six. Opus Six is definitely the most interesting of the three beers, but it goes in the other direction – you definitely have to be a fan of peaty whiskies to enjoy this. It is aged in casks used for Douglas Laing’s “Big Peat”, a vatted all-Islay malt. Treacle toffee or blockmalz in the foreground. Dry, tannic, woody finish. Oily, spirituous warmth. A stonker and it’s worth noting that at 5.2% it packs much more flavour in than either Tennent’s (6.0%) or Innis & Gunn (6.6%). Sadly this beer seems destined to be a one-off, so if you can get down to the brewery while there’s some left it might be your only chance to try it.
• West Opus Six (5.2%): £5 a pint, draught only at the brewery and possibly a few other places;
Tennent’s Beer Aged in Whisky Oak (6.0%): 33cl bottle £2.50 at branches of The Whisky Shop;
Innis & Gunn Original (6.6%): 33cl < £2 pretty much everywhere.