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From Ford cars to pints of Engine Oil

A new winter ale from Scotland

Building wooden design prototypes for new cars is not the usual apprenticeship for making beer, but every experience contributes something. Perhaps that is why former Ford worker Ken Brooker, now an award-winning professional brewer, calls his newest beer Old Engine Oil. He admits the name may not appeal to every drinker, but the beer won a blindfold tasting be chosen as the featured winter brew in the British nationwide supermarket chain Tesco.

Ken Brooker
Ken Brooker...he uses whole hops, not oil.
"Old Engine Oil" describes the beer's near-black colour, viscosity and lubricity, reckons brewer Brooker. "And it makes people smile," adds his wife Ingrid. I smiled rather more after having a glass of the 6.0 per cent brew. It is silky-smooth, with a rummy aroma, a coffeeish palate, and a suggestion of the darkest chocolate. An after-dinner beer as much as a winter warmer or bedtime brew.

This enticing version of engine oil is made from pale malt, "masses of roasted barley" and oats. Brooker experimented with variations using chocolate powder and smoked malt, but eventually decided against those ingredients. Such a rich, malty, beer is something of a departure for him. His personal style leans to more toward the flowery dryness of hops. Even Old Engine Oil is well-hopped, with the sweetish variety Galena, from Washington State, as well as the more usual Worcester Fuggles (which can have an aniseedy flavour) and Kent Goldings (which I find suitably oily).

How does a career progress from autos to ales? After carving out a career with the wooden models at Ford's plant in Dagenham, near London, Brooker found himself investigating design-related warranty claims. He was then moved to a position in charge of service. His territory was Scotland. For geographical convenience, he lived half way between the country's two main metro areas, Edinburgh and Glasgow: in a village called Dollar (Nothing to do with the almighty. The name probably comes from the Latin word Dolor, referring to sadness. The Scots can be a gloomy lot sometimes).

It was a time when good beer was hard to find north of the border. His boss at Ford in Scotland was a home-brewer, who made a delicious beer that Brooker recalls as being in a similar vein to Old Engine Oil. Brooker took up the hobby, using a recipe book written in the 1970s by home-brewer Dave Line. The author has long gone to the great brewhouse in the sky, but his books are still bibles to home beer-makers. A Dave Line recipe inspired Old Engine Oil.

When Brooker was approaching his 40th birthday, friends arranged a surprise trip to the Munich Oktoberfest. By then, he had a less beer-conscious boss, who tried to deny him a few days' holiday. Recognising a true mid-life crisis when he saw one, Brooker left Ford. He dabbled in running a restaurant (well, a chip shop and tea-room) and a bakery before acknowledging his true vocation.

He initially planned to open a brewery on the nearby Harviestoun estate. His brewery is called Harviestoun, but it is on a farm in Dollar. The brewhouse is in a former byre, where dances were once held. "Stone walls 20 inches thick, slate just looked right," he recalls.

He phoned an equipment supplier, who took him to see a new brewhouse being installed near Aberdeen, but the price was far beyond his reach. Helped by engineering skills picked up at Ford, he improvised his own system. A few years later, he needed a bigger brewhouse. The brewery in Aberdeenshire had failed and he bought the equipment at a knockdown price. He has been using it for ten years, and is delighted with the bargain.

This is the second time it has helped him produce a winning beer in a Tesco competition. His previous success was with a seasonal beer for spring, though it is still in the shops. It is an assertively flowery, creamy, minty, brew called Liberation (4.7 percent). The name comes from the hop variety Liberty, grown in Washington State.

His best-known ale has another jokey name, Bitter and Twisted (3.8 per cent on draught; 4.2 in the bottle). He reckons it is bitter with a twist. It has a golden colour, on the pale side for a bitter; a substantial proportion of wheat (for crispness and a good head) in addition to the usual barley malt; and "masses of hops".

The hops include some varieties that are unusual in an English ale, notably both the German and New Zealand versions of the spicy Hersbrucker variety, though I reckon that the Styrian Goldings, from Slovenia, do most do impart the "sweet lemon" aroma in this crisply refreshing brew.

Bitter and Twisted is the current Champion Beer of Scotland, and has again been nominated as a finalist in the competition for 2000/2001. The judging takes place at Scotland's Great Grampian Beer Festival, in Aberdeen.

At least a dozen award certificates decorate the walls of the Harviestoun brewery office. Perhaps the proudest are three gold awards conferred by the Campaign for Real Ale for a brew named after the Scottish peak Schiehallion. This brew (at 4.8 per cent) is regarded as a lager. Why would the advocates of ale give an award to a lager? Perhaps they were seduced by the perfumy aroma, or the clean dryness of palate, or the delicate but long finish.

Or was it just the shock of finding in Britain a lager that tasted of malt and hops?

The Great Grampian Beer Festival runs from Thursday to Saturday (Nov 2-4), at the McClymont Halls, 43 Holburn St. Aberdeen.

This article appeared in a slightly different form in The Independent of 28 October, 2000

Published: NOV 2, 2000
In: Beer Hunter Online

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