Challenge and opportunity

Scottish independent brewer offers up a complex brew

Harviestoun Old Engine Oil
Harviestoun Brewery, Alva, Scotland
$4.50 for 330 ml bottle

Sometimes I like a challenge. And the recent arrival of a flight of beer from Scottish independent brewer Harviestoun certainly presented itself as one. This is a brewery that could try to claim it is historic, given that it opened in a 200-year-old brewery. However, it's too honest, having only started in 1985. Since that time the brewery has moved from a fast-growing independent, to a small portion of a global brand (Scottish and Newcastle, now controlled by Heineken-Carlsberg), back to being independently owned again.

Harviestoun has a number of quality beer worth trying, but the one that caught my beer geek imagination was its Old Engine Oil—a great name if there ever was one. This beer is truly an enigma. I will explain, but let me first describe what I tasted.

It pours an inky black, very much like a stout. Its dark tan head is thick and rich and holds on through the entire session. For good measure it leaves a wall of lacing down the glass. The aroma is of chocolate, some coffee, dark raisin and plum and a hint of sourness. The taste is complex. I detect a deep, sweet front of molasses, chocolate, rich caramel and brown sugar. This is followed by hints of roast and coffee. Also there is a touch of woody sharpness and tartness in background—a kind of light acidity. Hop bitterness is only in background, but enough to balance the big sweetness of this beer.

This is a rich, thick beer that presents a formidable body. It is big, impressive and totally ideal for winter. The name is spot-on as it has both the look and the viscosity of engine oil, but don't let that turn you off.

What is my challenge? Some beer guides call this beer an old ale—a rich, higher-alcohol English beer meant for aging. Others, including the brewery, call it a traditional porter, which was the 18th-century Budweiser (in a good way). Which is it?

It might be a hybrid. It is too big for a porter, offering the heft of an old ale. Yet its chocolate, light roast and hint of sourness are flavours not normally found in old ales. If I were to have to make a choice, I would call it a decent version of an 18th-century porter, which were markedly different than what we have today. Historically they were bigger, bolder and more sour, creating the impression of a full meal. Old Engine Oil seems closer to this than a modern version of an English old ale.

Regardless, this is one impressive beer. Call it what you want, just make sure you try a bottle. V

Jason Foster is the creator of, a website devoted to news and views on beer from the prairies and beyond.

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