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Twist in the tale of champion bitter.

Byline: By Alastair Gilmour

It has knocked on a few doors in its time, but Bitter And Twisted has finally gained entry to an exclusive club.

The beer from Scotland, brewed by a former chip shop owner from Essex, has been named Champion Beer of Britain at the Campaign For Real Ale's Great British Beer Festival. It's the second year in succession that a beer from north of the Border has staggered off with the biggest prize in brewing. Deuchar's IPA, from the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh, set the pace last year and was awarded a bronze medal this time around in the Bitters category behind Bitter And Twisted and Daleside Bitter from Harrogate. This year's champion was named Scotland's best beer in 1999 and is highly prized among the nation's ale aficionados.

Bitter And Twisted is produced by the Harviestoun Brewery which will move lock, stock and cask five miles away from its present home, a 200-year-old stone byre at Dollar, Clackmannanshire, in a few weeks' time. The site, set in glorious farmland with dramatic views of nearby hills, is to be developed into executive housing - shades of the Castle Eden saga when the County Durham brewery was disposed of two years ago for a similar scheme. The cramped farm buildings have a capacity of between ten and 12 barrels (360-432 gallons), whereas the new, custom-built plant can brew 50 barrels at one time. They'll need it, too.

"It's a great way to launch our new brewery building," says Harviestoun owner Ken Brooker. "It proves that Scottish brewers are leading the way on tasty and distinctive beers. I'm really pleased all the hard work from the Harviestoun team has paid off. Bitter And Twisted has long been a favourite of beer drinkers and I'm pleased to see them win the most prestigious beer competition.

"It's surreal, it really is. I went down to the festival knowing the beer was in the finals and therefore in with a chance - we've had gold medals for Schiehallion Lager in 1996, 1997 and 1998 and a bronze with B&T two years ago, but the funny thing is, I didn't think the beer was as good this year as it has been. This year's hops, particularly the Styrian, haven't seemed to be giving off the same grapefruit characteristics as they should, but as someone pointed out, everyone is in the same boat. Anyway, I'm still shell-shocked."

Ken, a tireless experimenter, knew he had a potential flagship beer the moment he tasted it in the fermenter. "My wife Ingrid and I were sitting in the pub that night and I said `this new beer has got legs'," he says. "The name was a reference to myself. I had then just lost my driving licence for speeding and I was really... well, bitter about it. Still am, as it happens. Ingrid asked what kind of beer it was and when I said `it's a bitter with a bit of a twist', she said `that's you, bitter and twisted'.

"It's the right gravity at 3.8pc and it's such an easy drinker. It's done us proud."

Long before his mash-tun and deep-fried cod days (with side order of bakery and coffee shop), Ken spent his working life building prototypes for Ford in Dagenham. It's this care and attention to detail that have gained a sideboard of awards for Harviestoun, notably with Schiehallion - an astonishing brew - and Old Engine Oil, a former Tesco Challenge winner. "I've just got an order this morning for another five pallets," says Ken. "Bitter And Twisted is in 200 Sainsbury's stores and, funnily enough, I was with their buyer when the announcement was made. I told her it emphasised her judgement. She grinned."

Ken Brooker - and, indeed, Bitter And Twisted - are no strangers to the North-East. His beers are regular visitors to the region's pubs and he makes an annual trip to the Newcastle Beer Festival to check that his beers have arrived safely and are in as good a condition as when they rolled out the brewery door. That done, he renews old acquaintances, assesses future business and drives 150 miles back home.

"The new brewery is still two or three months away from production, but up until now I've been in no hurry to leave the old one," he says. "I'm now going to have to push things along a bit - the orders are coming in much bigger lumps already and we really need the extra capacity."

It's been a long haul for Ken Brooker from his young home-brewing days which kept an army of friends happy, but is he still bitter and twisted?

Like the Sainsbury's buyer, he just grins.

* Alastair Gilmour is the 2002 Budweiser Budvar beer writer, presented by the British Guild of Beer Writers.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Aug 9, 2003
Words:798
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