As Ian Rankin arched over the Oxford Bar’s ebony beer fonts on Friday afternoon, it was clear to all in attendance they were witnessing a wee piece of history in the making.
The Rebus writer was there to pour a glass of Leith Heavy, a long-lost local ale, at the renowned watering hole to which he is inextricably linked.
Leith Heavy was last available on tap at the Ox in 1984, and who better to serve it all these years later than the man who made the bar world-famous?
Its revival was the brainchild of local homebrewer Steven Hope who first heard of the defunct beverage a few months back when Ian Rankin Tweeted a link to an Oxford Bar nostalgia feature published in Scotland on Sunday.
“I chose to recreate it out of pure intrigue,” explains Steven, 53.
“It was all because of that photo of then owner Willie Ross pouring it in 1982. ‘What is that?’, I asked myself, ‘if I can find the recipe, I’m making that’.”
The article referred to was penned by myself back in March. A friend, Len Cumming, had passed on a series of photographs he’d taken in 1982 of the bar and its notorious owner, Willie Ross. A label for Leith Heavy stood out prominently on the taps.
Astonishingly, by fluke or fortune, Steven found the recipe. Someone he knew personally through photo journal site Blipfoto spotted his Tweet.
“This guy I know called Scobes Tweeted back saying his wife ‘Nancy’s dad brewed that’. They had the recipe and even prints of the label, because Ken designed it all himself.
If Rebus came in here and it was on tap, I’m sure he would try it. He’s never been shy about trying new beers.Ian Rankin
“It was suggested we should get Ian Rankin to pull the first pint at the Oxford,” Steven adds, “I never thought it would actually happen - but it has.”
“It just confirms that old adage about Edinburgh being a village.
‘Nancy’s dad’ was a man named Ken Garden, a graphic artist, who took up homebrewing in the 1970s. Ken’s second daughter, Moyra Little, who as a young girl helped design the sun emblem on the beer’s label, recalls the early years:
“Our house on Broughton Street truly smelled like a brewery. He eventually expanded to bigger premises as he developed his brews and attracted more buyers.”
And Moyra is delighted her dad’s brew has been brought back to life, which, to a certain extent, is very much a piece of the man himself.
“It’s brilliant, just amazing,” said Moyra, “He’ll be laughing from up above and would be very happy that this has happened.
“From the batch that’s been selected I think it’s the one my dad would have liked the best.”
Steven Hope never had the pleasure of meeting Ken Garden - Ken died back in 2008 - but has heard plenty tales of the man since taking on the task of resurrecting his ale.
“By most accounts, he was very much the archetypal lovable rogue. Ken was incredibly well-loved and having spoken to Harry Cullen (current Oxford owner), you do get this impression that he was a legend.”
The strangest thing about Ken’s Leith Heavy, however, is that it doesn’t really look or taste like a heavy at all.
“Ken had spent a bit of time down and London,” explains Steven, “Leith Heavy was an attempt at emulating the bitters from down south. I think it was labelled a heavy to make it recognisable.”
Ian Rankin, an Oxford Bar regular for more than 30 years and the star attraction at yesterday’s relaunch, reckoned Leith Heavy tasted awfully familiar and said there’s every chance it would suit the palate of a certain detective inspector.
“It reminds me of a beer I used to drink as a student at the Green Mantle. There’s a slight sweetness to it.
“I’d love to see it stay. Anything that’s got a bit of history always interests me,” added Ian.
“If Rebus came in here and it was on tap, I’m sure he would try it. He’s never been shy about trying new beers.”
Leith Heavy: A recipe for success
Leith Heavy - despite its name - tastes very little like a traditional Scottish heavy. It’s fairly aromatic, lighter in colour than your average ale, with a sweet and rather hop-heavy aftertaste. Personally, I enjoyed it a lot and everyone I spoke to yesterday - Ian Rankin included - seemed to like it too.
The story goes that original brewer Ken Garden had lived in London and developed a taste for English bitters. On his return north of the Border he struggled to find any of the beers he’d become accustomed to, so decided he would just brew his own. The result is something that actually tastes more like a contemporary craft ale, Ken was very much ahead of his time.
One thing to keep in mind, though: if you fancy a jar of Steven Hope’s revived Leith Heavy, you best get down to the Oxford Bar fast. This could be a very limited run.