His beer is probably as famous as the silvery Tay and is certainly loved by people of great taste from all over our beautiful planet. Ken Duncan, commonly known as Ken the beer man, Ken fae Inveralmond, Ken and Fergus and on occasion, Ken and Arlene, is the Brewmaster at Inveralmond Brewery and has become synonymous in our Fair City with real ale, pipe bands and a just a light dusting of eccentricity.
I know Ken from drinking in Greyfriars Bar; this is hardly a surprising statement as a large chunk of Perth knows Ken from drinking in Greyfriars Bar. It’s not that he’s always there (although he does like a wee dram of an evening and to be fair, it is his local) it’s just that he created and brews their house ale, Greyfriars Tipple, and Pauline Marshall, the wee pub’s owner, has been one of Inveralmond’s longest-standing and most loyal customers.
So, it is with blurred yet happy memories of a very boozy Burns Supper in Greyfriars, where he addressed the Haggis and I gave the reply fae the lassies, that I make my way to Inveralmond Brewery ready to hear how a man like Ken ends up in charge of one of Scotland’s most favoured beers.
Ken has been the Head Brewer since 1999,two years after Fergus opened the brewery. He’s as much a part of Inveralmond as the thick, yeasty scent hanging in the air and it is has been under his watchful eye that this small Perthshire Brewery has grown to international acclaim. As with all the best stories, Ken’s beginnings were about as far removed from brewing beer as you can imagine.
Born in Glasgow, brought up in Dublin and Hertforshire, he had always held onto his Scottish roots, holidaying in Dollar at his Grandad’s almost every summer. Upon leaving home he studied the Classics at St Andrews University - he’s known to drop in a bit of ancient Greek and Latin in here and there, before finishing up in London selling Life Insurance and Pensions.
“The money was good but I hated the work. Hated it.”
I say I can’t imagine him selling insurance – in fact if you asked me to draw up a list of people who would be likely to sell insurance he’d be at number 956.
“I didn’t like the job, but years later I realised that it had set me up with some invaluable skills. It’s all about relationships and listening. I learned a lot about myself and about other people.”
So, as you do when you’re twenty seven, in love with a homesick Australian girl and hating your job, he emigrated off to Perth, Western Australia and became her ‘Romantic Souvenir’.
“I had plans to travel, it wasn’t altogether spontaneous, but I had thought Cananda originally. It was 1988 and although the relationship didn’t last that long I stayed for almost ten years.”
It was early on in the Australian years that his love of a good beer grew into a healthy passion… well, healthy passion / borderline obsession. He was given a homebrew kit and he says, the ‘tin turned into terror’ as he opened his shed one day to realise there were 3000 bottles of beer in stock and his hobby had taken over his life.
“I decided at that point to turn my passion into my profession and so I went back to uni to study Biochemistry.”
Knowing Ken the little that I do, I’d say he has that quiet, glorious confidence that only the truly bright or devil-may-care-eccentric possess. I’ve found in most cases that the line between these two personalities is actually very thin; and the people who have this unusual combination of a passionate breadth of knowledge and a genuine love of mischief usually dance it deftly and happily.
So, ‘I’m off to study Biochemistry so I that can make beer’ didn’t sound that odd a statement when Ken made it.
“Well there was plenty of opportunity at the time. Australia’s love of boutique beer, as it was known, was booming and I knew I could be part of it. My task then was to how to make myself attractive. How would I do it? The degree was my in-road and even now when we recruit for Inveralmond we look for chemists, biologists or engineers who understand the science behind a great pint.”
He was two years into the course, when, walking home one night from a Nick Cave gig in Freemantle, he spotted a notice in the Sail & Anchor for a Brew Master. Knowing that 200 people had just been laid off at the nearby Swan Brewery and that he didn’t have the experience or completed degree required to dazzle them, he set about ensuring he would stand out from the brewing masses and bag himself that interview.
Ken’s CV consisted of two bottles of homebrew, silver foil wrapped neatly around the top, placed gently into a shoe box and padded with shreds of paper and wood chippings. He got the job.
And as we all know, when you combine enthusiasm and passion with opportunity and the right sort of person, you’re going to hear one helluva noise. Ken gee’ed up the staff and brought everyone with him on his whirl into brewing. He built a brand and gave it an emotional connection that people loved. Before long the sales were going up and the awards were piling in.
“It becomes aspirational, a drink. You can build an emotional attachment to something without any effort at all. People loved our beer because we loved our beer. And we enjoyed ourselves. It was fun, the whole time. When the New Generation Star Trek came out in the mid-nineties we made a Romulan Ale that was 10% turquoise blue and we served it in wine glasses with a dress up night in the pub.
We had chocolate ale that was made with 5kg of cadburys dairy milk and a Banana beer that saw 200 bananas fermenting away. Raspberry fizz was a real favourite as well. Everyone loved it. I started to get a bit of media attention because I’d always say ‘Yes’ whenever asked to talk about my passion! I became the spokesperson for beer and we all loved every minute of it. We were pushing at boundaries all the time, wondering what we could do next. That’s when the Beero-Crats Beer Appreciation Society started up.”
The Beero-Crats motto is to this day –To Improve The Human Condition Through The Medium of Beer -
Needing a change, Ken headed for Melbourne to a craft brewery called Redback which was owned by Fosters. He was making German Wheat Beers, English Ales and Czech Pilsners all the while climbing the steep learning curve that comes with new territory. It was a much bigger production and the scale of what he was leading, coupled with the huge cultural scene of the time led him into doing talks at food & drink festivals and gave him a new found determination to raise his favourite tipple to the “beerage”. His idea was simple. It wasn’t what beer was, but what it could be.
“I just wanted to ask people “will it make you happy?”. We were selling dreams!” he throws his head back and gives a loud, throaty chuckle. I think at the mixture of hackneyed marketing and blissful idealism although I suspect there is a very real sentiment in there.
Fast forward a wee bit, Fosters has decided to axe its craft beer production, Ken is made redundant and Australia goes into recession. Its 1997 and Ken is 36 years old. Although he loved Oz, he felt the ‘tyranny of distance’ and missed being able to travel properly. He was beginning to feel too far from anywhere he loved; places liked Berlin, Paris, Prague and Ullapool were days away from him.
“Without really thinking too much about it I headed home to Scotland. Looking back I was obviously ready to settle and had put my travelling days behind me. “
Very quickly he started work with Allied Domecq and at the same time met Fergus and looked in with interest and admiration at his new friend’s small operation. The pair would go out drinking, to Greyfriars and Cherrybank, Ken travelling from Dundee and Glasgow for a night on the town in Perth.
The deal breaker came when Ken was in Munich at Oktoberfest, caught the kissing disease that is glandular fever and ended up in hospital. During this dramatic turn, his boss called him to say he’d been made redundant and that he could finish up or help close the breweries. One month later Ken and Fergus were sitting in Tempo, red wine flowing, terms agreed and before they’d reached the pub Ken was the Head Brewer at Inverlalmond Ales. That was 1999.
Seventeen years after opening the brewery employs 22 people and exports to Canada, USA, Russia, Australia, and Scandinavia. I told you; everyone likes his beer!
I say that the fact they managed to grow to such a scale and yet remain very much in the hearts of us locals as a Perthshire brewery is a testament to him and Fergus. I know that we all think of it as ours – this quirky, craft beer with an international seal of approval – it belongs to Perthshire.
“It’s because it’s still us. There’s more of us in the beer than there is anything else. In seventeen years we’ve had a total of 32 members of staff and 22 remain with us today. You need people to believe in it and feel part of it. We treat everyone in the same way as we’d want to be treated and because of this, people love our beer and want to stay.”
Just over ten years ago they introduced a proper Czech style Pilsner called Sunburst. He speaks Czech (of course he does!) learning from the age of ten because his mother, an opera singer at the time, was singing in the Czech opera The Bartered Bride.
“As the market grew for Inveralmond it gave us the capacity to move to a craft keg. It’s something I have always wanted for the brewery and I’m immensely proud of all of us for doing it so well.”
Let me put that ‘doing well” into perspective for you. Inveralmond Brewery sold one million litres of beer last year. That’s nearly two million pints of beer - in a year!
“We used to think that if we ever did 100 casks a week it would be a red letter day. It’s a lot of beer, yes. But it’s still all fun.”
I wonder at how this ‘we’ relationship that spans genuine friendship and an incredible seventeen years in each-others pockets has stood the test of time. Fergus the driving force of the business end, meeting the council and keeping them true and straight. Ken with a free rein on creativity and production, controlling what is made.
So, do you and Fergus argue?
“Not yet.” He says with a twinkle in his eye.
Seventeen years is a long time for ‘not yet’. It’s an answer loaded with an honest respect and wonderful warmth for his old friend who has stood proudly by him, allowing him to sell his dreams.
I realise this man would chat beer all day and I have a burning question for Ken’s other public persona. What about the Highlander thing? My question comes from random memories of Ken reciting Scottish poetry in the pub, addressing the haggis as part of the Greyfriars annual tradition but mostly at a vague recollection of him on a train from Glasgow in full Highland garb, with a carriage full of identically dressed men, singing in Gaelic while passing round a hip flask.
“I started playing drums in Pipe Bands when I was seventeen. I joined the territorial army and went all round the world with them. Even when I was in Australia I played in the Fremantle Sailing Club’s Pipes and Drums Band. Nowadays I’m one of the Atholl Highlanders in the Duke of Atholl’s Private Army – that and playing in Perth & District Pipes and Drums.
I do still sing, I’m the President of the Perth Gaelic Choir but really, we’re not very big! I used to do operatic groups, Gilbert and Sullivan that sort of thing. I even sang at the Royal Albert Hall once.”
I do love the effortless chat from a person who just sings. It is all just part of who he is, no show or pomp. I’ve been sitting in the pub when he leads us into song, and it’s as natural to him as the air that you breath and you beer you drink. It is who he is.
“I do love my life here in Perth. It’s simple. Arlene and I live in the town, I cycle to work along the Tay, watching deer swim in river and the flowers change with the seasons. She walks to the shop, we go for a beer in Greyfriars, a dinner in Breizh, a walk round the Inch. And yet just outside you have lochs and glens unlike any others. I feel fortunate and lucky to live here.
Just the other day we walked along to Willowgate through the Giant Hogweed under the Friarton Bridge and you know, you’d be hard pushed to beat it.”
He married Arlene three years ago although they have been a couple for 13 years. He came across the gorgeous Boo Vake in Watergate while buying a gift for a friend and got to know her from popping in and buying more gifts for more friends.
“Neither of us really knows when it started. I sent her a postcard from Czech ‘to the best shop in Perth’ and that was 2001. I was smitten then.”
“I’d say that I was an awful optimist. My beer glass is always half full and I really do think it’s up to us how we feel. No-one else can tell you what to do. My path has been long and enjoyable but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any dark, damp woody experiences.
But here I am, with this young team and I remember when I started out, how lucky I was to have a great mentor. This is my chance to give something to the brew, to put back in what I took out by trying to inspire this new generation of people.”
Last question. What’s your favourite beer?
Long pause. “Always the same. My next one.”
If you've been inspired and want to meet the man (or just taste his beer!) then get together a group and head for a Brewery Tour. Loads of chat, plenty of passion and they even throw in a hot pie and a soft drink for the designated driver.
The Inveralmond Brewery Limited
22 Inveralmond Place
Visit the Inveralmond Brewery Website
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