This is how I often preferred my music, circa 1997: Slowish, heavier, grinding vocals with heavy accent that overshadows the words, pressed on vinyl packed in sleeves loaded with Pictish imagery and complex Celtic knot-work.
Beer-wise, back then I drank mostly alco-pops (I lived in England and Hooch just came into the market and made getting drunk less painful) and cheap lager. Couldn’t tell lager from ale, but that’s what my ex always ordered at the pub; a pint of lager. When we felt like splurging we paid for perfection and got a six-pack of Stella Artois.
Meanwhile in Scotland, Williams Brothers Brewing Company released Heather Ales historic beer series, sharing common ground with the records I was playing: pride in the regional history and myth and fascinating knotwork. I can’t recall seeing the bottles back then, definitely not in the offy where we got our booze; there’s a difference between being into beer and being into drinking, see? I would’ve probably not buy the bottles had I seen them anyway. I was skint and, let’s face it, cheap, and there’s no way I’d have spent my thinning budget on fancy beer.
That was then, this is now. Knotwork is still beautiful, Celtic punk still rules (tho I rarely listen to it), but my fascination with Scotland has drifted to new shores – just look at the fat Scottish Beer category tab to the right of this blog entry.
Heather Ales are recreated from old Highlands ale recipes. Traditionally bitterness and preservation were achieved using local herbs and plants, not hops, but because commercial bottled beer has to hold up for a few months at least, minimal amount of hops is added to the beer. There are five different beers in the series, sold either individually or in a 4-pack titled Historic Ales from Scotland which is a variety pack of 4 out of the 5. The Secret Agent and I tasted 3 of them so far,and here are the tasting notes.
Heather Ales Ebulum is the first we tried, courtesy of the Dead Swedish Girl who shared it at a tasting last spring. That’s a recreation of a 16th century domestic recipe where elderberries are added to the brew during fermentation. It’s a tasty beer. Black and opaque with heavy berry and chocolate aroma, heavy body, and roast, a little smoke and some coffee in the mouth. So many of my favourite traits in one beer – an addition of wood would’ve made it perfect.
Next we tried Heather Ales Alba. Introduced to the Scottish Highlanders by the Vikings, this is a 7.5% abv. drink with pine and spruce shoots. We sampled it twice, first at a spring beer tasting organized by Beer and Beyond and then at Nimrod’s. After sampling Beerlao. My tasting notes date back to march, that’s six months ago and testify that I had hard time dealing with this beer. Its colour is hazy reddish amber and its aroma contains moss, mold and some bubblegum (where did this come from? weird…) It has weird bitterness and jellybeans – so much for traditional beer!In March I remarked that I wouldn’t taste it again but then in May I did but didn’t take any notes. What’s also weird is that between uploading the notes and writing this entry I didn’t look at them and was quite surprised to read them; I recall liking Alba and really feeling the pine. Maybe it’s the result of drinking literally dozens of Simcoe and Chinook-dominated IPA’s.
The latest we tried is Heather Ales Fraoch, the label of which is so beautiful it can easily compete with Scatha’s album covers! I think that’s the first one that was brewed in the series. Heather flowers are added to the boiling malt and another batch of flowers is added right before fermentation. This is thought to be the oldest style of ale still produced in the world. The beer pours greenish and pale and smells flowery and melon-like. Taste reminds me of light summer fruit and its body is light. Despite the name and the serious label, the beer was surprisingly delicate, really delicate and quite nice.
Heather Ales Fraoch is listed in the book and therefore it’s beer #112 I Must Try Before I Die. though not listed in the book, I’d also love to try Kelpie – the seaweed beer that’s also in the historic ales collection – before I die.