Salt Spring Island Heather Ale

saltspring_heatherAs the beer class I am hoping to teach nears, I have found myself feeling a little hard pressed to secure all the styles of beer I would need to make an effective presentation. After all, how can one accurately represent the history of beer when it’s so long, diverse and varied? Sure, there’s no shortage of British-style ales, German lagers, and Belgian ales here on the west coast. But what of beers that predate the Belgian Purity Law?

Lucky for me that Salt Spring Island specializing in creating beers of this kind. For awhile, I was hoarding bottles of Salt Spring Island’s Spring Fever Gruit, but as expected, they ran out. And while their Saturnalia Gruit is an equally fitting example of an ancient brew, it too suffers from seasonal availability. Lucky for me, their Heather Ale is year-round and I was able to grab a few, knowing that I could drink them and not fear that the supply would run dry.

And I thought that while I was doing that, I might finally give it a review. It goes without saying that Heather Ale is a renowned style of beer, one that is very popular in Scotland and abroad. It dates back to 4000 BC when it was introduced to Scotland by the Picts, and is therefore one of the most dated styles in existence. And Salt Spring Brewery, in tune with their commitment to organic brewing that’s faithful to its roots, produce a very nice and easy-drinking beer that has a subtle array of herbal notes and flavors that is very appealing, especially to people who are looking for a break from the hoppy beers the Pacific Northwest is famous for.

Appearance: Amber, clear, good foam retention and carbonation
Nose: Mild malt, hints of flowers and honey
Taste: Smooth malt, mild tang, hint of vanilla, notes of honey
Aftertaste: Clean finish, lingering tang and minerality
Overall: 8.5/10

Though I am a big fan of the hops, I have to give high credit to this beer for its clean taste, mineral-like tang, vanilla and honey like flavor and gentle aroma. I naturally couldn’t help but compare it to Fraoch, the famous heather ale by the Williams Brothers Brewery. And honestly, I feel this one gives it a good run for its money. I hope those who attend my beer class can appreciate it too!

Historic Ales of Scotland (Concluded)

historic_ales_scotlandIt’s just one day to Christmas, and as expected, I finished the pack of Historic Ales early. Call me self-indulgent, but there was simply no way I couldn’t let my curiosity to get the better of me. It’s been many years since I drank from this pack, and my tastes have become somewhat refined in that time. And interestingly enough, I found that I actually enjoyed the experience more this time around. So without further ado, here are the last two samples from the Williams Brother’s historic lineup.

Ebulum:
ebulumMy favorite of the pack, the Ebulum Elderberry Black Ale is brewed in accordance with the Celtic tradition that was introduced to Scotland by Welsh druids in the 9th century. Traditionally, this ale was crafted and then passed between the people of the village during the Autumn festival. The recipe for this particular beer was taken from a 16th century record of domestic drinking in the Scottish Highlands and is brewed with roasted barley and chocolate malt, then infused with elderberries to deliver a dark, rich, malty beer with a stout-like flavor that also has some satisfying fruity notes. It is also the second strongest beer of the collection, weighing in at 6.5% alc/vol, making it an all around very pleasant drinking experience. Whenever I get a pack, I usually go for this one first. I feel my restraint this year is to be commended!

Appearance: Deep brown-black, clear, mild foam retention and carbonation
Nose: Dark malts, stout-like, mild fruit aroma
Taste: Rich malt start, hint of sweetness, discernible fruit
Aftertaste: Slight tartness and lingering dark malt flavor
Overall: 9/10

Fraoch:
fraochThe most ancient and venerated style in this collection, Fraoch takes it name from the Gaelic word for “Heather”, and just happens to be the oldest variety of beer still consumed today. For over four thousand years, this sort of beer has been brewed in the Highlands, and is often associated with the Picts who ruled Scotland until the 9th century (hence the label art, which is Pict-inspired). The beer a combination of boiled barely, sweet gale, and an infusion of heather flowers, a flora native to Scotland. Until the 18th century, when British law mandated that Scottish brewers begin using hops, it was extremely popular.  And although it is very understated and subtle, much like the Grozet, I can certainly see the appeal. In addition to being golden in color, the beer also has a sweet, honey-like smell and taste, with a touch of peaty flavor, and is one of their lighter beers, weighing in at 5% alc/vol.

Appearance: Deep gold, cloudy, mild foam retention and carbonation
Nose: Mild malts, notes of honey and flowers
Taste: Very mild malts, notes of honey, peat moss, mild pine
Aftertaste: Mild lingering honey taste, very clean finish
Overall: 8/10

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go get more Christmas beer. Somehow, my supply became mysteriously depleted… Merry Christmas to all and hope it finds you surrounded by friends, family and plenty of good food and spirits!

Historic Ales of Scotland – Continued…

Welcome back! Today, I thought I’d change things up and diverge from my plan to sample these beers in alphabetical order. So with that in mind, I drank the Grozet second and did a little research into its particular background and history. And what I found was really quite interesting, embracing Rennaissance brewing, the Scottish intelligentsia, and even Shakespeare itself.

I also perused through the Williams Brothers Brewery’s website and noted that their full lineup of products is really quite diverse and cool. Wish I had access to more of it here on the other side of “The Pond”! Be sure to check it out…

Grozet:
grozetNamed in accordance with the Auld Scots word for gooseberry, Grozet is another traditional beer that has been brewed in Scotland by monks and “Alewives” since the 16th century. Concocted with wheat malts, gooseberries and wild spice, this beer is very light in color, scent and taste, and was apparently a favorite amongst the 19th century Scottish literati, and was even described as “the most convivial of ales” by Shakespeare himself. Much like its cousins in the pack, this beer is quite light on head and carbonation, and has an subtle, but varied taste. And while its not my favorite of the pack, it is certainly and interesting brew and a very worthwhile experience, especially when one considers the historic significance it carries.

Appearance: Golden, slightly cloudy, mild foam retention and carbonation
Nose: Mild malts, wheat and a hint of spice
Taste: Mild wheat malts, hint of tartness, mild tang
Aftertaste: Lingering tartness and wheat malts
Overall: 7.5/10

Two down, two to go! And in the meantime, I thought I might crack my most precious bottle and give it a sample. A hint, its a reserve ale from my most favorite brewery back east…

Historic Ales From Scotland

historic_ales_scotland

It’s a remarkable process. You put in a request for an obscure beer at your local store, and they get it for you! And just in time for Christmas, my local watering hole was able to procure for me a pack of the Historic Ales From Scotland. This variety pack consists of Scottish beers that are made in accordance with traditions that predate the adoption of the Bavarian Purity Law in Scotland, all of which are brewed by the the Williams Brothers Brewing Company.

These include beers made with berries, heather flowers, spruce and even kelp (if you’re lucky enough to find a pack that includes it). And having had them before, I can honestly attest to their quality. Though they are surely not for the faint of heart or uninitiated, they are all fine examples of traditional ales which are sure to appeal to the discerning beer drinker.

And over the next few days, I’ll be reviewing each of the beers in turn. First up, their Alba Scots Pine Ale.

Alba:
albaIntroduced by the Vikings, spruce and pine ales were very popular in the Scottish Highlands until the end of the 19th century. Many early explorers, including Captain Cook, used spruce ale during long sea voyages since its natural vitamin C content prevented scurvy and ill health. Shetland spruce ale was said to “stimulate animal instincts” and give you twins. Alba is a triple style ale brewed to a traditional Highland recipe from Scots pine and spruce shoots pickled during early spring. Malted barley is boiled with the young sprigs of pine for several hours before the fresh shoots of spruce are added for a short infusion before fermentation. In this respect, spruce and pine are used much as wet and dry hopping are, and imbue the beer with a crisp, refreshing, piney taste. In terms of color and appearance, the beer is similar to a pale ale, but with little head to speak of, and clocks in at a robust 7.5% alc/vol.

Appearance: Amber, clear, mild foam retention and carbonation
Nose: Syrupy malt, sweetness, strong piney notes
Taste: Immediate sweet burst of malt, gentle spruce and pine flavor
Aftertaste: Lingering malt sweetness and spruce/pine flavor
Overall: 8.5/10

So far, its been a good season for beer. Tomorrow, its on to my favorite of the bunch: the Ebulum Elderberry Black Ale, followed shortly thereafter by the Fraoch Heather and the Grozet Gooseberry Ales. Stay tuned…