Masters Table 1998
By Adrian Tierney-Jones
For most of us Hogmanay conjures up images of blazing
log fires, chorus after chorus of Auld Lang Syne, steaming
plates of haggis plus, most importantly, toast after toast
of the finest malt whisky. This year try something different
to accompany the chimes of Big Ben: put the whisky to one
side and welcome in the new year with a glass or two, or
even three, of Scottish ale. Sacrilege cry the purists,
but Scottish beer has a history and uniqueness which more
than measures up to that of whiskys.
The rich past and diversity of Scottish beer will perhaps
come as a surprise to those who think that the highly hopped
bitters of the south of Britain sweep all before them. A
rich and rounded maltiness underpins the flavour of Scottish
ales, thanks to the extensive use of pale ale malt, much
of which comes from the Scottish lowlands. Traditionally,
hops have been used sparingly. Even though some of the newer
breweries are bucking the trend with much more bitter, hoppier
ales, most Scottish beers have a distinctively smooth, warming
flavour, a taste which has inspired brewers in the US and
Belgium to create strong and malty imitations. These usually
have the prefix Scotch Ale. But what has led to this difference?
According to Roger White at Orkney Brewery, who count the
award-winning Dark Island (4.6%) and the dangerously drinkable
Skullsplitter (8.5%) among their ales, first and foremost
theres the matter of history. When hops became more
common in the late 17th and 18th century, they were very
expensive for Scottish brewers. The reason for this
was climate. The cooler temperatures are unkind to hop-growing
and theres no Scottish equivalent of the Kentish hop
fields. Brewers had no option but to pay for their hops
to be transported. So, as Roger White explains, there
wasnt as much used, as opposed to London where they
were liberally used because they were so cheap. Transport
costs increased the further you went so less hops were used.
After that, there was always a lot less hops.
The climate had a further influence on the industry: in
pre-refrigeration days, brewing in Scotland was all-year
because of the cooler weather. In England it was suspended
in the summer, so Scottish ales made the journey south.
The marketing men of the day had to call these ales something,
so unsurprisingly they chose the name Scotch.
Ales also travelled to the colonies wherever Scots emigrants
had settled and wanted a drink that reminded them of home.
These were designated as Export ales, a name which still
survives with Scottish-Courages McEwans Export
and Maclays 80 Shilling Export. The good times couldnt
last, though. When refrigeration became universal in the
1870s and English breweries started brewing all year round,
many Scottish breweries closed as demand fell.
Finally, there was also the matter of local drinking habits.
According to Dougal Sharp of Caledonian Brewery, Scottish
beers have in the past been known for their sweeter, more
malty character I believe that it was because drinkers
often drank a half-pint of beer with a nip of neat whisky,
a sweeter beer being the preference to take away the harsh
taste of the whisky. I think that tastes have changed in
part now, and hoppier/better balanced beers are acceptable
to most. Theres still a market for the sweeter malty
beers though, and our Caledonian 80 Shilling would come
under this category, albeit its a little hoppier than
other brewers 80 Shillings.
The Shilling rating of Scottish beers goes back to the
1870s when the price of beer, including the duty, was worked
out in the old pre-decimal shillings: 60 Shillings meant
a light ale; 70 Shillings a heavy; 80 Shillings an export
and 90 Shillings, or even 100 Shillings, a barley wine-style
known as wee heavy. To confuse matters even
more though, the light ales which corresponded to the English
mild in strength were dark in colour, while the heavy, akin
to a English bitter in strength, was lighter in colour.
The survival of these terms shows the great strength of
tradition that remains in todays Scottish real ale
breweries. Time has seen the usual round of mergers, closures
and takeovers but the likes of Belhaven and Maclay (who
share centuries of brewing between them) have endured to
be joined by thriving smaller concerns such as Caledonian,
Orkney and Broughton, whose scintillating range of ales
includes a Scottish Oatmeal Stout, in which a blend of roast
barley, black malt and Scottish oats combine to produce
a rich flavour and silky aftertaste.
Tradition is also at a premium at the Traquair Brewery
near the River Tweed. Situated at Traquair House, the ancestral
home of descendants of the Stuarts and the oldest inhabited
stately home in Britain, modern day brewing began in 1965
when the then laird rediscovered the old brewhouse with
its mash tun, open coolers and wooden stirring paddles in
perfect condition. Within a short while he had started brewing
the rich, dark and strong Traquair House Ale (7.2%) which
was the business sole beer for many years. It became
highly sought after by connoisseurs and usually improved
with age. These days it is joined by Bear Ale (see notes),
plus specials such as the deliciously spicy-flavoured Jacobite
One of the more intriguing brewing styles brought back
to life has appeared at Heather Ales, set up in 1992 by
Bruce Williams. As the name suggests heather flowers are
used instead of hops. Brewed in Scotland since 2000BC, heather
ale, claims Williams who uses old Pictish recipes, is
probably the oldest style of ale still produced in the world.
Years ago when people made fermented beverages hops were
not available and heather, herbs and bog-myrtle took its
place. When I started I looked at a lot of old domestic
recipes. People used to use local herbs; heather gives astringency
which balances the sweetness of the malt and bog-myrtle
was also used to give balance. Both are also naturally antiseptic
like hops and so help stop beer going off.
His Fraoch Heather Ale (5%) has an almost peaty, floral
nose, a malt texture on the palate and a dry, astringent
finish and is recommended as an accompaniment to rich and
spicy foods. Other unusual beers Williams has revived include
the seasonally available Gooseberry Wheat Ale Grozet (5%),
which is ideal for light foods such as pastas and salads,
an Elderberry Black Ale Ebulum (6.5%) and Alba, a delicious
Scots pine ale where Scots pine and spruce roots replace
hops (see tasting notes).
Scottish beer is thriving. Whether its a Scotch,
a light and refreshing 60 Shilling, a warming Wee Heavy
or a sparkling Heather Ale, there are plenty of beer styles
for any would-be malt advocate to seek out. So as Hogmanay
approaches and the haggis emerges, try a Scotch ale for
Caledonian Flying Scotsman Ruby Ale; 5.1%.
Dark ruby colour with a delectable maltiness and fruitiness
on the warm comforting nose; an aroma reminiscent of an
old ale without the cloying alcoholic strength. On the palate
the rich, well-rounded fruit and malt is balanced by a floral
hoppiness and the finish has a moreish hint of sweetness
which is soon reined in by a well-balanced finish of hoppiness
and malt. Very drinkable. Available in bottle only.
Alba Scots Pine Ale 7.5%
The Vikings apparently introduced this unusual ale style.
The colour is tawny brown with reddish highlights; theres
a piney, resin, spruce aroma but its the taste which
is sensational. A firm malt body starts the proceedings
to be followed by a refreshingly tangy spruceness with a
subtle Bakewell tart/almond lingering finish. This is a
scrumptious beer which could be served as an appetiser,
with seafood or Serrano/Parma ham or take at the end of
the meal with cheese. Bottle only.
Traquair Bear Ale 5%
Amber or even deep copper in colour. This complex premium
ale has a masterful hop and malt balance on the nose followed
by hints of fruit. A good hop character on the palate plus
fruit, coffee and chocolate notes with a refreshing balance
of bitter and roast on the dryish finish. Has character
and bite. On first tastings the complexities are hidden
but they reveal themselves as the beer spends longer in
the glass. Fermented in 200-year-old oak vessels and named
after Traquair Houses Bear Gates which have been closed
since 1745 and will remain so until a Stuart king returns
to the throne. Available in bottle and draught.
Caledonian Golden Promise 5%
Golden amber in colour with a marmaladey, floral nose tickled
by a hint of maltiness. Its a very balanced beer with
a big mouthful of maltiness followed by a tangy citric finish
which invigorates the taste buds. Its brewed using
only organically grown barley and hops and was Britains
first organic ale. Would be excellent with a traditional
lamb or beef roast or game or even try with haggis. Available
in bottle and draught.
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