In honor of my friend Heather's twenty-first birthday, I sipped at one of the world's oldest and rarest beers. Before Humulus lupulus became the bittering ingredient de rigueur of beer, people were making beer with what ingredients that they could find on hand. And in Scotland, where hops can't grow well anyway, this meant using the flowers of the abundant heather plant.
This beer style was nearly forgotten until homebrew shop owner Bruce Williams took a gamble with a family recipe for "leann fraoich" (heather ale in the gaelic language) and began brewing in Argyll. Before long, he expanded his operation by contractin with the family-owned Maclay Brewery in Alloa. Williams opened a quaint new brew house in Strathaven in 1997, but he still brews some of his beer under contract with Maclay's.
Only a handful of brewers have taken up the challenge of brewing a beer with heather, instead of hops. This is, no doubt, a challenge because the heather can be added as bittering hops (during the boil) and finishing hops (at the end of the boil and sparging). It's easy to imagine that the methods of brewing with hops are well known, and that any brewer who forgoes them for heather is placed on a fairly unforgiving learning curve with few peers to help.
Fraoch Heather Ale, being the standard bearer of a re-emerging beer style, promised to be a good introduction to the Scottish tradition of ancient herbed ales.
The bottle bursts open with a gentle breeze of floral aromas. Upon further inspection, the smell is extremely reminscent of walking into a greenhouse filled with flowers. A number of very well-defined flower aromas grace the nose. Underneath the obvious, however, there's a layer of pleasant grassy, earthy, and hay-like aromas. Strangely, the beer has a sweet smell to it that made me worry that the ale would be cloying and undrinkable to my pallate. Once I put my nose into the glass, I resolved the sweetness as a fruity plum aroma.
The beer itself is a brilliant orange-gold color when held up to lamp light. The turbidity of the ale is a striking feature, helping to accentuate the color and making it seem slightly darker than it actually is. Fraoch is only lightly carbonated, and thus doesn't raise much of a head. I think this is appropriate for the style.
The beer opens with a surprisingly sweet sensation in the front of the mouth. This rapidly gives way to an ephemeral taste of bitterness all along the tongue. The nature of the bitterness is threw me a bit off guard, as it wasn't a hop-like bitterness. Rather, it was an extremely dense floral bitterness that couldn't be more potent if you chewed on flowers. After the bitterness begins to recede, a slightly dry sensation is left in the back of the mouth. This effect of flavors rippling across the pallate, teasing it every step along the way, makes it a very drinkable beverage. But because of the bitterness, it certainly is not sessionable. Despite a lack of carbonation, the beer fizzes on the tongue slightly which leaves the pallate refreshed after each sip.
The bitterness was held in place by a robust Scottish malt flavor that is by itself slightly reminiscent of much heavier Scotch ales. The maltiness dominated the floral aroma when the beer was chilled out of my refrigerator. As it warmed up slightly in the glass, the floral aromas really opened up and outweighed the malt flavors. This flavor transition was interesting, of course, but I felt that the beer somehow lacked balance as a result.
There's a slight minerality to the flavor, which helps bring out the other flavors in the ale. At 5% abv, I was happy that I didn't taste or feel any ethanol.
Despite not being a "real ale" (i.e. one that is cask-conditioned), it was an interesting and delightful beer on which to reflect on the origins of brewing. And the unique combination of floral aromas and biting bitterness makes this beer as unique as it is enchanting.