Tuesday, April 20, 2010

In Search of The Perfect Hobbiton Beer

Beer: Grozet Gooseberry and Wheat Ale
Brewery: Williams Bros. (Alloa, Scotland)
Type: Gruit
ABV: 5%

One of the few regrets in my life was that I wasn't born a hobbit. Whenever I watch Lord of the Rings (i.e., often), every time Gandalf crests the hill and enters the shire, I'm thinking: I want to live there! First of all, it's filmed in the 'nicest' part of New Zealand, which is kind of like saying the 'nicest' shower scene with Scarlett Johansson. It's absolutely breathtaking; the rolling fields, the rivers, the majestic trees. Once the happy fiddle music kicks in, I'm done for. There's this wonderful, old-English-without-the-plague niceness to the whole scene, and everyone is pretty much having a fantastic time keeping to themselves.

Here's a typical day for a hobbit, which should give you some idea why I'm thinking of joining the hairy-foot team:

- Wake up at a good hour, eat pasties, tarts, treacle and tea.
- breakfast of omelet, raspberry tart, more tea
- nap
- sit outside of your hobbit den, overlooking a verdant countryside and smoke a pipe
- tell the wizard to kindly go fuck himself and his "quest"
- nap
- a lunch of pie, mushrooms, fresh greens, a jug of mead or something with elderberry.
- tend to the garden, which once again happens to be in verdant New Zealand countryside.
- another smoke and a tankard of ale or barley wine. You know, something good from the 'cellar.'
- frolic, perhaps find some Kingsfoil in the woods
- suppertime with sausages and nice crispy bacon
- evening at the pub drinking heartily with all your friends, whilst eyeing that cute hobbit bartender in the low-cut dress.
- smoke a well-earned pipe under the stars
- turn in for the night, comfortable in the fact that you still have eleventy-something more years of this

Also, every once in a while, there's a party, where there's considerably more food, more delightful sounding ale, and all the leaf you can stand. A finer lifestyle I could not ask for.

There's something about the language of old English/Scottish brewing that reminds me of this wonderful image. I mean, who wouldn't want to sit in the shade of a tree with a jug of elderberry or barley wine, a tankard of mead or a snifter of winter wassail? That's why I have a real soft spot for traditional ales and archaic drinking customs. They hearken to an idyllic time where folks kept traditions like lighting yule logs and having summer bonfires and midsummer feasts. It may never have existed, but it's still a lovely place for your mind to wander.

Last weekend, I picked up a four pack of the "Historic Ales From Scotland" series, which just judging from the packaging looked fantastic. These ales, brewed by the Williams Bros. of Alloa, are part of their "crusade to revive the Scottish tradition of brewing ale from malt and heather flowers." Some of these recipes and ingredients date back nearly 2000 years, which is pretty okay with me.

Beers from this era are often referred to as 'gruit', which basically means the brew is flavoured with things other than hops. Hops are a relatively new additive to the brewing process; before their advent, people flavoured their ale with anything they could find - berries, flowers, honey, kelp and so on. Often times, these additives were mildly narcotic or hallucinogenic; this, coupled with the British government's desire to give hop farmers a greater market share, spelled the eventual end of the gruit style. Britain enacted it's own variation of the German Purity Law and clearly delineated the acceptable ingredients for brewing, greatly limiting the variety of flavors available. Fortunately, thanks to brewers like Williams Bros, we can experience the drinking culture of the early Middle Ages once again.
First on the list is Grozet Gooseberry and Wheat Ale.

Grozet is a corruption of the Gaelic "Groseid", which means gooseberry. According to the brochure included in the four-pack, this brew also utilizes bog myrtle and meadowsweet. I have no idea what either of these things are, but they sound amazing.
Grozet pours a lovely golden hue, slightly opaque, and with a thin white head that remains as a thin ring.
The nose is quite an interesting combination of sweet and peat. On the one hand, there's a slight honey and sugar scent, which I probably only could identify as gooseberry because the bottle told me so. I can't really say what gooseberry smells like, but apparently this is it. Contrasting this is a rich peaty or tea-like character that grounds the beer somewhat. It may not sound great, but it actually works quite well, giving the brew a real hearty, days-of-yore feel.

The taste is similar to the nose; it gently begins with honey, malts, sugar and gooseberry, before giving way to that earthy tea finish. No trace of hops, of course, so the bitterness in the peat is greatly appreciated. The gooseberry is, again, not dominant, but arrives in whispers with each sip. The carbonation is low, which I guess can be expected. Medium body, slightly slick.

Very similar to a modern pale ale (on the lightest end of the spectrum), but with enough character unique to the Scottish brewing tradition to warrant attention. Perhaps not the perfect brew for the Shire, but certainly a great brew to knock back on a warm spring day. Since I've only ever seen it in this four-pack, it might be a while before I try it again. Bit of a shame, but all the more reason to pick up a ticket to Scotland.

Looking forward to the rest of the four pack! (Grade: B)

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