Thursday, April 29, 2010

More Hobbiton Brews

Now for the second and third in my Historic Ales of Scotland pack!

Beer: Alba Scots Pine Ale
Brewery: Williams Brothers (Alloa)
Type: strong gruit
ABV: 7.5%

According to the very helpful brochure, pine ales were popular in Scotland until the mid-19th century, around the time when Britain standardized the ingredients for brewing. Dating back to the time of the Vikings (about 1000 years before Brett Favre), brewers added pine and other evergreen boughs to their vats for flavouring purposes, as well as to "stimulate animal instincts." I guess this means the brew acted an aphrodisiac, because the blurb goes on to say that spruce ales were believed to increase your ability to produce twins. Yikes.

In terms of real health benefits, for those who haven't totally blocked early Canadian history from their memories, you might recall how early French settlers were given spruce tea from the natives as a means to combat scurvy. Apparently, evergreen ales worked in much the same way; explorers, like James Cook, often brought kegs of spruce ale along on their sea voyages to combat the crippling disease and prevent disgusting death. The connection between pine needles and scurvy prevention may not have been evident to 18th and 19th century minds; it may simply have been a case of circumstance that Cook and his cohorts just happened to really like pine-flavored beer. (He would have been better off, however, if he'd brought along some 'Don't Get Killed By Native Hawaiians Stout' as well, but hindsight is 20/20...)

This particular brew utilizes the boughs of the Scots Pine, which as you can see, is a fine looking tree. These sprigs of pine are added to the boiled malted grain for a few hours to flavour the brew. Of course, when I first read this, I assumed that Alba Scots Pine Ale would probably taste a great deal like pine needles and tree sap. Surprisingly, this was not at all the case!

Poured into a chalice glass, as per the website's instructions. I let the bottle sit out for a few minutes to warm up a few degrees to really let the flavours escape. A reddy-amber hue, slightly opaque, and with a thin, patchy head and flecks of lacing. The colour is quite brilliant when held to the light, making for a handsome little brew.

The nose is surprisingly sweet and malty. Again, I was fully expecting the smell of Algonquin Provincial Park to come out of the glass, but thankfully it was not to be. Malt, caramel and berries are the primary odors here. Only lingering in the back are the more earthy, spruce elements. I certainly would have detected "spruce" if I was given a blind test, but it's considerably more subtle than I'd anticipated.

Taste is quite similar to the nose, although the spruce character is a little less timid here. Finishes with an earthy, rich flavour, but it's still under the management of the malt and berry conglomerate. Perhaps a touch of seaweed or resin as well. For a 7.5% ABV, it's pretty difficult to detect the alcohol here, which is a great plus.

The mouthfeel is truly splendid: medium-bodied, with a slightly sticky, creamy finish. A beer you can really gnash your teeth on.

Not what I'd expected, but if I could predict what a new beer would taste like before opening it, what would be the point? A balanced, enjoyable brew, probably not ideal for session drinking but great for a sipper. I confess I'm a little disappointed with the fact that Alba didn't really taste like a "pine beer", but then again, if it did taste like sap, would I really want it? (Grade: B)

Beer: Fraoch Heather Ale
Type: gruit
ABV: 5%

"And we'll all go together,
To pull wild mountain thyme,
All around the purple heather.
Will you go, lassie, go?"

First of all, I've got to say, these are some very attractive labels. Apparently, the brewers employed the efforts of local design students to produce these unique labels, and the result is quite impressive. In the case of Fraoch, if you were ever to imagine what an ancient Scottish beer bottle would look like, it would probably be something like this.

This brew is apparently the oldest recipe of the bunch, as heather ale dates back to approximately 2000 years ago. An archaeological site in Western Scotland holds evidence of heather ale from the time of Julius Caesar, which proves that there ain't no party like Scottish gruit party.

Heather can be found in abundance in Scotland; it's low to the ground and light pink to purple when it blooms. Fraoch (FRU-uch) is Scots Gaelic for heather, and has quickly become one of my new favorite words to say. Fruuu-uck. Fru-och. Try it: it's a peck of fun.

Poured into a tall lager glass. The picture doesn't accurately depict the colour, which is actually more of a medium golden hue. The slight opaque character to the brew makes the whole thing look a great deal like liquid honey.

The nose is light, floral and refreshing. In addition to what I surmise are heather flowers, I also detect a bit of honey sweetness, berries and light malts. Initially tastes sweet with notes of heather and honey, but finishes with a malty, peaty bite. Very satisfying. A touch of grassiness and apple to the finish as well. I've got to say it's quite interesting to taste a brew without any hop character. The peat and earthy notes are, like the Grozet, essential to keep the brew grounded. Any sweeter and you'd be pushing into mead territory.

Like a barleywine, Fraoch has a medium-thick body and somewhat low carbonation. Dry and refreshing.

A great brew; unique and enjoyable, worth savoring slowly. I can certainly detect a uniquely Scottish character to Fraoch. Perhaps its the use of peat or bog to give the brew a truly ancient feel. Although it will likely be a while, I'm looking forward to having it again! (Grade: B+) I'm only grading the Fraoch a little higher because I think it met my expectations a little more than the Alba, although both were fine brews.

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