Caught by the River

Pint by the River: Williams Brothers Heather Ale & 7 Giraffes

5th September 2011

by Roger Clapham

Without wishing to resort to regional stereotyping I have to confess that having both ginger hair and a fondness for alcohol meant my first trip to Glasgow felt like a homecoming. Yet even casting aside the traditional image of the hard-drinking Scot, you never really hear a lot about Scottish beer these days. Whisky perhaps, but not beer. But away from the ubiquitous Tennents (which as cooking lagers go, I quite like) there’s plenty of good beer in Scotland which deserves our attention – including much of the output from self-proclaimed beer punks Brewdog (despite their bullshit teenage boy marketing) and the multiple award-winning Fyne Ales up on the West Coast.

Scotland has a interesting brewing history too – for example ancient techniques such as the use of herbs rather than hops to flavour and preserve beer lasted longer in Scotland, and furthermore the alleged sweeter palette of Scottish drinkers meant more malt and less hops were used in commercial brewing than in England – although its also said the use of hops wasn’t widespread in Scotland as the climate is far from ideal for their growth. Furthermore, and unique to Scotland, was the “shilling terminology” – a naming convention derived from costs and taxes that meant different beers were known not by any given title, style or brewer but as 48, 60, 80, or even “90 shilling” dependent on their alcoholic content (the latter being the 6% plus “wee heavy” that lubricated much of Scotland in the 19th century).

The Williams Brothers brewery in Alloa has tapped into this history for some of the beers they’re producing today. There’s a traditional Scotch Ale called “80 shilling” (of course) but personally I found their “Fraoch” heather ale held greater interest; a recreation of the kind of beer the Scots were drinking in the highlands before the Vikings arrived – brewed with heather flowers rather than hops for flavour. It has quite a sweet, almost shandy-like flavour, so it may not be to everyone’s liking, however that sweetness is coupled with a lingering malty taste and an earthy aroma. And at 5% it does grow on you, even if you wouldn’t want more than a pint or two of it.

The 7 Giraffes (5.1%) ale is part of the wider range Williams have, a modern and progressive take on a real ale. Frankly, there’s a lot going on with this beer, and it could be classed as something of a taste sensation with elderflowers and lemon zest giving it a hugely fresh flavour, with even a hint of fruit flavour in amongst the seven malts and cone hops used in the brew. It took three gongs at the Scottish SIBA (Society of Independent Brewers) awards this year and it does go down a treat, so it’s well worth seeking out.

You can find the beers relatively easily in Scotland, and via specialist beer shops everywhere else – Williams themselves also have a very reasonably priced online shop which is worth a look. If you’re feeling particularly brave though you can always try and make your own heather ale here, although speaking from home brewing experience (my first effort was quickly named “Dogbrew” by those game enough to try it) I’d advise a degree of caution with this sort of thing…