That famous Scottish brewery, BrewDog, is certainly dominating beer discussions around north-western Europe at the moment, and more power to them with their interesting beers and clever use of the media. I had been wondering how other smaller breweries from that part of the world were taking this, and I was pleasantly surprised to be able to taste some beers from the Isle of Arran Brewery last weekend. A few weeks go I had also received a press release from the Williams Bros. Brewing Co., the people behind that famous Scottish speciality beer, Fraoch Heather Ale.
Starting life in 1988 in a homebrew shop owned by Bruce Williams, Fraoch is one of those beers that you probably either love or hate. Either way, it's interesting what heather can do to a beer, and I remember the first time I introduced my wife to it, some time in 2001, while on a business trip to Edinburgh. Well, I was on business, she was being a tourist. She loved it, and we just now bemoaned the fact that the Fraoch glass we -- well, I -- appropriated on that occasion got broke by my brother-in-law-to-be last year. Anyway, mention of Fraoch still has her licking her lips. I have fond memories of it too, but it's been a long time.
They created other beers based on old recipes or styles, including Alba, made with spruce tips, Kelpie, with bladderwrack seaweed and Grozet which includes bog myrtle, meadowsweet and gooseberries. Get the picture? Sounds great actually, but I haven't had the pleasure of any of them.
The press release, though, is not about these historic beers, but reports on the fact that, along with BrewDog, other small Scottish breweries are getting greater recognition due to a relative increase in ale sales (they quote a 6% fall in lager sales and a 4% increase in ale sales, but don't quote me on that) and also the fact that such ales are becoming more popular on supermarket shelves. A case in point being the recent Sainsbury’s Beer Competition, in which, out of 15 finalists -- from a starting pool of 115 -- seven came from Scotland, four of which came from the Williams Bros Brewery. That's a pretty good average! Incidentally, the other three from Scotland were all from BrewDog (Hardcore, Dogma and Chaos Theory), so certainly good kennel mates.
But what do they taste like? Well, I was offered a chance to sample the beers, and of course I accepted. A package arrived early this week containing samples of each of the four finalist beers. I was also very excited about the Fraoch 20th Anniversary bottle that they sent too, and I'm really torn between sitting on it for a while -- as it was only bottled last month as is good for another ten years or so -- or opening it as soon as I can. I expect it will be opened in the next few weeks and shared with some friends. It's a big beer, in both volume (75cl) and alcohol (11%), so it definitely made to share. I might have to buy one to lay it down and see how it ages. We'll come back to it so.
Williams Ceilidh, described as a Premium Scottish Lager, is a rich gold, with an obvious desire to turn to light amber. The aroma is actually quite remarkable, I was expecting a light, hoppy thing, perhaps being thin, but it's pretty rich, leaning towards a more malty side, and in fact has a striking resemblance to toasted sesame seeds! Or perhaps slightly overdone pastry on an apple pie. The flavour is similar. It's pleasently sweet, in that pie-like way, with slight salty and nutty notes. The hops feel a little muted under that layer of flavour, but do show as a lime-like citric twist, and a floral element comes out as the beer warms a little. I have to say I was a bit taken aback, as I -- completely unfairly -- expected a thin, boring lager. In reality, it bears more relation to some of the better lagerbiers from Franken than I could have hoped. Great mouthfeel, and really quite satisfying, it's not one for chugging down after cutting the grass. That sesame thing had me intrigued all the way down the glass, and I'm looking forward to sharing the second bottle of it with a native of Franken to get his opinion.
The Williams Birds & Bees lists elder flowers and lemon zest amongst its ingredients, along with a proportion of malted wheat. A luminous gold, as you might expect from a blonde ale, the aroma is a little muted, but is fruity, with apple, a touch of juicy-fruit and sweet malts. The flavour gives a good dollop of juicy maltiness and ever-so-slight banana in the finish. The elder flowers are barely detectable as a sweet, earthy tone in the fore-ground, but not as much as I thought there would be. The whole thing is solidly in the fruity/malty camp, and even the listed lemon zest barely makes a show. It got a bit flat half way through, but it didn't spoil anything, as it has a fullish mouthfeel that sat ok with that. Overall, this was my least favourite of the four, as I expected more of the elder and lemon flavours to lift it up. Still, it's a sturdy golden ale for considered drinking, not quaffing, a bit like its lager sibling.
Being a hop fan, I looked forward to popping the Williams IPA. Ahh, Amarillo. You definitely get that grapefruit lick on the nose, sitting on top of a subtle, caramelly maltiness. It's not as bitter as I expected (considering trends in other breweries) but there's an assertive, clean/cut, floral, grapefruit hop blast from the get-go. The underling graininess combines with the grapefruit suggestions to leave a dryness which counterpoints a sweet, almost floral sorbet finish. Not an IPA in the US mould (or other Scottish breweries), a very refreshing, well-balanced hoppy ale that should please man palates. I should say that the flavour is just like sticking your nose into a bag of hops. Lots of wonderful hop flavours, and just the right balance of bitterness and maltiness. There's also something about it that reminds me of Galway Hooker in the sheer süffig drinkability. This you could drink lots of (well, I could!).
The only 80/- beer I can remember having is Caledonian 80/-. I think I had it first in 2001, and liked it, and was schocked to find it on tap in a bar in Muenster a few months ago. Let's just say that it's not quite as satisfying as the Williams 80/-. The colour is dark, ruddy brown. The aroma is a touch fruity and roasty, the smell of a light touch of black malt, perhaps, adding an ever so slightly smoky quality. So far, so appetising. This is quite a light beer, at 4.2% compared to the generally 5% range of the others, but the richness that they seem to have achieved in the other beers is also present here. The flavours are distinctly toffee-like, and that ever-so-slightly smoky roasted note sits gently on top, giving a quick blast at the front, and lingering alongside an apple-like fruitiness, and a touch of digestive biscuits. The finish is a little bitter, in a roasty way, and gives an impression of dark toffee with a layer of chocolate. A moreish, juicy beer that'll satisfy malt lovers.
I have a bottle of each of these left, and I hope to test them on a few of my German colleagues next week. I always enjoy getting their opinions on beers that are outside of the normal range available here. But, although I have my favourites (can you guess which?), they're all pretty solid brews that I'd happily drink regularly.