Heather Ale, 1900: ‘…the brewery caught fire…’

Digging through copies of Brewing Trade Review looking for information on pubs last week we couldn’t help but get distracted by, for example, a 1900 article that offers an intriguing footnote to our long piece on Williams Bros from last year.

It’s entitled ‘Heather Ale’, the author isn’t named, and it almost has about it the bones of an H.P. Lovecraft or Arthur Machen story — why did the brewery catch fire? To conceal the diabolical secrets unearthed by Dr. Maclagan who has since gone quite mad? (No.)

And, 116 years on, the practical information might even still be useful to anyone keen to brewer heather ale themselves this summer.

Here’s the article in full:


As there are many legends about the abnormal virtues of heather ale, Dr. Maclagan has been at great pains to investigate the whole subject, and his results quite fail to support the wonderful reputation which centuries have woven around this beverage. So far as documents go it appears to have been brewed with great success by the Picts, who, however, refused at all times to tell the Scots how to brew it, and the secret was supposed to have died with them. There are one or two recipes in existence, but all require a good deal of malt or sugar. Dr. Maclagan had some heather bloom analysed, and found that it yielded 17 per cent of a substance which reduced Fehling’s solution and appeared to be a sugar, but every attempt to ferment it was was unsuccessful. Recourse was then had to a practical brewer, Mr A. Melvin of Edinburgh, who made an extract from 4 lbs of pure heather bloom with 6 gallons of water in a steam jacketed copper. Yeast was added to extract (Sp. Gr. 1001.5) in a cask which was kept well-rolled, but no fermentation took place. Wort and heather flowers alone when mouldy in a short time, so the following experiment was tried: Four gallons of wort, Sp. Gr. 1100, with four gallons of water, were boiled with heather flowers, the total quantity used being 2½ lbs. The mixture was strained and the filtrate boiled for another half-hour. The fluid smelt strongly of heather and had an agreeable taste. It was next rapidly cooled, and, when at a temperature of 69º F, was poured into a six gallon cask, topped up with boiled wort, and a pint of yeast well roused in. As it fermented the cask was kept topped up and the beer properly cleansed. The beer thus produced was bottled, and the result was a fairly palatable liquid with a rough woody flavour. A further experiment was made with more heather, and a highly satisfactory sample was obtained, but unfortunately the brewery caught fire, and the heather ale was destroyed. The result of the inquiry, however, was precised, though disappointing; heather may be all right as a flavouring for those who like it, but it is useless for producing beer by itself. As two ounces of bloom measures about a pint and a-half, and take over an hour to collect, it would be an expensive ingredient, and its loss is therefore not to be regretted.

We forgot to note in which month this article appeared (probably April) but it’s certainly on p.373 of the collected volume for this year if you want to look it up.

3 thoughts on “Heather Ale, 1900: ‘…the brewery caught fire…’”

  1. So either the Picts were brewing something else & flavouring it with heather, or heather ale was no such thing. (Unless of course the secret really has been lost, but that would have to be a hell of a secret.)

    Visions of Picts sitting around a camp-fire gamely pretending to get drunk on a totally non-alcoholic decoction of heather, nobody wanting to be the one to admit he wasn’t actually getting anything… Great stuff this heather ale, eh? Who’s for another? Four? I’m game if you think you’re up to it…

  2. The legend of the Picts and their heather ale secret, which you’ll find on the label of every bottle of Fraoch, was investigated in the usual detail by Martyn Cornell here. He thoroughly unPict it.

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