The quintessentially Scottish brewery Williams Bros began its life in 1988 when an elderly woman walked into a home-brewing supply shop in Glasgow and approached the young man behind the counter with the recipe for a long lost style of beer with a legendary status – heather ale.
A famous poem by Robert Louis Stevenson tells the story of how the Picts, defeated by a Scottish king, took to their graves ‘the secret of the drink’ – a brew ‘sweeter far than honey… stronger far than wine’, with semi-magical properties. It concludes:
But now in vain is the torture, Fire shall never avail: Here dies in my bosom The secret of Heather Ale.
In a 1903 book The Heather in Lyric, Lore and Lay, Alexander Wallace considered various stories and tales of heather ale – ‘a liquour greatly superior to our common ale’ – dating back to 1526. If it had not died out, he concluded, then it had become hard-to-find, with only a handful of doubtful reports from people who claimed to have tasted it in the latter half of the 19th century, as brewed by ‘shepherds on the moor’. He also cited, for balance, the view of one authority that heather ale might never have existed at all.
And yet, there she was, the wise old woman, with the secret in her hand, and Bruce Williams, the young man behind the shop counter, was intrigued.
For a long time, Britain had beers associated with Christmas that weren’t explicitly billed as Christmas beers.
If Frank Baillie’s 1973 Beer Drinker’s Companion is anything to go by, there were certainly winter ales released in November or December in time for Christmas, but they didn’t feature Father Christmas on the pump clips or labels; they weren’t called things like Rudolf’s Throbbing Conk; and they weren’t dosed with cinnamon and nutmeg. As far as we can see, Shepherd Neame’s bottled Christmas Ale was the only one with Christmas is in its name at that time.*
Based on looking through old copies of the Campaign for Real Ale’s Good Beer Guide (thanks again, Ed!) it looks as if the idea of marketing ‘winter warmers’ as Christmas beers really took off in the increasingly competitive real ale scene of the 1980s. The 1987 GBG (published in 1986) lists around ten beers that we would classify as definitely Christmas seasonals, such as Mauldon Christmas Reserve, Wood’s Christmas Cracker and the Bridgewater Arms’s Old Santa.