News, Nuggets & Longreads 09 April 2016: Sheep Dung, Italy, Scotland

Here’s all the reading about beer and pubs that’s made us sit up and take notice in the last week, from sheep dung beer to brewery takeovers.

→ It’s easy to scoff at the sil­ly things sil­ly craft beer sil­lies but in their sil­ly beer but what if the nov­el­ty ingre­di­ents have a con­nec­tion to region­al tra­di­tion­al, like salt­ed cod or malt smoked with sheep drop­pings? Knut Albert reports from Ice­land and (spoil­er alert) says, ‘the shit does not give any pro­nounced fla­vor’.

Food 52 has an inter­view with Rome-based food and drinks writer Katie Par­la in which she reflects on why Ital­ian craft beer is so expen­sive, and so excit­ing: ‘It’s one of the few facets of food or drinks cul­ture here that is, by def­i­n­i­tion, cre­ative.’ (And there’s a brief com­pan­ion piece by Par­la her­self here.)

Con­tin­ue read­ing “News, Nuggets & Lon­greads 09 April 2016: Sheep Dung, Italy, Scot­land”

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.

Williams Bros: Craft Before It Was A Thing

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.

Main illus­tra­tion above by and copy­right © 2015 Rachael Smith who blogs about beer at Look at Brew and is on Twit­ter as @lookatbrew. Oth­er images cour­tesy of Williams Bros.

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.

Illustration from The Heather in Lore and Lay, 1903.
Illus­tra­tion from The Heather in Lore and Lay, 1903.

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.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Williams Bros: Craft Before It Was A Thing”

The Pub at the Edge of the World

Dramatic Sky! (in St Kilda) by Gajtalbot From Flickr Creative Commons.

We’ve devel­oped the bad habit of anno­tat­ing films as we watch them, both of us with mobile devices in front of the TV read­ing dif­fer­ent bits of Wikipedia. (“Huh, fan­cy that – Basil Rath­bone was an intel­li­gence agent in World War I and once dis­guised him­self as a tree to get near to the ene­my lines.”)

Last week, Film 4 showed Michael Pow­ell’s first real fea­ture film, The Edge of the World (1937), set on a fic­tion­al arch­i­pel­ago beyond the Out­er Hebrides. That led us to look up St Kil­da and the sto­ry of its evac­u­a­tion in 1930. Of course what leapt out to us was the men­tion of ‘the Puff Inn’, which must be the most remote licensed premis­es in Britain.

The Puff Inn isn’t real­ly called the Puff Inn. In fact, it’s not real­ly a pub and that’s offi­cial. It’s a storm­proof shed where the mil­i­tary per­son­nel who are now the islands’ only res­i­dents can go to drink and eat. Some­one ought to write a book about the influ­ence of the British armed forces on beer cul­ture. Where they go, beer goes, it seems.

Its decor hints at ‘pub­bi­ness’, and there is beer, but tourists who’ve made the jour­ney across the open sea to vis­it the Nation­al Trust-owned islands should­n’t expect a plough­mans and a pint of mild.

Mean­while, at the oth­er end of the coun­try, near us, there are sev­er­al pubs on the far less remote and much balmi­er Isles of Scil­ly, the res­i­dents of which seem to rel­ish their rep­u­ta­tion as “2000 alco­holics cling­ing to a rock”.

The film was great, by the way, despite the typ­i­cal 1930s all-pur­pose RADA Irish/Scottish/Welsh lilt­ing accents.

Pic­ture by Gaj­tal­bot, via Flickr Cre­ative Com­mons.


Maybe a Burton, but not a good one

McEwan's Champion -- a Burton or Scottish Ale

Both Mar­tyn ‘Zythophile’ Cor­nell and Ron ‘No Inter­net Pseu­do­nym’ Pat­tin­son are enthu­si­as­tic drinkers and his­to­ri­ans of Bur­ton, a type of beer once pop­u­lar, sur­viv­ing exam­ples of which are hard to find. Where it does sur­vive, it’s usu­al­ly under a name like Win­ter Warmer.

Large­ly through their repeat­ed cheer­lead­ing, we’ve come to be mild­ly obsessed with Bur­ton too. When, in a recent post, Zythophile described McEwan’s Cham­pi­on as “a tru­ly excel­lent Edin­burgh Ale/Burton Ale”, we got a touch excit­ed: a Bur­ton avail­able in super­mar­kets up and down the land? For not many pen­nies? Yes please!

The rea­son we’d nev­er tried it before was an assump­tion that it would be ‘tram­pagne’ (© VIZ com­ic) — a strong, acrid, sug­ary beer whose 7.3% abv strength is its prime sell­ing point. We can now report that it is not exact­ly that. It is an inter­est­ing beer and one we derived some enjoy­ment from drink­ing.

It is com­plex in the sense that there were flavours and aro­mas we strug­gled to iden­ti­fy. We liked smelling and tast­ing some­thing like but­ter short­bread and the incred­i­ble, long-last­ing bit­ter­ness. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, not all of the asso­ci­a­tions were so pleas­ant. Was that a whiff of bot­tom-of-the-wheely-bin? Rot­ting orange peel? Drains? By the last dregs, with a card­board dry­ness assert­ing itself, the phrase that sprang to mind was “souped up John Smith’s”.

But we will cer­tain­ly try it again because we sus­pect our bot­tle was stale (and not in the sense that it had been care­ful­ly aged by a nine­teenth cen­tu­ry pub land­lord or brew­er).