28 August 1998

Heather ale imbued with Scots history &culture

Tired with the same old boring beer and lager?

Then why not sample a Scottish brew

nearly as old as history itself?

Mike Stones raises a glass

ROBERT Louis Stevenson knew the value of a tasty tipple. And he found it in leann fraoch – Gaelic for heather ale.

"Sweeter than honey, stronger than wine," was his assessment of the ale brewed in Scotland for more than four centuries. You can put that verdict to the test thanks to a Lanarkshire company. Heather Ale Ltd is reviving the tradition of brewing the drink which can be traced back to neolithic times on the Isle of Rhum 4000 years ago.

Today, heather ale is made, as it always has been, by introducing flowering heather and myrtle into the boiling bree of malted barley. After cooling, the liquid is poured into a vat of fresh heather flowers where it infuses for an hour before being fermented in copper tuns.

The result is a curious, but satisfying, draught of light amber ale with a peaty aroma. It tastes of malt mingled with a spicy herbal flavour topped by a dry wine-like finish.

Its an irresistible combination for the companys Glenn Sewell but then, hes biased. One of his jobs is to promote heather ale at events such as the Royal Highland Show.

If drinks could be tailor-made for people, heather ale would be made for Glenn. Tall, angular and kilted, with a cloud of white hair, rounded by a white beard, Glenn looks like a clan leader from a bygone age. And, it is a growing interest in the past that first draws people to sample heather ale, he says.

"People love the history and romance surrounding the brew," explains Glenn. "But when they try it, the taste takes over. Its unlike beer or ale; it just slides down the throat – a real taste of Scotland."

Glenn believes passionately that theres a big future in the past. "People are sick of microfiche and silicone chips. As Britains industrial base erodes away and we become increasingly a theme park that makes Japanese cars, people want to look back to older traditions like heather ale," he explains.

No drink, not even whisky itself, can be traced further back into Scottish history than heather ale. In fact, according to legend, the first whisky was inadvertently distilled by warming heather ale over a fire. And the brew features often in Scottish folklore, Celtic poetry and fairy tales.

&#42 Banned

Heather ale was so intimately bound up with Scottish culture that it was banned, along with the wearing of tartan and the playing of bagpipes, during the infamous clearances of the 18th century when crofters were forced from their land.

But the tradition was kept alive down the years by highland and island communities. It was on that rich tradition that enthusiast Bruce Williams drew to revive the large-scale brewing of heather ale in the early 1990s.

In 1993 agreement was reached with brewers Maclay and Co to brew the beer at the Thistle Brewery in Alloa during the heather flowering season between July and September.

In recognition of the standards they achieved, Heather Ale Ltd won the supreme award, food and drink, at last years Royal Highland Show.

And the brew is to receive a certificate of special character which protects the traditions and customs of heather brewing under supervision by the Scottish Office in Edinburgh.

So the next time you take a wee dram of whisky, spare a thought for the drink that some consider gave life to the water of life itself. The drink, praised by Robert Louis Stevenson as the taste of Scotland, known as heather ale.

Heather ale is available from Heather Ale Ltd, Craigmill, Strathaven, Lanarkshire,

ML10 6PB. Website www.heatherale.co.uk

Gillian Roberts and Glenn Sewell of Heather Ale Ltd display the companys product and the

supreme award

it won at the

1997 Royal