A little bit of heather and a special kind of fog

Fraoch is a very special brew, but not for lager drinkers.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Scotland has a national drink with a far more ancient history than whisky according to Bruce Williams, the Glaswegian home-brew specialist responsible for reinventing Heather Ale. Four thousand years ago, Neolithic settlers on the Isle of Rum were fermenting alcohol from heather flowers - using pottery containers that still bear traces of the residue when analysed by archaeologists. The Picts were also well aware that their warriors and artists might occasionally need a drop of inspiration to fend off the effects of a miserable climate; legends that have passed down from the Dark Ages record their skill in brewing an "awful grand drink... from heather and some unknown kind of fog". Folklore even claims, appealingly if unreliably, that whisky was invented as an accidental by- product of heather ale when some thirsty - or particularly canny - highlanders were tempted to lick condensation from the stone roof of their brew-house.

Mr Williams's interest in Heather Ale developed in the 1980s when he opened his first home-brew shop in Glasgow. Hops do not grow in Scotland and, on the west coast in particular, a tradition of using more available ingredients has lingered through the centuries. In 1987 a customer brought in an old hand-written recipe for "leann fraoch" which, when translated from the Gaelic, described the proportions of malted barley, heather and bog myrtle used in the old brew. For the next five summers, as the heather in the Trossach hills came into flower, Mr Williams worked in a pleasurably amateurish manner at perfecting the required techniques until, in 1992, he felt sufficient confidence to produce the ale commercially. His brother Scott, an expert in malt extracts working for a large distillery, quit his job to join the enterprise and Fraoch Pictish Ale was launched at an unsuspecting market.

Production was at first decidedly small scale. The brothers found an English businessman who had, in Bruce's words, "cast away his wristwatch and bought a little brewery in Taynuilt". Using these idyllic though low- tech facilities deep in the Argyle hills, they brewed their product in five-gallon batches. Six local pubs accounted for their full capacity and demand soon far outstripped supply. The time had come to risk expansion and investment. The time had come to ask a bank to loan the fledgling business pounds 20,000.

The loan was summarily refused, despite a detailed business plan. The amount was "well beyond Mr Williams's means", according to the bank. Bruce Williams's response was to send the bank a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson that recounted in heroic verse how a Pictish chieftain had braved torture from the Scots and sacrificed his son rather than reveal the recipe for Fraoch. "Here dies in my bosom the secret of Heather Ale," the poem ended on a stirring, pessimistic note. Two weeks later, a call came through from Edinburgh. "Someone upstairs likes your rhyme," Mr Williams was informed. He had three months to repay the loan.

Heather Ale is now produced at one of Scotland's oldest breweries, Maclains in Alloa, where Mr Williams uses oak and copper tuns that date back to the early 19th century. The three month loan was repaid within eight weeks and the past three years have seen the beer rise from the status of a local oddity to gain far wider recognition and ever-growing sales. Timing has, in some respects, been fortunate for such a definitively Scottish product and Mr Williams happily admits to having taken full advantage of nationalistic sentiment in his advertising and promotion. When Mel Gibson threw a party in Los Angeles to celebrate the Oscar won for Braveheart he had 20 cases of Fraoch air-freighted in as a Celticly Correct alternative to vintage champagne. Hotels, restaurants and specialist food shops throughout the Highlands have discovered that visitors are thirsty for a beer with legendary local roots. At remote pubs such as Glencoe's Clachaig Inn, punk and hairy mountain climbers share a common interest in any new, exotic route either to a summit or inebriation. Few in Aberdeen would even dream of drinking heather ale and Highlanders themselves are notoriously wary of new fashions, but Fraoch is now, much to its advantage, part of the new Scottish folklore.

The beer has a distinctive taste. "It's not for lager drinkers," Mr Williams says with satisfaction. The flowery sweetness of heather is cut with the astringent herb bog myrtle to create a lingering and spicy flavour that is either loved or loathed. Fraoch is unlikely to ever to be a rival to Carlsberg Special Brew or Tennants. Compared to such brewing giants, production still remains on a minuscule level - just 2,000 barrels a year. But Mr Williams would prefer to think of this relatively small figure as representing one million pints consumed by satisfied enthusiasts. In 1995 he harvested, by rough and ready means, just forty acres of Scotland's heather. Some eleven million acres still remain ungathered, appreciated only by photographers and grouse. With a bigger van and better marketing, Mr Williams hopes he may perhaps increase his market share.

Fraoch Heather Ale, 0141-339 3479

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