Something's Brewing: Scotland's finest real ales
Thanks to an explosion of micro brewers all over the country, Scotland is pushing back the boundaries of real ale innovation. Frank Park of the Scottish Real Ale Shop runs the rule over a selection of his favourite small breweries.
A feature of Scottish real ale is the use of local ingredients to add a unique flavour. The Valhalla Brewery on the island of Unst in Shetland has a strong Viking influence, including the name Valhalla, the hall in the celestial regions, home of the Norse god Odin, where slain Viking warriors were borne, to be revived by a horn full of ale. Valhalla brews six regular ales. The original is Auld Rock, Shetlanders’ name for their island. Among the others is a very light bitter, Old Scatness, which is brewed from an ancient type of six row barley called bere. The beer takes its name from the Old Scatness archaeological dig at the south end of Shetland where evidence was found of beer making well over 2000 years ago. With an ABV of 4.0 per cent, this brew has heather honey added at the end of the boil to give a nice, refreshing, smoky aftertaste.
The famous Skullsplitter and Dark Island are two of the beers produced at the Orkney Brewery. Skullsplitter carries on the Viking influence, being named after Thorfinn Einarsson, the seventh Viking Earl of Orkney. It is a tawny red colour, with a fruity malty aroma and a spicy, fresh and dried fruit taste. Dark Island, twice CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Scotland, is a very dark beer, deep ruby in colour, with a chocolate and mixed fruit aroma and a coffee roast malt flavour. A connoisseur’s version, Dark Island Reserve, is brewed twice a year and delivers ten per cent ABV by introducing whisky into the brewing process. www.orkneybrewery.co.uk
The brewing tradition on Colonsay and Oransay dates back to the monks who ruled the islands. Now the brewery is researching the processes used in those distant times. A five-barrel operation, Colonsay Brewery creates very traditional beers and lagers that strive to encapsulate the wild and rugged nature of the island in a bottle. It produces a lager, 80/- and IPA, the distinctive quality of each being attributed to the unhurried nature of brewing and the quality of the peaty water that adds to the flavour of the beers. www.colonsaybrewery.co.uk
Islay Ales was founded in 2003 by Paul Hathaway, Paul Capper and Walter Schobert who decided that an island with eight (soon to be nine) distilleries, producing some of the most famous whiskies in the world, needed a brewery. The company specialises in cask and bottle-conditioned beer, which is the classic description of real ale. The beers are neither filtered nor pasteurised and so continue to ferment and mature in the cask and the bottle, which inevitably means a shorter shelf life. Islay Ales offers a superb selection including the very light Saligo lager-style beer, the tawny Ardnave and Finlaggan, the ruby red dark Nerabus and Black Rock and an excellent stout, Dun Hogs Head. www.islayales.com
A final stop on this island tour is the Arran Brewery, which survived a period of administration to surface healthier, fitter and still with its superb selection of beers. Arran Blonde, Dark and Sunset have been joined by its latest, Arran Milestone, its first bottle-conditioned ale and winner of the Champion Bottle Conditioned Beer of Scotland at the 2008 Ayrshire and Galloway Beer Festival. Milestone is a dark, amber brew with a subtle balance of malt and floral hop character, giving a lingering fruity finish. www.arranbrewery.co.uk
Established in 1995, the Uig-based Isle of Skye Brewery was re-branded as Skye Brewing in 2014, and makes a good selection of ales including gems such as Skye Red, Skye Black and Skye Blaven. Its Skye Gold is brewed with porridge oats, which creates an exceptional smoothness as well as a thick, creamy head. www.skyebrewery.co.uk
The Williams brothers are leading innovators in brewing, having created the iconic Fraoch from an ancient Gaelic recipe for ‘leann fraoich’ (heather ale), which was revived and reintroduced to the Scottish culture. They add sweet gale and flowering heather into the boiling bree of malted barley then, after it cools slightly, they pour the hot ale into a vat of fresh heather flowers, where it infuses for an hour before being fermented. A light, amber ale with a floral, peaty aroma and full malt character, it has a spicy, herbal flavour and dry, wine-like finish. Williams Bros also pioneered the use of gooseberries in Grozet, pine and spruce shoots in Alba, elderberries in Ebulum and seaweed in Kelpie, all creating very interesting and uniquely Scottish ales. www.williamsbrosbrew.com
Centrally located in Larbert by Falkirk, Tryst was set up in 2004 by John McGarva. When John was young there was always home-made beer, wine and jam in the house. His dad was an enthusiastic maker of anything that could be grown and collected from his own garden, fruit farm or hedgerow. His beer style was a big Scottish 80/- usually made from a commercial bitter kit with extra hops for taste and sugar for strength (Electric Soup) and more than a few unsuspecting visitors were helped out the door worse for having a couple of pints. Tryst has concentrated on cask and bottle-conditioned beers offering a range of about ten real ales. Among these is Blathan (pronounced ‘bla-han’), which translates from Gaelic as 'little blossom'. A single hop variety is enhanced with elderflower and pale malts to create a beer with a strong floral nose and refreshing taste.
Black Wolf Brewery
Stirling is the home of Black Wolf Brewery, re-branded from Traditional Scottish Ales in 2014, which has an excellent range of beers including 1488 Whisky Ale, which is matured for up to 12 weeks in newly disgorged Tullibardine casks to give it a glorious rich, natural, malt whisky colour and a light Tullibardine aroma with a clean, fresh whisky aftertaste. www.blackwolfbrewery.com
● Frank Park is part of the family partnership that acquired the Lade Inn and Trossachs Microbrewery in 2005. Working with brewer Traditional Scottish Ales (TSA), now Black Wolf Brewery, they developed three real ales: Waylade, a creamy blonde bitter with a malty, fruity nose and lightly hopped aftertaste; Ladeback, a slightly sweeter amber ale with a dry, hop-dominated finish; and Ladeout, a dark ale with a complex flavour of dark chocolate and liquorice. When customers began asking for carry-outs and came prepared with their own jugs to be filled with the Lade beers, they decided to bottle the beers. The success of these gave them the idea to provide a wider selection of beers. This idea developed into the Scottish Real Ale Shop and they began sourcing real ales from microbrewers from Shetland to the Borders. The shop now has over 120 Scottish real ales from 26 microbreweries. The Scottish Real Ales shop and Lade Inn are at Kilmahog, by Callander (www.scottishrealales.com).
With some examples of their beers.