Alba Pine, Fraoch Heather, Ebulum Elderberry, Grozet Gooseberry
I buy this four 330 ml bottle boxed set every Christmas at the LCBO for no doubt an exorbident price given all the fancy packaging. What I do not understand is why the beers in this promotional package are not otherwise available as singles. What exactly is being promoted? Anyway, the best thing is that these are all good beers and worth comparing even if each is more or less a unique style on its own.
These beers are made by Heather Ale Ltd. which also brews a full range of cask ales under the "Craigmill Brewery" brand and bottles Craigmill Swallow IPA. It is located in a 18th Century water mill on the river Avon, near Glasgow, in Strathaven, Lanarkshire. The web site for the brewery has a shop for readers in the UK to try and does indicate that single-brand cases can be bought, including cases of Kelpie, a seaweed beer, which is not included in the fourpack. Here is what I think of the four brews that are:
- Alba Pine Ale: The label tells me that:
Alba is a "triple" style ale, brewed to a traditional Highland recipe using the sprigs of spruce and pine collected in May 1998. This complex rich tawny ale is best drunk at room temperature from a wine goblet. Ingredients: malted barley bree, scots pine and spruce sprigs.I remember thinking before I had tried this ale that I had better brace for something resembling a 1960s institutional floor cleaning liquid. Nothing of the kind. This brew is very well structured with a big malt and sweet pine green front end. It is pretty apparent that there are no hops leaving any bitter edge. Rather the spruce and pine leaves a slight astringency and aromatic heat in the mouth that serves the same function as hops, cutting the cloy of the malt. While the brewer uses the word triple, implying a form of strong Belgian ale, I think that the malty and herbal taste at 7.5% is more analogous to a Belgian dubble.
The beer is reddish brown with a very nice tan head that faded quickly unsupported by the low carbination leaving just a rich rim inside the glass. There is lots of woodsy fruit in the glass as well as some whiskey, perhaps smokey notes. At the Beer Advocate, all but 5% of 105 reviewers give it a thumbs up, something I would not have expected for such a unique ale. The finish is orange peel, butterscotch, some heat yet a fresh juiciness quality that would make this rather more-ish if it were available-ish from the LCBO-ish.
- Ebulum Elderberry Black Ale: black ale this beer calls itself. It is really an oatmeal stout with fruit flavouring but that is besides the point - the point being that this is very good stout. Elderberry is an ornamental plant here in Canada which grannies grow on their front lawns and make jelly from in the autumn. It is a lovely small fruit bush and, when mature, very productive providing masses of the tart, woodsy, dark grapey berries. It is not that far off a blackberry or what some call a thimble berry but , unlike those, is not shaped like a dark raspberry. It is the perfect compliment to the roastiness and silkiness of an oatmeal stout. The bottle says:
It is a rich black ale with fruit aroma, soft texture, roasted grain and red wine flavour, with a gentle finish. Ingredients: malted barley bree, elderberries, roasted oats & barley and hops.It is interesting to note that there is no style called a "black ale" though there is a central European one called Schwartzbeer - but it is a lager. Beer advocatonians pick up the red wine comment and compare to port. Given the truly vineous nature of lambics and other soured beers, I think this is a bit of a red herring but it is not devoid of merit. Again, it is utterly beyond me why the LCBO does not stock the 500 ml bottles as a standing order when it brings this boxed set in each Yule.
I am confused as to the use of "barley-bree" on the lable as I understand this to reference a finished ale, implying I think incorrectly that the other ingredients are infused into that finished ale. I do not think that is the process being employed here given that roasted oats, unmalted, would create a problem with stability if it were merely infused.
- Grozet Gooseberry Lager: This deep straw coloured lager pours out quite still, the white head diffusing immediately. The berry flavour is much more forward than in the Ebulum giving a very tangy prominant overtone. It is citrusy - a combination of lemon/orange/lime. The bottle tell us that the ingredients include malted barley bree, wheat, gooseberies, hops, bogmyrtle and meadowsweet - the last two being traditional Scots wild herbs used before hops came to the UK in the 16th century. Unhappy beer advocatonians do not appreciate the goosebeery flavour but as the best dessert I ever ate was a gooseberry-pear pie, I am not worried. The gooseberry matches the tang of the wheat very nicely.
- Fraoch Heather Ale: Heather is a lovely thing and, being a Scottish immigrants kid who grew up in New Scotland, a pretty pervasive symbol in my life. Unlike hops, which is a robust annual vine that can grow to hundreds of feet, heather is a low bush that grows in pretty marginal rough places. It has both a sweetness like clover, twigginess and floral blossom aspects. This comes out in the ale, which is otherwise a fairly neutral low-medium pale ale. There is some fruit in the grain which joins with the sweetness of the heather nicely. There is an lavender-orangey thing to it but woodsy rather than fine. The finish is just off-dry and flavourful. Beer advocation is positive. From the brewery's website, this interesting technique to infuse the beer is explained:
Into the boiling bree of malted barley, sweet gale and flowering heather are added, then after cooling slightly the hot ale is poured into a vat of fresh heather flowers where it infuses for an hour before being fermented.For me, that is a better use of the infusion description. This one would be a very good every day ale if it were actually for sale here...every day.