Sandy’s Garden ... Heather Ale

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

“From the bonny bells of heather/They brewed a drink longsyne”

“Was sweeter far than honey, / Was stronger far than wine. / They brewed it and they drank it, / And lay in a blessed swound / For days and days together / In their dwellings underground.”

These are the words with which the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson opened his poem, ‘Heather Ale” – and yes, Robert Louis Stevenson really did write a great deal more than ‘Treasure Island”. And powerful stuff it must have been, if Stevenson’s statement that “they lay in a blessed swound for days and days together” after drinking the stuff. But who were ‘they’ and what was this powerful drink to which they had recourse?

Heather ale …fraoch leann in the Gaelic … dates back to a pre-Christian era. Something in the order of two-and-a-half thousand years ago, the members of a number of native tribes on which the Romans conferred the name ‘Picts’ are known to have brewed a strong ale made from the tips of heather flowers, malts and myrtle leaves. The so-called Picts were never a single nation but were ‘the painted people’ who retreated north and west in the countries which make up what we now call the British Isles to avoid being subjugated by the several waves of invaders who assailed these islands. Driven north of the Antonine Wall by the Romans, the Picts took their ale and its recipe north of the central belt of Scotland and across the sea to the Emerald Isle. These, then, were the ‘they’ of Stevenson’s 1888 poem.

Exactly a century later, Bruce Williams, the proprietor of a home-brew shop in Glasgow, was given a recipe for fraoich leann, a gift which encouraged him to experiment with different varieties of heather to recreate this ancient ale. But why paraphrase Bruce Williams’ words when we can read them, as written by Williams himself, on the internet? “The Williams Bros. Brewing Co. started life in the humble ‘Glenbrew’ homebrew shop in Glasgow,” he writes. “This was the family owned business that was both our occupation and passion. In 1988 a lady of Gaelic descent came into the shop with a translation of the recipe for ‘Fraoch Leann’ that had been handed down through the generations. It was her simple goal to recreate a batch of this historic brew to share with her family.”

“In return for the knowledge of how to brew the ale she agreed to share the recipe with Bruce. He then experimented with different blends of malts and quantities of heather (adding other botanicals along the way). This ancient process said to date back to 2000 BC became the template for what is now our definitive ‘Fraoch’ Heather Ale.”

One contemporary recipe for heather ale … not the closely-guarded one used by the Williams brothers … uses heather tips (softer green parts of the plant, with the flowers if possible), dry heather twigs (to provide tannin), yarrow (the feathery leaves plus the flowers if possible), dried hops, honey (the nicer the better, but cheap honey will be absolutely fine), malt extract, crushed crystal malt, dried carragheen (Irish moss), ale yeast and water. (No mention, in this recipe, of myrtle leaves.) However, although I do have well-established, purple-flowering heather growing in my garden, with tips and twigs a-plenty, a glance at the process of transforming the ingredients into ale persuades me that I shall never seek to use my heather in a home brew; and I suspect that, were I ever to change my mind on this matter, my home-brewed heather ale is more likely to hospitalise me with severe food poisoning than to induce a ‘blessed swound!