The Dark Beer Ages
After the fall of the classical world, our attention turns north to the barbarian tribes. They and their predecessors had been drinking alcoholic beverages for some time. A Neolithic people usually called the “Beaker Culture” was widely spread in northwest Europe, and is identified by characteristic ritual drinking vessels found with burials of high-status individuals. Chemical analysis of later Bronze Age vessels revealed traces of a drink made from honey, cranberries and meadowsweet—an herb with some of the same preservative qualities as hops.
Another herb that frequently found its way into ancient beverages was heather. Scotland is its most famous habitat, although heather grows all through the wind-swept northern coastal areas of Europe. It comprises a group of low shrubby evergreen plants (Ling and Erica) well adapted to these harsh environs. Heather blooms in late summer, a bounty of tiny flowers with a delicate honeyish aroma. The earliest inhabitants of Scotland, the Picts, brewed a beer from it.
By the Middle Ages, heather ale had passed into legend. Robert Louis Stevenson famously retold the story. It’s a melodramatic tale, in which the last remaining king of the Picts hurls himself and his sons over a cliff rather than reveal the secret of heather ale. It’s kind of a mystery to me, frankly, because just about every inch of the Hebrides is creepy with heather, and it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this just might be a good thing to add to ale.
At any rate, a homebrew shop owner named Bruce Williams thought so. He began work to recreate the recipe, and the result was Llean Fraoch. It is a malty Scottish ale, lightly hopped, and kissed with freshly harvested heather blossoms, bog myrtle and meadowsweet. The herbs are not at all intrusive and add a layer of fresh floral notes.
Williams has recreated a number of other ancient brews featuring kelp, pine, gooseberries and elderberries. All are tantalizing tastes of the past, and not as weird to drink as they are to read about.