21 Apr 2010

Traquair Ales: A taste of history

One of the best things about eating and drinking in Scotland is how easy it is to stack pleasure onto a sensual experience by adding the often remarkable history behind it.

So in the spirit of layered pleasure, humour me and imagine you are drinking a beer. Not just a beer but an ale - dark with a cream coloured head. Still holding onto your glass, transport yourself back to the 1700s.

You are a worker on an estate that dates back to 1107, and the beverage you are holding, made using the fresh spring water that flows nearby, makes up a substantial part of your earnings.

Then in the 1800s, stand in the brewery as it falls silent. Dust gathers around all of the brewing equipment, including the massive oak vessels used to ferment the beer.

One hundred and fifty years go past, and the new owner of the estate is digging through the disused brewery, uncovering the oak tuns. He thinks about the fresh spring water that still flows through the property and an idea strikes like a match in his mind. Soon the ale is flowing again.

Fast forward to today. You are looking through a window into a small room where those same four unlined oaks vessels are still doing their job after all these years.
They are so precious that when they are not being used for brewing, they are kept wet with steam hoses. They are never allowed to dry out, because the wood would crack and warp, and if they are lost they cannot be replaced. The species of tree from which they were made - the memel oak- is no longer available.

Take another sip from that glass in your hand and try to tell me it’s just another beer.

Traquair Brewery will never be big. They will never take the world by storm and flood the market with rich, uniquely Scottish ale. Because if they took the leap into mass production they would have to change to the modern lined oak casks. This means the flavour would change. The brewery would change. And they have no intention of changing.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the brewery and sample all four of their bottled ales(their Stuart Ale is only available on tap from a handful of pubs around Scotland). 

I rarely drink alcohol and by no means do I possess the confidence to cover my opinions in gold leaf and call it Truth, but I will say this about these ales: they made my mouth very happy.

All the Traquair ales are considered winter ales because they are heavy and dark, with the Bear Ale being the palest option of the lot.

The Traquair House Ale, the variety that put the brewery back in business in the 1960s, is their most popular and widely available. Gus, The brewery’s shop manager, recommends balancing the fruity warmth of the house ale with an acidic cheese like an aged cheddar.

The Bear Ale was my least favourite, perhaps because the sting of the bitterness reminded me of what I dislike about lager. Overall I preferred the smooth flavours of the dark ales.

The most powerful flavour comes from the brewery’s newest offering, the Laird’s Liquor. Sip this to feel a little cloud of liquorice lingering on your palate.

My favourite was the Jacobite Ale, which pours like liquid midnight thanks to the darkly toasted malt. It is round and full and leaves a spicy tickle in the throat, due to the added twist of coriander. Gus recommends a curry with this one -anything with chillies.

It is best to drink these ales at room temperature, and by room temperature that doesn’t mean our often overly warm modern homes. Think of the cool comfort of a stone cottage in late spring and aim for that.

If you aren’t in Scotland and are salivating to try some of these ales, Traquair is available from some specialty shops around the UK, and does export to some parts of the USA, Canada and a few countries in Europe. If you are in the USA your best option is to check in with merchantduvin see if it is available in your state.

I have a full list of retailers and importers so if anyone wants to check whether Traquair ales are available in a specific area or country, email me or leave a comment.

When people think of Scotland they often think of whisky, and after this experience I wonder if these crafted Scottish ales aren’t getting unfairly left in the corner. My visit to Traquair was my first foray into Scottish ales and I hope to visit many more breweries in the future.

All that remains is to thank the folks at Traquair House for the use of the photos (only the highly unprofessional one below is mine). I didn’t think to take photos when I was sampling the ales at the shop. Then I forgot my camera at a follow-up tasting session with my slow food group later in the week. Nevermind.

Now then, hold out your glasses and I’ll pour.

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