A Toast to the Neolithic Brewers!
“Wormus speaks of the drinking of heather-beer, as one of the pleasures which the souls of departed heroes enjoyed in the society of the gods.”
(W.T. Marchant: 1888)
The final Ale through the Ages brewing seminar of the 2010/2011 season wrapped up March 24th here at DISCOVERY WORLD in Milwaukee Wisconsin. The challenge this time (sixteenth session) was to recreate a fermented beverage that was brewed throughout Europe’s western islands, during the Neolithic Period (ca. 6,000-4,500 years ago). This recipe is based on molecular archaeological data and pollen analysis from pottery jar fragments found specifically at several archaeological sites in Scotland.
In keeping with provenance, we used a generous amount of Scotland-grown 2-row barley malt, along with a dose of peat smoked barley, a dash of acidulated malt and finishing with several pounds of sage honey. En lieu of hops (as it was not used in the Neolithic), heather tips, meadowsweet flowers and sweet gale were infused during the boil. The final gravity for our 12 gallon batch was 1.082 / 21 Plato, making this a rare Ale. We let it ferment for three weeks with Old Ale yeast (W1318) in one six gallon carboy and Scottish Ale yeast (W1728) in the other 6 gallon carboy. The resulting concoction is a tantalizingly delicious “Wee Heavy” scotch ale with hints of peat, heather and floral esters.
Cultural Geography of Europe’s Western Islands
More than one thousand islands comprise the European nations of the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Today the predominant ethnic groups include: Britons, Channel Islanders, Cornish English, English Gypsies, Irish, Irish Travelers, Kale, Manx, Scottish, Ulster-Scots and Welsh. Most of these islands have been inhabited for at least 14,000 years, since the end of the last Ice Age in a period know as the late Paleolithic. By around 8,500 years ago, most of the outer islands were occupied by the Mesolthic hunters and gathers.
Yet, it was around 6,000 years ago during the Neolithic Period that new waves of people moved onto the islands and brought with them grain agriculture and animal husbandry among other things. Known as the “Neolithic Revolution”, it spread new agricultural and technological traditions across the continent from East to West. Beginning in the 3rd millennium BCE pottery vessels found throughout Europe, usually in sets, indicate widespread fermented-beverage drinking traditions known by their pottery ware types: Baden ware, Globular ware, Corded ware, Bell Beaker ware, etc.
Neolithic Scottish Brew
The Orkney Island group contains some of the oldest and best-preserved Neolithic sites in Europe. The Neolithic site of Skara Brae located on the main island is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Archaeological evidence indicates that brewing activities likely took place in one of the round stone structures, dating to ca. 3100-2500 BCE.
Moreover, at the site of Balfarg, Fife, in southeast Scotland, an intact Neolithic circular earth embankment (henge) now situated in the center of a housing estate, yielded some remarkable evidence of an ancient fermented brew. Residues of cereal grain and meadowsweet pollen found on pottery fragments dated to the third millennium BCE, clearly point to the adoption of a widespread tradition of the consumption of fermented beverages seen throughout Europe during this period.
Other brewing evidence comes from the site of Kinloch, on the Isle of Rum, located in the Inner Hebrides of NW Scotland. Near the village of Kinloch, a Neolithic habitation site, was discovered containing circa 4,000 year old pottery sherds. Residue of mashed cereal straw, cereal-type pollen, meadowsweet, heather and royal fern were also discovered. (Nelson 2005:12). This is interpreted to be the remains of a Neolithic fermented floral grog ale (McGovern 2009:138).
The Decline of Heather Ale
Folklore tales attribute the original recipe for Heather Ale to have gone to the grave of a Pictish elder, at the hand of the Scots around the 4th century AD. The Scot Kenneth MacAlpine resolved to exterminate the Pict people of Caledonia (Scotland) sparing the lives of all but two…an aged father and son. Both possessed the recipe of brewing the valued heather beer. Their lives were promised to be spared if they divulged the secret recipe. The father asked for his life to be spared in exchange for his sons life…the father then said…“now I’m satisfied…my son might have taught you the art, I never will…!”
The Rebirth of Brewing with Heather
Of the more than 55 breweries currently operating in Scotland, only a few have begun to brew traditional heather ales. For example, the Williams Bros Brewing Company, run by Scott and Bruce Williams, is a micro brewery based in Alloa central Scotland. Among their line of traditional ales, the “Fraoch” from a Gaelic word for “leann fraoich” “heather ale” is worth checking out. “It is a 5% light amber ale with floral peaty aroma, full malt character, a spicy herbal flavor and dry wine like finish.”
A Toast to this Highland Heather Ale
Now that we’ve come full circle with how this recipe was concocted, the resulting rare Neolithic Period-inspired Highland Heather brew is one to age for awhile. At 9% ABV, the resurrection of this robust ale will be well enjoyed when the right time presents itself for toasting the intrepid ancient brewers of Europe’s western fringe! Slàinte Mhath!