Thursday 7 January 2010

Williams Bros Historic Ales

What did beer taste like hundreds of years ago, I often ask myself. What hops did they use in their double IPAs in the 1700s, what kind of whisky barrels did they age their imperial stouts in during the 16th Century? In fact, my enjoyment of lambic is in its olde rustic charm, a taste of beer from many years ago, a mythical-magical concoction of wildly and freely fermenting beers, sweetened with fruit. Luckily for me, Williams Bros have a range of Historic Ales, so I get to try a modern interpretation of what these beers may have been like.

Kelpie is made with seaweed, which isn’t half as horrid as it sounds. Years ago the barley was grown in fields fertilized by seaweed but to recreate that the brewery adds the green stuff into the mash. It’s a deep brown ale with a fruity, chocolatey aroma initially, but sneakily hiding behind this is a waft - a hint - of something saline… a distinct earthy, peppery aroma (and maybe I was just mind-tricked into thinking it, but I could’ve sworn I smelt deep fried seaweed, the stuff from the Chinese – which isn’t even seaweed at all!). It’s a really tasty beer, easy drinking, roasty with a nice background sweetness and some dark stone fruits.

Grozet contains bog myrtle and ripe gooseberries. It’s a pale gold with a fluffy white head. The aroma is light and fruity and inconspicuous which belies the first taste of pale ale with a kick of sour berries, not wild-beer-sour, but fresh fruit sour. It’s bready and clean with a kick of earthy, heathery, flowery hops and then that fruitiness, which mellows as you drink. I could probably drink a few buckets of this.

Alba is a tripel-style beer brewed with spruce and pine. Some of these lovely new American hops taste like pine. This is actually made with it. Pouring it I feared a strange mix of retsina and strong beer, thankfully this fear soon died as it poured an amber-red and wafted a great aroma of berries, fruit and yeast. It’s a big beer with plenty of cakey (Victoria sponge) sweetness, spicy malt, strawberry fruits and a dry, slightly-herby finish. The pine wasn’t sharp and in your face, but chilled out, adding a great depth.

Williams also brew the famous heather ale, Fraoch (I also have one of the 11% versions aged in ex-Sherry and Speyside whisky casks), and Ebulum, an elderberry black ale with a recipe from the 16th century, as part of the Historical Ale range. I don’t imagine that this is exactly (or even close to) what the beer tasted like hundreds of years ago but I like that they are using these traditional ingredients and making them available for the modern drinker – it adds an extra level of engagement to the experience. And they taste pretty good too.

I don’t think I’ve had any Williams Bros Contemporary beers on cask (maybe Midnight Sun?) so that’s something to look out for this year. And this is just another example to raise when I try and qualify the statement: Scotland, they make some of the best beers in the world right now.


  1. I really like the idea of these beers, and enjoyed Fraoch when I first had it about 9 years ago. It was till recently that I tried Alba and the 20th Anniversary Fraoch. Both really nice. I'm looking forward to trying the rest of the range!

  2. That's a nice post. It really makes me want to try them. On cask of course! (-:

    PS. I had Fraoch on cask over Christmas. A lovely beer, but maybe hard to drink too much of. I have a bottle of the 20th Anniversary too. I must try it sometime soon. It may not age well. Williams are a great brewery and certainly I'd agree that the Scottish Brewing scene is improving and in some cases is excellent indeed.

  3. good stuff, id love to try some of their historic ales, they kindly sent me some of their aged heather ale and a few of their main range, have been impressed so far...cant wait to try the aged stuff

  4. Barry, I'd like to try the others now too. I had a bottle of their prototype ginger beer which I really enjoyed - loads of fresh zing but drinkable and lemony. Very nice.

    Tandleman, Froach is an odd one to me. I had it a year-or-so ago and wasn't keen. I'd be interested to try it again now. Maybe I'll get one to have alongside the big one.

    I want to find them on cask to see how well they do that side of things.

    Andy, there's a lot of us with the big bottle... this gives me an idea for a live, online, tweet-up... whadoyathink?!

  5. I had Midnight Sun on cask at Easter, rather too much, it was fantastic; Alba’s a good ’un as well, I got Bakewell Tart on the nose, but then I haven’t been to Greece (the only time I touch retsina) for years…The ginger beer is good as well, much better and fresher tasting than one that another brewer makes, which is all powdered ginger.

  6. I didn't like Fraoch on cask, but it's good from a bottle. I thought the kelp beer was foul but the pine beer very good.

  7. Im up for a tweet-tasting of the big bottle

  8. I've struggled to get hold of fresh bottles of Williams Bros' beers -- they always seem to be a bit knackered. I'd love to try some on cask or even bottle-conditioned.

  9. I'm a huge fan of this brewery-- their non-historic beers are spectacular as well.

    Seaweed is actually a common ingredient in beer! I usually put some in as it clarifies it-- of course there is so little of it, no flavor is left.

    I have some kelpie in my stash. Really looking forward to opening it soon!

  10. ATJ, I got victoria sponge and berries so pretty close to bakewell tart. I didn't get retsina, thankfully, godawful stuff. The ginger has a very good, fresh taste. And for 3.8% it was delicious.

    Bailey, they are selling it from the brewery website - give it a look (or just send them an email and tell them who you are...)

    Ali, i've had a few of the 'normal' range and like them. I was a little disappointed by the bottles in the Sainsbury's beer comp but think I was just in a grumpy mood the day I had them! I really want to find them on cask. hope you enjoy the Kelpie!