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A champion beer for Burns' Night

January 25 sees celebration dinners wherever there are people of Scottish origin. They eat, drink and recite the works of their national poet, Robert Burns, born on this day in 1759. Burns spent his life in the Lowlands, and I have previously recommended a toast in Heather Ale, brewed not far from "Burns' Country" (at least its draught form; the bottles come from a more central part of Scotland).

This year, I suggest we celebrate Burns' love of barley. He wrote of love in a field of barley. He also personalised the grain as John Barleycor. The sturdy cereal is grown in the Lowlands, near the border with England, but also in the Highlands.

Barley and bere

In the far north of the Highlands, a more primitive form, called bere was cultivated in Burns' time. It looks much the same, but has four rows of corns (as opposed to two or six in malting barleys) and is very spiny and sharp. The level of taxes on bere was an issue hat almost sabotaged the Act of Union between England and Scotland. Today, bere is grown only in the Orkney islands, yet farther north. Although they are politically a part of Scotland, the Orkneys have a more Scandinavian heritage.

I saw this grain recently at a farm, dating from the 1700s and still using equipment from the 1800s. The farm is maintained as a museum. For some years the museum custodian malted grain and made beer for its guests. After an e-coli outbreak elsewhere in Scotland, and unconnected with beer, the health authorities decided that the farm was not a sanitary place in which to brew. They could not be persuaded that brewing began on farms, and that no pathogens can survive in beer.

At the farm museum, the custodian steeped his bere by putting sacksful in a stream. I have seen this method in Norway, too. The grain was then germinated on the floor of a farm building. At the end of the building, I saw a kiln, shaped like a large beehive or an igloo, eight or nine feet high. Inside was a hearth, over which was a platform of wire mesh.


I asked whether the fuel had been peat, and realised this was a redundant question. Orkney is so windy that it has few trees, and therefore scarcely any firewood.


When I expressed surprise at such a sophisticated kiln, I was told that every farm had one, until at least World War II. {"Everything changed after that"). The kilns were used for malting or simply to dry grain prior to its storage. Again, this was a parallel with farmhouse breweries in Scandinavia. I asked whether the fuel had been peat, and realised this was a redundant question. Orkney is so windy that it has few trees, and therefore scarcely any firewood. Before steamships, and even afterwards, it would have been very expensive to bring coal from the nearest mines, in the south of the Scottish mainland.

I was shown a barrel that had been used as a mashing vessel, and told that oat straw had been employed as a filter bed. The Norwegians use juniper twigs for the same purpose. My host at the farm, Harriet Craigie, spoke of homebrew being flavored with honey and brown sugar.

Like the Scandinavians, the people of Orkney (known as Orcadians) harvested yeast from one batch to use in the next. It was kept cool by being stored in a well. What was the origin of the first yeasts? Ms Craigie guessed that they might have been derived from moulds on potatoes. (I remember seeing orange-skins being put to the same purpose by a maker of pulque in Mexico).

When I asked why bakers' yeast was not used, I was surprised to learn that it was virtually unknown in the Orkneys until the war. Flat breads had been baked on open fires, and boiled items like dumplings had also been a staple. A good example is the cake-like clootie dumpling that is still widely served in the Scottish islands. The Welsh have something similar called boiled cake.

In the Orkneys, bere bannocks, are a hybrid between a pancake and a crumbly, dough-like, flat bread. They are widely available, and often served with cheese. I sampled one, and found "dark", rye-like, flavors.

Bere is still grown in the Orkneys, and turned into flour in a water-driven mill. The mill also does some malting. The grain is, again, steeped in sacks -- in the mill dam. It is germinated on the floor of the mill, which has its own kiln. Miller Rae Phillips, the third generation of his family to hold the position, told me that until the post-war period "99 per cent" of families in the Orkneys brewed. Because the weather did not suit the cultivation of barley, most of the brewing was from bere. Some brewers, unhappy that he fired the kiln with grain-husks, would bring their own peat,

Rae gave me a sample of his own bere. It was brewed at home from malted bere, with three pounds of sugar to six gallons. He estimated the original gravity at 1060. The brew was hopped with four ounces of Goldings (which, on reflection, Rae thought was too much). Although no dark malt was used, the beer had a full, apricot-like, color. It was syrupy but also drily nutty, grainy, almost dusty, with a medicinal bitterness and a warming, alcoholic, finish.

Orkney Skullsplitter

The one commercial brewery on the island has also very occasionally made a beer from bere. This is the Orkney Brewery, a micro founded in 1988 in a Victorian schoolhouse. Its strongest conventional brew is a strong Scottish ale with a name that alludes to Scandinavian history: Skullsplitter. A Viking ruler in the 9th century was said to have cleaved his enemies' skulls with an axe. In 1919, during renovations of the island's cathedral, a split skull was found sealed into a pillar. The Orkney Brewery's Skullsplitter (8.5 per cent alcohol by volume) has a raisiny, sweet, aroma; a very creamy taste, developing flavours like a fruit cake dunked in Port; and a toasty finish. Yes, it tastes good - but Skullsplitter can seem to threaten eternal sleep. This month, it was judged Champion Winter Beer of Great Britain by the Campaign for Real Ale.

Now it is my choice for Burns' Night, 2001.


Published: JAN 24, 2001
In: Beer Hunter Online

- Beer Review - Historical

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