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I'm interested in hearing about people's experience brewing a heather ale.. from what I understand this was the predominant flavoring of beers before hops and it just seems like an interesting part of brewing to explore.

I have not found a commercial example of this to date.. but I'm interested in trying this myself.

Does anyone have any tips / recipes / stories that you can share about heather ale brewing? Is it worth trying a batch?

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I'm researching heather ale for a brew in a couple weeks. I'll be sure to keep notes. –  Bad Neighbor Apr 25 '11 at 16:25
    
Did you ever brew your heather ale @Bad? –  yhw42 Jun 1 '11 at 2:46

6 Answers 6

up vote 2 down vote accepted

I brewed with heather in a gruit, and spent some time beforehand experimenting with teas in combinations of other herbs. There is a lack of solid information regarding gruits, much less heather. My reading material included GruitAle.com, Radical Brewing, Sacred Herbal and Healing Beers, forum searches on HBT and AHA, etc.

For bittering, the recipes I found call for a pound or more per 5 gallon batch. Heather flowers are tiny and very light, so 8oz will take up an entire 8x9 nylon boiling bag. If you add it directly to the boil, you will need to strain it out before adding to the fermenter. I imagine they'll clog an autosiphon just as easily as whole hops. In my case, I supplemented with other, stronger bittering herbs.

For flavor, many recipes tell you to pour the hot wort directly through the heather. This is highly inefficient, and you won't get the heather's full flavor potential. This might work with fresh heather, but the only way I know how to obtain that is to grow your own, and harvesting heather is time consuming.

I found that the best way to get heather flavor and aroma is to make a tea. Either use hot water or wort. Fill a french press, 2-4oz at a time, and steep for 5-15 minutes. Pour this right into the fermenter or cooling wort. You can do this as many times as necessary.

Here is the 5gal gruit recipe that I made:

  • 10 lbs Pale Malt, Maris Otter (3.0 SRM)
  • 1 lbs Cara-Pils/Dextrine (2.0 SRM)
  • 8.0 oz Caramel/Crystal Malt - 20L (20.0 SRM)
  • 8.0 oz Caramel/Crystal Malt - 60L (60.0 SRM)
  • 2.00 oz Mugwort, Dried (Boil 60.0 min)
  • 2.00 oz Yarrow, Dried (Boil 60.0 min)
  • 4.00 oz Heather Tips, Dried (Boil 60.0 min)
  • 4.00 oz Heather Tips, Dried (Tea w/ 4c hot wort)
  • 2 Pkgs Nottingham Yeast

Measured OG: 1.072 3-4 week fermentation at 65F Est ABV 7.1%

The mugwort, yarrow, and half the heather went in a nylon boiling bag. The herbs also soaked up more water than anticipated, and I ended up having to top off my fermenter with 1/2 gal more water. I had originally intended to scale back the yarrow, but I figured the high gravity needed the stronger bittering that it would bring. I suggest you research this ingredient before using. "You're on your own". I will edit this answer in a couple months with tasting notes, but the wort tastes excellent. The next gruit will have elderberry in addition to the heather.

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I apologize for the delay. I had to move and I didn't expect it to hinder my homebrewing as much as it did. –  Bad Neighbor Jul 3 '11 at 12:42
    
This is a great answer and I am interested to see what comes of the heather beer. I just brewed a "classic" gruit with yarrow, mugwort, marsh rosemary, & sweet gale based on a recipe from that gruit house site you mention. It sounds like these kinds of beers really benefit from aging, so I'm going to let it go a few months before trying it. –  SimonH Jul 4 '11 at 0:31
    
Well the gruit got infected. It's got a pretty strong vinegar taste to it now. Either the bucket was infected (it certainly is now!) or the tea I made wasn't hot enough for long enough. I still bottled it because I kinda like it, and because now it's probably more authentic! I'm not dissuaded at all and will be ordering more heather soon. –  Bad Neighbor Aug 3 '11 at 12:32

I love brewing with heather. I first got the idea from a local brewery - Olde Burneside Brewery, in Hartford, CT. They make a Penney-weiz ale that is very good. I started out with 2 oz dried heather added near the beginning of the boil for a 5 gal batch of honey weizen. I thought I took good notes, but I haven't been able to replicate anything near the flavor intensity of that 1st batch.

I've just started fermenting a batch of an Amber braggot with heather and juniper berries. I'll you know!

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Williams Brothers, from Scotland, brew a range of traditional ales, one of which, Fraoch, is a heather ale and has been around for over twenty years. If you are interested in the history of heather ale, then Martyn Cornell's book Amber, Gold & Black has a whole chapter on it.

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I made Heather ale about 30 to 40 years ago when I was living in Scotland. I found a recipe in a book called The Scots Kitchen by F. Marian McNeil. I only made this once, but it was delicious and extremely fizzy, so much so that one of the plastic water bottles I kept it is burst.

The recipe only states to use Heather, barm, hops, syrup ginger and water. There are no quantities given so it is up to the brewer to try their best with it.

Well worth trying though.

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I have not done this, but I know that The Mad Fermentationist has. In his most recent recipe, he makes a tea with the heather flowers, which he blended into the finished beer.

Just steeping the flowers won't give you the bitterness you would get from boiling the heather with the wort, though. He added more bitterness to the beer through lactobacillus and oak aging.

You could probably play around with a mix of steeping and boiling the heather, just like you do with hops. Boiling will extract bitterness, but drive off aromatics. Steeping will give you aromatics but no bitterness. This looks to be how Scottish breweries like Williams do it, they boil some and then run hot wort through something like a hopback (heatherback?) before chilling.

Sounds like an fun experiment to me.

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A museum near my house hosts a brewing seminar series over the winter months called Ale Through the Ages. The last beer brewed this season was a Heather Ale, you can read about some of the history and the recipe we brewed here: http://distantmirror.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/brewing-a-5000-year-old-scottish-ale/

Some people brought some Fraoch ( http://beeradvocate.com/beer/profile/12142/245 ) to the session and it was pretty good.

I really enjoyed this beer and I'm thinking of brewing a heather ale of my own soon.

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