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Heather Ale recipe

Updated on December 7, 2015
James Slaven profile image

James has written for various magazines, including Celtic Guide, Mythology Magazine, and Pagan Forest.

Ach, the beautiful muirs of Scotland! Heather as far as the eye can see, swirled with mosses and bracken and grasses. Beautiful hues of purple and pink, mixed with smatterings of white, yellow, and green. While it is not the national flower of Scotland (the thistle), its beauty as it rolls up and down the moors cannot be denied.

What else is the flower good for besides looking beautiful? Beer! Before hops were used as a preservative and flavoring, other flora had to be used to keep ale as fresh as possible. Such herbs included bog myrtle, mugwort, and aniseed, as well as the use of berries, such as the juniper. My personal favorite, though, is the use of heather (I want to say it’s because I love all things Scottish, but I suspect it could also have something to do with the name of the woman who led me into manhood many moons ago… sigh).

I discovered this ale while researching ancient brewing techniques, during which I happened upon the Scottish historical pack. This most excellent of mixed packs included heather ale, gooseberry and wheat ale, Scots pine ale, and elderberry black ale. It is made by Williams Brothers Brewing (Scotland, UK), and they also make a wonderful beer called Kelpie which uses seaweed.

The Historic Ales pack
The Historic Ales pack | Source

Now having tasted this ambrosia, I wanted a more cost effective way of having many bottles of it, so I attempted to work out a clone recipe. It took some experimentation, but I worked out a recipe that I like even better than William Brothers’ Froach Heather ale. The original does not use any peated malts, but I love the peat flavors in Scotch ales, so I added a touch of that. If you want it slightly closer to the original, take out the peated malts. Also, my recipe ends up being a little darker with a slightly toffee flavor, which comes from using slightly darker crystal malts. So if you want it to be a bit closer to the original – I doubt I hit the recipe exact – take out the peated malts and use all 60L Crystal (for the un-initiated, L is the Lovibond scale which measures color; the higher the number, the darker the color, and for malts this usually adds some complexity to the taste).

Another thing I love about this beer is that it feels extremely appropriate when it is used for a ritual or when sharing with the deities/ancestors/Sidhe. Being a non-hopped ale, it more resembles ancient beer (while used earlier, hops did not really take over until the 1200s on the continent and even later in the British Isles). Traces of heather ale have even been found in Scotland dating back to 2000 BCE.

If you’re interested, there is also an excellent poem on heather ale, called Heather Ale, by Robert Louis Stevenson and, while I could only find this one, there is a wonderful recipe that calls for heather (search for roast pheasant with heather and whisky raspberry gravy – I used some game hens instead, but it was excellent!). I would post the recipe here, but want to make sure the chef, Ann Willan, gets credit for it. And if you want a beer using Scotland’s national flower, Belhaven Brewing’s Twisted Thistle IPA is not difficult to find.

Scotland's fields of heather
Scotland's fields of heather | Source

Ingredients for a five gallon batch (please note that I do extract brewing, and if you’re an all-grain brewery, you’ll have to adjust accordingly – but if you’re an all grain brewer, I have no doubt you can easily do that):

1/8 pound Crystal 60L

1/8 pound Crystal 120L

1/16 pound peated malts

7 pounds extra pale liquid extract

1.25 pounds heather tips (or 1 pound heather tips and 0.5 ounces hops)

Yeast (described below)

Standard brewing equipment


Sanitize! Sanitize everything and sanitize well. That will keep you from getting nasty flavors in your beer. Once you have sanitized, start the brewing process by warming up 2.5 gallons of water in a large (16 quart or larger – and because of the heather tips, larger is better!) stainless stockpot. Heat the water to 155 degrees Fahrenheit and then turn off the heat. Having put the grains in a grain bag, dip them in and out of the water for 15-20 minutes. Keep in mind the water is still hot enough to burn if it splashes, so take it easy. Then remove the grains (either discarding them or keeping for bread or animal feed) and turn the heat back on, bringing the mixture to boiling this time. Once the wort (beer liquid in process of being made – pronounced ‘wert’) reaches boiling, remove it from the heat and mix in the extract. Make sure you stir this really well so none of the liquid extract burns at the bottom of the pot (and if you prefer using dry extract, make sure you also adjust the amount being used). Once it is all mixed in well, return to heat and return to boiling. Be very careful, as it can bubble up and spill if you aren’t careful. Once it gets to a nice roiling boil, control the heat to keep the boil without it spilling out in a sticky, sugary mess.

The next step is to add the heather tips. Set a timer for 60 minutes (the bittering hop step) and add ¾ pound of the heather tips, stirring continuously. This is where the brewing is differing from your standard ale, as hops are generally easy to add. Heather tips are a huge mess! The do not dissolve easily and you’re going to have them just floating all over the place. When the timer gets down to 15 minutes (the flavor hop step), add ¼ pound of heather tips (during research, I saw that some brewers will add a half ounce of hops at this point – you should do what sounds best to you, and I would recommend either Goldings or East Kent if you go this route). When the timer gets down to 5 minutes (the aroma hop step), add the remaining ¼ pound of heather tips, always stirring them around.

Original homemade bottle sticker for the author's first attempt.  (The 'h' was added so people would stop mispronouncing it!)
Original homemade bottle sticker for the author's first attempt. (The 'h' was added so people would stop mispronouncing it!) | Source

When using hops, there really isn’t any additional mess to clean up, but you will still have a lot of heather tips floating around that you’ll have to scoop out before moving it over to your fermentation vessel.

Now that 60 minutes of boil time is over, remove the wort from the heat and cool it down to 80 degrees Fahrenheit as quickly as possible. I recommend using a wort chiller coil, but being a tightwad, I haven’t bought one yet and just use ice and cold water in the sink. Once it has cooled to 80 degrees, move it over to the (sanitized) primary fermenter and add cool water to make 5.25 gallons. At this point you can check the specific gravity with a hydrometer, in order to calculate the ABV later (my last batch had an original specific gravity of 1.055).

Now pitch (add) the yeast, making sure to have prepared the yeast per package instructions. I used a Scottish ale yeast, but if you’re an experienced brewer who knows what taste you’re looking for, go for it! Now cap it with the air lock and gently move the fermenter around a little aerate the wort. Hopefully you’ll see the bubbles popping in the air lock within a day, to indicate the yeast is doing its job and converting sugars to alcohol. After a week, move it over to secondary fermentation where it will sit for an additional week, after which you can bottle.

At bottling, boil some water with priming sugar and add to the wort before bottling. This will give it the yeast a bit more to work with in the bottle and help with carbonation. Once the ale has set in the bottles for a month or two, it’s ready to drink.

Please let me know what you think and if you tried any alternate ideas! Slainte and wassail!

© 2015 James Slaven


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