There’s something special brewing in the Borders – and it’s not tea

Sandy Neil tries out an organic lager made in the borders.
Sandy Neil tries out an organic lager made in the borders.
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The world’s third most popular drink after water and tea, beer has for thousands of years been fermented from any substance containing carbohydrates, such as sugar or starch.

The Chinese brewed a beer from rice around 7,000BC, and the Ancient Egyptians drank a sweet, aromatic beer called haq, made from the red barley of the Nile. Beer, bread and onions were the staples of the Egyptians, and beer has even been found buried in their tombs to keep the deceased going in the after-life.

So not only did beer help build the pyramids, but also America too.

“When George Washington ran for the legislature in 1758,” writes Reay Tanahill in Food In History, “his agent doled out almost three gallons of beer, wine, cider or rum to every voter.”

Aspiring Border politicians take note.

Birch beer has long been brewed in Cape Breton in Canada, by tapping the sap from the trees in spring and fermenting it with sugar or molasses. The technique perhaps arrived with Scottish settlers, for Thomas Pennant, travelling in the Highlands in 1772, commented on the “quantities of excellent wine extracted from the live tree by sapping”.

“The Scots,” writes F Marian McNeill in The Scots Cellar, “unlike the English, make no boast of their brewing. They have no need; for, as a Spanish poet said of good wine, ‘it is its own best testimonial’.”

In Noctes Ambrosianae, written by Sir Walter Scott’s son-in-law and biographer John Gibson Lockhart, there is reference to a lost Berwick Ale of ‘ripe, racy, and reamy richness’. The Borders today only boasts four breweries of Scotland’s 54, yet each are extremely different in character.

Experimenting at the front of a new beer movement is Gavin Meiklejohn, whose year-old Tempest Brewery in Kelso creates nine craft beers, currently sold on pump at the town’s Cobbles Inn, and soon in bottles too across Scotland in the summer.

“The British brewing industry is very traditional,” he says. “We want to turn it on its head and innovate it – making interesting beers with big flavour, and a little bit of daring.”

Tempest’s list of beers include a rye pale ale, a wheat malt blonde, a citra single hop IPA, a cold fermented craft lager “like nothing you’ll expect”, and a porter infused with chipotle and cocoa beans.

“Craft beer tasting is like wine tasting, but cheaper,” enthuses Tempest brewer Allan Rice, “and you have to swallow the beer to get the flavours at the back of the throat.

“We want to engage more women in craft beers and educate people that there’s more to beer than mainstream lagers and getting mashed.”

The Italians, who love their beer, are known to share and savour a bottle or two over an evening.

“Our philosophy is that we’re more about the beer than the brand,” continues Gavin. “And more about what goes into the bottle than the location. Beer is a creative process. Beer is art. We’re brewing beers that are expressions of our personalities.”

A second Borders brewery, launched this month by John Henderson on his family’s Chesters Estate near Jedburgh, taps into a thirst for ‘plough to pint’ local beers – so far unique among Scotland’s brewers.

Both John’s 4 per cent Game Bird amber ale and 3.8 per cent Foxy Lady classic pale ale, now available on pub pumps across the Borders, are brewed using malting barley grown on the farm, and water rising from the land’s own artesian spring – a rare aquifer in the Borders’ geology.

Sourcing the right water is essential in brewing.

“Burton-on-Trent has the best water for making beer because of the mineral content,” John explains, “so brewers often ‘burtonise’ soft water with salts to harden it.”

Traquair House Brewery creates beers inspired by the Borders’ heritage. Despite being revived only in 1965 by Peter Maxwell Stuart, the 20th Laird of Traquair, the brewery’s four ales (Bear, House, Jacobite and the Laird’s Liquor) are still made in the same coach house and kit used in the 1700s.

“We still have the receipt from the copper bought in 1738,” reports Catherine Maxwell Stuart, Peter’s daughter and the current Lady of Traquair.

“Every bottle of beer has been fermented in unlined oak vessels that are more than one or two hundred years old.”

The four memel oak tanks imbue Traquair’s annual 250,000 bottles with a tannic, woody depth, true to the taste of original porters and stouts.

Jacobite Ale, brewed to commemorate the anniversary of the 1745 rebellion, is spiced with coriander using an 18th century recipe discovered in an old beer book from Traquair’s archives.

“The recipes in the book used orange peel, bark – anything to flavour the beer,” explains Ian Cameron, brewer at Traquair for 30 years. “One called ‘cock ale’ had a cockerel in it.”

In history, ale was always safer to drink than water, thanks to the bactericidal effect of hops and strong alcohol – both the 8 per cent Jacobite Ale and 7.2 per cent House Ale have 10-year shelf lives.

Beer was the common drink almost everywhere, at any time of day.

“In the early 18th century,” writes Elizabeth Craig in The Scottish Cookery Book, “beer always appeared at breakfast in the homes of Scottish chieftains.”

Traquair’s rich House Ale, the first to be brewed in 1965, is based on the strong, dark, traditional Scottish ale of the time – the “wee heavy” or “wee dump”, often seen chased down with a nip of whisky.

Drawing from Border history too is Broughton Ales which brewed its first beer, Greenmantle pale ale named after John Buchan’s novel, in 1980.

Nine more bottled beers followed: Black Douglas, The Ghillie, Old Jock, Exciseman’s 80/-, Merlin’s Ale, Scottish Oatmeal Stout, Angel Organic Lager, Border Gold Organic Ale, and Champion Double Ale.

Add to this list a keg beer Broughton Best, and a growing series of seasonal cask ales, such as the Pennine Way Bitter served at the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm, and the Tibbie Shiels Ale, available from April from the Tibbie Shiels Inn in the Yarrow Valley.

Chris Mouat guided me on a tour of how Broughton’s beers are brewed.

First, hot water from the Talla Reservoir is mixed with pounded malt from Simpsons in Berwickshire in the ‘mash tun’: a percolator to strain the brown, sugary liquid called ‘wort’ from the porridge.

During malting, the grain is allowed to germinate or sprout to turn the starch inside to sugar, and then it’s roasted for different lengths of time for more variations of flavour.

The wort is boiled in a big kettle called a ‘copper’, where bitter and aromatic hops are introduced, and then the liquid is cooled and piped into fermenting vessels where yeast is added to convert the sugar into alcohol. When after three to five days the desired proof is almost reached, the yeast action is stopped by cooling, leaving just a little sugar for the yeast to do a secondary fermentation in the cask, creating ‘carbonation’ or a fizz of carbon dioxide to propel the ale out of pub’s hand-pumps and into your pint glass.