Fraoch. What a funny word. It sounds like something one might say upon trying a particularly distasteful beverage. Or something one might yelp ruefully while hugging the porcelain after a vicious night of imbibing. But itís not. Itís Scottish Gaelic for " heather " ó and itís the name of an intriguing ale from Craigmill Brewery in Strathaven, Lanarkshire, near Glasgow. Youíll like how it tastes, but probably wonít be tempted to drink to excess.
Heather ale has been brewed in Scotland for over 4000 years ó making it a contender for the oldest ale style around. In fact, Craigmill takes it as its mission to resuscitate Caledoniaís " ancient flavours " with beers such as Grozet, which uses gooseberries as monks have done since the 1500s, and Alba, which employs spruce and pine shoots in the brewing process as the Vikings taught the Scots to do in the seventh century. (See our review of Craigmillís seaweed beer, Kelpie, in " Sipping, " 8 Days a Week, November 28, 2002).
Fraoch is brewed with Scottish malt and uses sweet gale and heather flowers in lieu of the usual hops. The result? A pungently efflorescent aroma and a dry, vaguely medicinal, but hardly unpleasant flavor thatís difficult to place and, frankly, even harder to describe.
Maybe itís simply that the intricate pas de deux between hops and malt evident in most modern beers just isnít there. Or perhaps itís the peculiar, vegetative vapors imparted by the heather itself. But Fraochís compelling nuances are naggingly hard to nail down. The descriptor that keeps coming to mind is, simply, " old. "
Yes, thereís a springy tang to the stuff, redolent of misty hillside greenery, but its darkly mysterious aromas and airily floral flavors also seem to evoke a different time and place. Sound strange? Hold a glass of Fraoch up to the light. The tiny particles of heather floating suspended in the translucent gold-orange liquid resemble little fossilized insects, preserved for millennia in amber.
Fraoch is available for $4.95 for a 500-ml bottle at Downtown Wine & Spirits, 225 Elm Street, in Somerville. Call (617) 625-7777.