Beer Sherpa Recommends: Traquair House Ale
In two days time, most Americans will settle down before a giant feast. Turkey, football, Grandpa Joe--a tradition as old as the country. It's a kind of secular sacred holiday in which, increasingly, the rites involve red-faced, boozy political arguments. My condolences to anyone who has that future awaiting them. You can, however, mitigate the horrors (or embellish the delights) with thoughtful libation selection. My vote: Traquair House Ale.
I am constantly surprised when I mention this beer to find so few people have tried a bottle--despite its regular importation to the US for decades. If you are one of those folks, it's time try this beer, surely one of the best in the world. (And what says Thanksgiving more than a Scottish beer?)
The story behind the beer is nearly as delicious as the substance itself, so let's start there. Traquair is a Scottish estate, 900 years in the making. (It's the oldest continually-inhabited building in Scotland.) Hundreds of years ago, every large estate would have had their own brewery, and so it was at Traquair. Brewing records there date back to 1694, but for some reason the brewery was mothballed in the early 19th century. Then, in 1964, the 20th Laird of Traquair, Peter Maxwell Stuart, rediscovered the kit on the grounds. He decided to fire it up again, and it's on that system--a museum piece--that the first House Ale was brewed. His daughter, the 21st Lady of Traquair, Catherine Maxwell Stuart, relayed a bit of the history when I interviewed her for Secrets of Master Brewers.
There's a remarkable film from 1975 that shows the Laird and his then 10-year-old daughter mashing in. It's an extremely entertaining six minutes and I highly recommend giving it a look.
Some years later, Traquair decided to build a more modern brewhouse, but they continue to ferment in ancient oaken vessels, and I'm pretty sure that's what gives this strong ale its unique character. The ale only spends a few days there, but something sherry-like emerges. It's a strong beer, 7.2%, but very smooth and soothing. The alcohol isn't hot, but it is present, a warming sensation that is purpose-built for drafty Scottish castles.
Traquair was a bit of an oddball in Scotland for decades. When House Ale launched, it was very much out of step with the trends in beer--toward light lagers and bland, lager-like ales. The alcohol content made it one of the strongest beers in Britain. The Laird recreated an old recipe as a way of connecting to the long lineage of brewing at the house, and it functioned as an evocation of the past. But in many ways, it was actually a very early signal of the future. Scottish breweries have returned to bold and big, with wee heavies and stouts (and IPAs, of course). I have tried a number of the home-grown examples, but so far have never found anything approaching Traquair House Ale in terms of character or accomplishment.
You could do a lot worse on Thanksgiving than filling a goblet with this beer. You won't be able to do much better.