BeerCast #11 – The Northern Isles

Posted by on Jan 26, 2008 in BeerCasts, Scottish Beer | One Comment

The Northern Isles are the last bastion of the British Isles before you fall off the end. Orkney and Shetland are remote, windswept clusters of islands populated by hardy souls who know how to produce alcohol. Orkney whiskies such as Highland Park are world famous, and Shetland gin is starting to make a name for itself – but what about beer? Shetland – 820 miles from London – can claim the UK’s most northernly brewery, and Orkney (itself over 300 miles from BeerCast HQ in Edinburgh), has established players and newcomers alike. Our panellist Grooben hails from the latter group of islands, and on a recent lengthy journey home he picked up some interesting beer from the Northern Isles. Britain’s remotest possible podcast begins with the Valhalla brewery’s White Wife (4.5%), and then Island Bere (4.2%), before heading slightly south to sample Orkney Blast (6.0%), before finishing with arguably the region’s true classic – Dark Island (4.6%).

1. White Wife (4.5%abv)
Valhalla Brewery, Unst, Shetland.
500ml glass bottle

Unst is about as remote as a brewery can possibly get. Famed for the Shetland pony, Muckle Flugga lighthouse, 700 people and 10,000 puffins, the island may only be 12 miles by 5 miles but hosts the Valhalla Brewery, the UK’s northernmost. Founded in 1997 by husband and wife team Sonny and Sylvia Priest, they are named after the home of the Norse God Odin, where slain Viking warriors were revived by a horn of ale. They produce half a dozen bottled ales, and White Wife relates to the local ghost – a wispy looking old lady who appears in the cars of lone male drivers. Spooky stuff – but is it tasty stuff?

What They Say“White Wife is a light golden clean session ale, with a dry, refreshing bitterness and a characteristically fruity aftertaste.” [Official Website]

What We Say
MrB – Tastes very good, this is a nice session beer 7
Richard – Nice colour, and a bittery aftertaste, I’d try this again 7
Grooben – Thin and light but very drinkable 6
Shovels – Has a strange citrusy taste to it, a bit hollow 5

2. Island Bere (4.2%abv)
Valhalla Brewery, Unst, Shetland.
500ml glass bottle

Valhalla’s other entrant is an extremely historic brew. The main ingredient is Bere (pronounced ‘bear’), which is said to be the oldest variety of cereal crop in the world – grains have been found in the Middle East that date to 2000BC. Valhalla say to their knowledge this is the only beer in the world brewed with Bere, which was the original Viking barley brought over in longboats to Shetland in the 9th Century. Known locally as ’90-day Barley’ due to the speed with which it grows, it’s a unique ingredient, and Valhalla should be applauded for doing something different. But what does bere beer taste like?

What They Say“Island Bere is a golden bitter ale with cascade hops which gives it a nice blackcurrant/liquorice aftertaste.” [Official Website]

What We Say
Grooben – Tastes like woodsmoke, it’s interesting but not bad 5
Richard – Has a watered-down German smokebier thing about it 4
MrB – Like breathing in a barbecue, really rather unpleasant 3
Shovels – It lingers like you’re chewing a piece of wood 3

3. Orkney Blast (6%abv)
Highland Brewing Co, Swannay, Orkney.
500ml glass bottle

The second half of the Northern Isles edition switches to Orkney – Orkneyjar, the ‘islands of the seals’ in the Viking tongue. Orkney has a fine tradition of beers, and towards the north of the largest of the seventy islands is the old cheese factory at Swannay. Taken over by the Highland Brewing Company, it switched to brewing in January 2006, and started producing a range of beers for the local market. Their Orkney Blast is named after a wartime newspaper created by Kirkwall’s Orcadian, hence the army uniforms on the label. Although we’re not sure why they are being worn by a pair of mermaids.

What They Say“Generously malty with balanced spicy hop in the middle, leading to a lingering hop finish, with honeyed fruity malt and a hint of warming alcohol.” [Label tasting notes]

What We Say
Richard – Nice but slightly spoiled by the alcohol/honey tastes 6
Grooben – An unecessary sweetness, but it’s rather nice 6
Shovels – Another woody one, but with a lightness on the palate 6
MrB – Lots of honey, it’s a strange non-session ale 5

4. Dark Island (4.6%abv)
Sinclair Orkney Brewery, Quoyloo, Orkney.
500ml glass bottle

Founded by Roger White in 1988, the award-winning Orkney brewery are another local producer who started in untypical surroundings – in this case an old school house in Sandwick. In June 2004 they merged with BeerCast favourite Atlas Brewery of Kinlochleven, to form Highland and Islands Breweries – which in turn was taken over by the Sinclair Brewery Ltd in 2006. Beer drinkers in North America may know them best for Skullsplitter, an 8.5% Barleywine seemingly more popular over the pond than back home. Over here, it’s Dark Island which is their big draw. Two-time Champion Beer of Scotland, it has recently been crowned Champion Winter Beer of Scotland for 2007.

What They Say“An excellent brew, The roast malt and chocolate character varies, making the beer hard to catagorise as a stout or old ale.” [2008 Good Beer Guide]; “The nose on this beer is ripe and fruity with slightly vinous esters, married to interesting hop notes – the colour of a glorious red ruby wine.” [Label tasting notes]

What We Say
Richard – Harsher than the mellow cask taste, but it’s wonderful 8
Grooben – A good complex beer with lots of flavours going on 7
Shovels – Dominant coffee smell, it’s the best of the night 7
MrB – Don’t remember it tasting this strong, a bit disappointing 6

BeerCast panel verdict

Orkney Dark Island – 28/40
Valhalla White Wife – 25/40
Orkney Blast – 23/40
Valhalla Island Bere – 15/40

Panellists – (from top left) Grooben, MrB, Shovels, Richard



We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with BeerCast episode twelve. Stay tuned for details…and please leave us comments on the blog or iTunes, or emails. Cheers!

1 Comment

  1. Craig AS
    March 19, 2008

    Superb anchormanning, Grooben! I learnt a fair whack about those mysterious Isles halfway between fair Albion and the Blazing World… sorry, been reading the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

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