There are a few places and beers that will always remind me of the early days of my beer education. The Celtic Whiskey Shop is one such, and when it opened on Dublin's Dawson Street just after the millennium (the main one, not Dublin's local one twelve years previous) I worked nearby and was a regular customer. Alongside a massive range of hand-picked whiskies, whiskeys and other spirits, they had a modest but far more interesting selection of Irish and Scottish beers. It was here that I first encountered the "Heather Ale Company", these days going by their much more prosaic "Williams Bros." moniker.
Over several weeks I worked through their portfolio of ales made from traditional, yet exotic, ingredients. An early one was Kelpie, the dark seaweed ale. I recall being horrified by it and after one bottle vowing never to touch it again. Most of the rest of them I simply didn't care for; Fraoch I adored (and still do); but thoughts of Kelpie gave me the shivers for years after. Then recently I spotted a bottle in DrinkStore and started to wonder if it was as awful as I remembered. Wasn't it possible that my taste in beer had moved on to a point where seaweed flavours can now be welcomed? I bought a bottle.
It pours a red-brown Coca-Cola shade with a busy sparkle but not overly fizzy. The aroma is mild and chocolatey, like a mild or porter. I took a sip and waited for the other shoe to drop. But it didn't! Kelpie is actually quite nice. At only 4.4% ABV, it's rather light and possibly a touch watery, but the sweet roasted flavours are beautiful and there's a salty tang from the seaweed, adding character and finishing it off well. The whole reminds me of a lighter, simpler edition of Porterhouse Oyster Stout. It just goes to show that it's worth re-checking your opinion on every beer at least once a decade.
Tragically, Celtic Whiskey's days as a purveyor of fine beer didn't last. Probably sick of me as the only proper beer customer, the range was cut back until it was little more than cans of Guinness for the tourists -- I've not been in in a while so I really should go and check if the winds of change blowing through Irish beer at the moment have breezed down Dawson Street at all. The loss I felt most keenly, even more than the Fraoch, was Alba: the Williamses' strong scots pine beer. When I saw a bottle on the shelf of The Cracked Kettle last year I snapped it up. I have such fond memories of this beer, and it nearly pained me to open it: could it possibly taste as good as the nostalgia? One sniff and I knew the answer was yes.
Alba has always smelled and tasted of strawberries to me: not the fresh and firm kind, but big old sloppy, mushy, dark, half-fermented strawberries: it's a gorgeous heady sensation. Behind this there's a dry peppery spice and a little bit of yeasty ester, and possibly a funky hint of mushroom too. Barry got cloves in a big way, and I can see where he's coming from, but it's more subtle than that. It's quite a bit lighter than I remember, but then I've had plenty stronger than its mere 7.5% ABV in the six or seven years since my last bottle.
I definitely need Alba back in my life. A whole range of new and exciting Williams Bros. beers are now in stock in DrinkStore, and I hope to work through them during the year. But I'll always be yearning for an Alba.