Originally published July, 2014
Enjoyment of my favorite brews seems to increase with a direct connection to the source of the beer. In July, I spent some time at the home of one of my favorite Scottish breweries, Traquair House. Standing in front of the famous Bear Gates, I find it easy to feel the history of this place. Located in Innerleithen, Scotland, Traquair House is the oldest continuously inhabited house in Scotland.
The current owner of Traquair traces her roots in the branches of the Stuart family tree. Born in 1964, Catherine Maxwell Stuart makes Traquair House her home with her family. She was the first child to be reared at the house in many years. As Catherine and I sat down to talk, while occasionally being distracted by a very cute Prince Charles Spaniel, my curiosity was of what is was like to grow up on this magnificent estate. She said that she spent most of her time outside. Of course, with a hedge maze, animals, and plenty of wooded trails, what child would not? The funny thing is, when her father inherited the estate, he was not completely motivated to refurbish it until he found the old brewery in the shed.
Catherine does not brew the beer; although as a child, she helped stir the cooling wort (taking 4-5 hours) in the very small brewery and is among the many women who flourish in the industry today. In Scotland today there are more women involved in the brewing industry; however, there is still a resistance with women to actual drink beer. This is slowly changing.
The Bear Gates (mentioned at the top of this article), from which Traquair House’s Bear Ale receives it name, were built in 1738, and subsequently locked the last time Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) visited. The gates were to be locked until a Stuart king was back on the throne.
Another of Traquair House’s ales, Jacobite, is named for the family and all those in the region who supported King James II. It is an herbal brew with a taste of history, and one of my favorites in their portfolio. The most famous of the Traquair House beers, Traquair Ale, is a delicious, strong Scotch Ale brewed in the oldest of traditions. When asked why Americans should try their Traquair Ale, Catherine responded, “Because it is our oldest style of beer, very authentic. The recipe is very similar to the style 200 years ago.” I’d say because it is just that good.
The the craft beer revolution in the UK is having some effect on this established brewery. The competition for beer sales has increased, and some people new to craft beer think that Traquair is a new beer. I know I was drinking it at The Globe in Athens, GA in the early nineties, and it has been around since Catherine’s father, Peter, brought the old equipment back to life. But the popularity of craft has made it much easier to quickly sell their stock - which is great, but as the brewery is very small and there is no intention of building a separate bigger one, volume can only be increased by brewing more often.
As one might imagine, maintaining a house and grounds of this magnitude and historical importance is quite a challenge. Catherine is able to keep it going through beer sales, giving tours of the main house (which has been turned into a museum), opening the grounds for visitors, and by opening a side wing of the house as a bed and breakfast. Their season runs from Easter until the end October.
At the time of my meeting with Catherine, she was preparing for a beer dinner/festival the next week. One of those preparations was to brew a special beer, Referendum Ale, in honor of the upcoming referendum vote on whether Scotland would once again be a country out from under English domain. The plan was to have a cask of the Referendum Ale (their lightest ever at 4%) and a cask of Traquair. Vote with the beer you drink.
There’s nothing like drinking a bit of history. I want to thank Catherine Maxwell Stuart for taking the time out of her busy schedule to sit down with me and share her stories. I could write a book. If you have the opportunity, find some Traquair House Ale - it is a craft beer with history, and if you can, visit the estate in Scotland. I know I will be going back. As your friendly, neighborhood Beer Wench, I want to remind you to eat well and drink good beer.