As Pete Brown suggests in a recent post, sometimes taste, whether we like a beer or not, is all about context.
I must begin my discussion of this beer with putting it in the context of several other beers I tried around the same time. Last year I was traveling in Scotland and saw signs for the Black Isle Brewery. I convinced Mr. Malting it would be a good idea to check it out, a decision I later regretted. In the brewery store we just wanted to grab some beers, but clearly if you stopped it meant you wanted a tour of the brewery. We waited for the brewer to finish his conversation with a well-dressed couple who were chatting with him endlessly about their green lifestyle. Having come from Los Angeles this sounded weirdly like beer schmoozing, but we waited. And waited. He offered samples to the M&S wearing Brits but not to us, even though there were only five of us in the room. It was awkward. We waited some more. I considered leaving, but in one of my Larry-David-esque moments I decided that I was going to see this through. So of course once we purchased a range of beers to try later, they were already clouded with my vague annoyance. I’ve also had bad luck with several organic beers (why is it so hard to find a really good organic pint? I have had a few nice ones, but that is a subject for another post.) I tried the Irish red, the “Beat the Drum” ale and the Yellowhammer IPA. They were that rare thing– beers I couldn’t finish. I did finish the porter, but barely, being the one style I’m very forgiving about.
It all left a bad taste in my mouth, literally. So the next day when we stopped at a tourist shop to use the loo, I perused the shelves of coats-of-arms mugs that Americans buy to take back with them to prove they have roots somewhere, and in between the plush Nessies and clan tartan neckties, there was a small beer section. I fell for the Ebulum label– I am not immune to the whole Pictish-Celtic marketing aesthetic. But it was also black, flavoured with elderberries and was 6.5%. I was sold. And you know, after the bad-beer luck I was having, this beer wasn’t just good. It was redemptive.
The next day we went drinking at the Plough Inn in Rosemarkie, where an old man played the accordion for the almost empty room. There was a gentleman there with a big black dog named Molly. When this man saw me he exclaimed, “You are a strange one, you are,” pointing at me as if I should know it.
“I’m a stranger.” I agreed. And once that was settled we got to talking. He’d lost his wife “two years to the day.” He bought me a pint of Tennent’s Velvet, which was really quite lush, and I told him I had been to the Black Isle Brewery. He then gave me an earful of gossip! He also asked me what I thought of the beer and I told him honestly.
He said, “The red one?” and then made a choking gesture, “It’s like Buffy the vampire was choking me!” I had to forgive him for mucking the pop culture reference– I was just happy to have someone concur.
And now, curled up with my laptop and cat in my little flat, that Ebulum holds up to a second try in these more familiar surroundings. The berries mix with a dark tea-tannin deliciously, any Ribena subsumed in warm barley, and the vanilla-malt nose floats over it all. Cheers to Molly and the widower and that old man playing the accordion, faraway on the Black Isle.
Eats: belgian chocolate truffles
While listening to: In Gowan Ring