'Scotch ale' made in Belgium? Thistle do nicely

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SCOTLAND'S reputation as a beer-making nation probably owes more to quantity than quality. But that hasn't stopped one European brewing superpower going mad for its own Tartan tipple.

Drinkers in the trendiest bars in Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp are sinking vast quantities of Gordon Highland Ales – "bred among savage lochs and haunted castles" – and served up in thistle-shaped glasses.

And if you've never heard of the brand, don't worry. The beers are brewed in the Flemish town of Steenhuffel, and are as Scottish as Poirot, Tintin and Moules Frites.

The success of the "Scottish-style" range is such that it is now being exported to Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.

The Gordon ales are the brainchild of the independent Belgian brewers John Martin, named after an English expat who founded the firm last century. Martin was determined to produce a "Scotch ale" that would appeal to continental tastebuds. Now a relaunched version of his creation has been introduced to more than 300 Belgian pubs this year.

A spokeswoman for the firm said they were reaping dividends from appealing to a widespread affection for all things Scottish.

She said: "The Gordon range of Scottish-style beers have been very, very popular in the Belgian market.

"A big part of its appeal is that in Belgium, and other continental countries, people love the idea of a beer that is associated with the Scottish Highlands and all the history and mythology that goes along with it. This year we have launched a major promotion of the range in Belgium and now we are helping bar owners in Italy to install our Gordon beers too. The response has been so positive that we have had to open a dedicated office. Sales are continuing to rise in Belgium and it has become a hugely well-known brand over here."

The firm's website shows the product alongside thistles and a swooping golden eagle and in unabashed heather-scented prose states, "2008 will be the Gordon Finest Scotch ale year".

It adds: "More than 300 Belgian establishments will be proud to offer this brown ale with all its contrasts. Bred in the Highlands in an environment of savage Scottish lochs and haunted castles. Those who taste it for the first time will discover its incomparable taste. Its unctuous foam is true rapture for the palate."

It also claims the brews, which pack a head-spinning strength of up to 10%, (more than double the potency of Tennents or Carling) have an "explosive character" which has made it an "iconic brand in many European countries".

A spokeswoman for John Martin brewers said the brand was now also on sale in Belgian supermarkets and off licences. "The entire range is now available in cans and bottles and has been incredibly popular. We also now sponsor a racing car and that has helped to raise our profile still further."

The online beer review site Spider's Scribblepad gives a glowing review to the hybrid Belgian-Scottish ale.

It states: "This claims to a Highland ale but it is brewed in Belgium and is definitely European in strength. Setting aside the marketing ploy this is a very competent ale."

Delirium Cafe in Brussels, which is renowned as one the best beer bars in Europe, sells no fewer than 10 authentic Scottish ales, including Deuchars IPA, Caledonian 80, Arran Blonde and Dark, Belhaven Twisted Thistle and St Andrew's Ale, as well as the Red MacGregor.

Gordon ale costs ?4-?5 for a half litre in pubs, in line with native brews such as Stella Artois and Jupiler. In supermarkets cans can go for ?1.50.

Alyn Smith MEP, who represents Scotland in Brussels, believes that in this case imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery. "The Gordon brand of Scottish-style beers has become very well known in Belgium," she said. "In Belgium all things Scottish have a massive cachet, particularly in the Flemish part of the country. We both have a shared history through trade and are two enterprising, outward-looking nations who enjoy the odd drink and know how to enjoy themselves.

"Not many people are aware that there are Highland games in a number of Flemish towns as well as a large number of Scottish-Flemish associations, particularly in the North Sea trading ports."

But the Scottish reputation is not always an advantage in continental countries. Earlier this year Burger King is Hungary sparked controversy when it advertised cheap meals as "Scottish offers", fuelled by stereotypes of parsimony.

Similarly German shops and bars frequently advertise discounts and happy hours as "Scottish prices".

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