The unassuming ales of Scotland sometimes get lost in today’s dynamic brewing shuffle. Once as well-known for IPA, porter and stout as they were for their indigenous brews, the Scots have in more recent times begun brewing ale that pays homage to their roots. Malty, modestly hopped and full of warming color, they are accented with the rich character of dark malts. Cold-tolerant yeast strains, slower, prolonged fermentation and cellar conditioning have rendered many Scottish ales nearly lagerlike. Their construction is pretty straightforward, simplistic brews and uncomplicated recipes with depth and complexity best achieved through careful selection of ingredients, component interplay and brewing skill rather than an overburdened recipe.
When I think of what we know as classic Scottish brews, three distinct categories come to mind: Scottish ale, Scotch ale/wee heavy and ancient/historical ale. Scottish ales are the ordinary brews, variously called 60, 70 and 80 shilling (light, heavy and export), that weigh in at 3 to 6% ABV. Scotch ale, or wee heavy, is Scotland’s robust answer to barley wine, old ale and Burton ale, coming in at a more strapping 7-10% ABV.
To avoid the Scottish/Scotch confusion, I’ll refer to these two groups as ordinary ale and wee heavy, and collectively as Scottish ale. Both can be brewed quite similarly, original gravity being the main distinction among them.
The third type, ancient/historical ales, is indigenous brews made with heather and/or other botanicals, using ordinary ale or wee heavy recipes as the base.
Unsurprisingly, British pale ale malt makes excellent Scottish ales. Scottish-grown Golden Promise produces slightly fuller, sweeter wort than other ale malts and is well-tailored to these brews. If that is not available, any of the premium English ale malts will do just fine.
Toasted and kilned malts will also help effect the chewy, rustic, malty dimension that we are after. A portion of light or dark Munich malt (10-15%) boosts the melanoidin and malt background, and is favored by many American brewers. Aromatic malt, essentially very dark Munich malt, is even more intense in this respect.
For something more traditional, try amber (up to 15%) or brown malt (10%) to lend rugged, biscuit, toasted notes. These old-school English malts will need to be mashed with base malt. American-made Victory or Special Roast is similar to amber and brown malt.
Specialty grains commonly used commercially run the gamut and include crystal, chocolate and black malt and roasted barley. All crystal malts will lend some body and caramel sweetness, and dark crystal (60-120°L) and Special B are especially useful for enhancing wee heavy with toffee, molasses and dark fruit notes. Chocolate malt in small doses, 1-3%, or black / roast, 1-2%, will add color and subtle earthy, roasted, smoky notes.
For a more pronounced smoky effect, use German rauchmalz at roughly 10% of the grist. This would also be a chance to test your own malt-smoking skills. Peated malt is another option, but should be used very sparingly, as it is very aggressive and gritty if overused.
For the inclusion of grains other than malted barley, oats is a natural. Wheat or rye would also fit the bill, offering the same creamy mouthfeel and heading properties as oats. Malted, flaked (including barley), torrified or raw grains are perfectly suitable as a minor fraction of the grain bill.
For authentic full-bodied, dextrinous wort, mash between 153 and 156 degrees F. Since both ordinary and wee heavy can be made in like manner, parti-gyle brewing is worth investigating as a means to extend the fruits of your brew day.
Extract brewers need only select their favorite light or amber liquid or dried malt extract, and augment with the character malts listed above. Remember that unmalted grains and Munich, aromatic, amber and brown malt require mashing, making them advantageous only to partial-mash brewers. and will not be converted properly in extract/specialty grain recipes.
It is often thought that the Scots didn’t brew hoppy beer because they couldn’t grow hops and the ingredient was prohibitively expensive to import. Neither is the case. Scotland once grew hops, albeit not as prodigiously as England, and had ready access to English hops, except for perhaps the most remote locales. In fact, Edinburgh was an IPA center during the early 19th century. That Scottish ales are today largely modestly hopped is matter of preference; in other words, that’s how the Scots came to prefer ale. The reward is a rather unusual family of ales.
In terms of the bittering-to-gravity units (BU:GU), a ratio of 0.3 to 0.6 would be a suitable range to offset the malty backdrop.
Flavor and aroma hops are reserved but not entirely absent in some Scottish ales. If employed deftly, aroma and flavor additions will greatly enhance them. It is my experience that ordinary ales of lighter color are best for this strategy, whereas strong, dark versions are best left to malty expression.
Classic English cultivars such as East Kent Golding and Fuggles are the customary option. I like a full bittering addition for at least 60 minutes in the boil and another addition 30-40 minutes before knockout for a bit of hop flavor and complexity. UK Challenger, First Gold, Northdown, Progress, Sovereign, Target and WGV carry pleasant earthy notes, as well as citrus, piney and floral undertones that complement Scottish ale as well.
Yeast is, as always, critical to the finished product. The aim is minimal ester production and medium-to-low attenuation. All-grain and partial mashers can control attenuation with mash temperature and malt selection, but the yeast will also play a prominent role. Ester production can be greatly tempered by low fermentation temperature. In this respect, I choose yeast strains that ferment steadily at 55 to 65 degrees F, and expect prolonged primary fermentation. Wyeast 1056 (California ale) and 1728 (Scottish ale) fit the bill, working vigorously into the mid-50 degrees F. White Labs equivalents, WLP001 (California ale) and WLP028 (Edinburgh Scottish ale), and the European ale strain WLP011 are also excellent options, though they work best above 60 degrees F and may be the better choice if you can’t use cooler fermentation. Wyeast 1056 and White Labs WLP001, prized for its neutral flavor and aroma profile, attenuate significantly more than the others. Fermentis Safale US-05 is a good dried-yeast alternative.
Ancient and Medieval Scottish Ale
According to archeological evidence, Scottish brewing is on the order of 6,000 years old. Resourceful as they were, tribal people figured out a way to ferment that which was available to them. Amphorae from the Isle of Rùm, dated to 4000 B.C., was found to contain traces of barley, oats, wheat, honey, meadowsweet and heather. This sort of brewing would predominate into the late 16th century, when the Scots started using hops to flavor their beer. Heather and gruit (a blend of indigenous botanicals) ale were standard offerings from farmhouse and commercial brewers even later, especially where hops were hard to obtain. For a glimpse into indigenous Scottish brewing, visit The Williams Brothers Brewing website (williamsbrosbrew.com) and try some of the excellent historical interpretations from its Alloa brewery. Their story is an interesting one, and they might be the best inspiration for crafting these brews.
Heather tips can be purchased from nearly any homebrew shop. They lend just a wee bit of bittering quality, but are more prized for flavor and aromatics. Their herbal, floral sweet and honeylike notes are delicate, and are best complemented with lighter malts, low hop rates and even some mellow varietal honey.
Berries such as elderberry, gooseberry, raspberry and blackberry can also provide an interesting and delicious background in indigenous-style Scottish ale. Heather ale can benefit greatly from enhancement with berries, as can both light and even more roasty recipes.
Gruit, that rather unusual and mysterious family of brews, was made extensively in Great Britain, Northern Europe and Scandinavia before the advent of hopped beers. Heather, meadowsweet, wild rosemary, bog myrtle, yarrow, wormwood, licorice, juniper and spruce were some of the more common botanicals used in gruit ale. Most of those can be purchased in bulk at natural groceries or online from spice and tea vendors. For a more extensive look at these intriguing brews, visit gruitale.com.
Extract Recipe, 5 gallons, OG 1.055, 20 IBU (BU:GU = 0.36)
Steeping grain: 1# 20° L crystal malt
Extract: 3# Light DME, 3# Wheat DME
Brewing procedure: Steep grain as usual, then dissolve extract in steeping liquid
Bring to a boil and add 1 oz East Kent Goldings hops.
Boil for 20 minutes and add 1 oz heather tips
Boil 30 minutes and add 2 oz heather tips
Boil 10 minutes, turn off the heat and add 1# clover honey; chill
Fermentation: Wyeast 1056 or 1728, or White Labs WLP001, WLP011 or WLP028
Partial Mash Recipe, 5 gallons, OG 1.050,
25 IBU (BU:GU = 0.5)
Mash 3 oz chocolate malt, 1# flaked oats, 0.5# 80° L crystal malt and 4# English pale ale malt at 154° F for one hour
Sparge to collect wort and add 3# Light DME
Hop Schedule: 1 oz East Kent Goldings, 60 minutes; z East Kent Goldings, 30 minutes
Fermentation: Wyeast 1056, 1728 or White Labs WLP001, WLP011WL P028
5 gallons, OG 1.080, 30 IBU
(BU:GU = 0.38)
Mash 2 oz black malt, 1.5# brown malt and 15# Golden Promise ale malt for 1 hour at 155° F.
Hops: 1 oz Fuggles, 60 minutes, and 1 oz Fuggles, 40 minutes
Fermentation: Wyeast 1056 or 1728, or White Labs WLP001, WLP011 or WLP028
Notes: To increase kettle reactions, begin the boil after 1 gallon of wort has been collected and continue boiling during wort collection. Add bittering hops when you have reached full kettle volume.