Strong Scotch Ale
The distinctive strong ales of Scotland are such a flawless complement to the brisk climate, unspoiled landscape and robust inhabitants within its borders, that they are seemingly brewed with that in mind. This marriage is, in reality, naturally evolved from mostly indigenous ingredients, local conditions and thrift. Serendipity has given the world a style of beer following the British template, while resembling lagerbiers closely, especially German bock, because of the cool environment and necessary adaptations. The malt-accented character offers effortless drinkability, and the warming strength is rich enough to stave off the cold. Sometimes called simply Scotch ale (distinguishing them from the plainer Scottish ales) or wee heavy, they have gained some favor among American brewers in recent years, and are still a welcome mainstay from the breweries of their homeland.
Archaeology has given us many glimpses into the prehistoric affinity for alcoholic beverages, which were nothing more than crude mixtures spontaneously fermented by wild yeast and bacteria. In present day Scotland, such a discovery was made on the Isle of Rhum, north of Edinburgh, in 1985. A Pictish Neolithic crock, dated to 6500 BC, was determined to contain the residue of barley and oats, heather and/or heather honey, and assorted indigenous plants. Honey is not surprising, as mead is perhaps the world’s most ancient fermented beverage. Nor is heather, a pleasing bittersweet and aromatic lavender shrub that blankets Scottish hillsides. The presence of the two cereal grains, however, demonstrates a rudimentary understanding of their fermentability. The notion of intentional fermentation in prehistoric Scotland coincides with ancient discoveries from the same period in the Fertile Crescent and Continental Europe.
The annals of Scottish brewing history are synonymous with heather. Pictish heather ale was so coveted by outsiders that the marauding Irish High King Niall obliterated much of the population of Galloway in the fourth century in part to obtain the closely guarded recipe. Legend says the secrets were never divulged, even in the face of death. Furthermore, heather was still used in traditional breweries into relatively modern times. Heather Ales Ltd. of Alloa, brews Fraoch (Gaelic for heather) even today.
The route taken by Scottish brewers over the centuries runs parallel to the rest of Europe early on, and in competitive, but emulative, fashion with England more recently. In the end, though, Scotland’s inimitable ales eventually found their own identity as a result of independent spirit and unique conditions.
Medieval Europe’s finest brewers were the cloistered monks of abbeys and monasteries, some of whom brewed for public consumption. During the sixth century AD, St. Mungo, the patron saint of Glasgow, was a skilled brewer himself, helping establish that city as a brewing hub. The craft was also the duty of common housewives, known as broustaris or browster wives, who made beers of barley and oats flavored with local herbs. Often broustaris were listed in city registers, sometimes numbering in the hundreds.
Monastic and house brewing was the norm until about the 15th century, when brewing gradually became the domain of small public house breweries. Also, the towns of Edinburgh and Alloa were swiftly becoming players. Much of this success had to do with the copious supply of fresh, cool water, which flowed freely from aquifers beneath the rocky earth, and the burgeoning supply of local barley. With public breweries flourishing in southern Scotland, the brewers, most of whom did their own malting, formed the Incorporation of Maltmen in the 16th century to keep their seminal industry viable. Shortly thereafter, the Scottish Parliament passed legislation forbidding the import of English and Baltic beers.
Edinburgh had by now long usurped Glasgow as the brewing epicenter, and in 1575 formed the Society of Brewers to defend their stake. The impetus for this was the well-earned fame of Edinburgh wee heavy, widely recognized as some of the finest ale in the world, and one that would probably be quite similar to those we enjoy today.
Edinburgh is built upon a fault line, a font of soft water perfect for brewing the burly, malty, temperately-hopped wee heavy. This fault line became a bustle of brewing activity, with many breweries taking advantage of this fortuitous natural resource. The water was also perfect for brewing London-style porter, later known as Scotch porter (highly-sought in its own right).
Brewers could also draw fairly hard water from other strata of the aquifer, and hence, began brewing the popular and hoppy Burton-style pale ale during the 18th century. They even hired Burton brewers to tutor them. For this ale however, Scottish brewers had to import even more hops from Kent, something they were loathe to do as it impinged on their independence from anything English, as hops essentially do not grow in Scotland.
Scottish brewers were keen to keep their export markets afloat and did so by adopting these foreign styles and utilizing the convenient ports. They even became something of a lager-brewing nation, as the climate was conducive, something that England could not match. Scotland’s impact on worldwide beer exports was significant into the 19th century, reaching virtually every corner of the globe.
Eventually, the extent of other nations’ exports, a couple of world wars and political upheaval led to a winnowing of Scotland’s brewing industry in the 20th century. Some brewers that had been in business for centuries held on and continue to brew today, with several more having started more recently. They are located primarily in the south, but reach as far north as the Orkney Islands and display their Scottish pride by producing the ales that made them famous 500 years ago. Why are they unique? The story of their production is as intriguing as Scotland’s brewing history.
A Sturdy Profile
Ales are more widely consumed in Scotland, despite the fame of its “water of life,” or whiskey. Along with oats and wheat, barely is a prominent crop, one capably grown in the cool, maritime conditions throughout much of the country. That from the Highlands in the north is primarily used in the distilling industry, while that in the Lowlands of the watershed south is preferred for brewing. This loose delineation helps explain the geographical location of Scotland’s distilleries and breweries, respectively.
Strong Scotch ales are as much a reflection of its land as any brew might claim to be, and each component has its own rather game contribution to the sum. The barley itself is quite similar to that grown in England, though Scottish brewers will say that it is indeed more suited to their own ale. Traditionally, the pale ale base malt was kilned a tad more than its English counterpart, resulting a little more overall depth and color. Scotch ales display brownish-red to chestnut to black-brown color.
They are often augmented with a small amount of chocolate or black malt, but the extra color historically comes from a smidgen of roasted barley. Prudent brewers would roast the unsprouted or “slack” barley and use it in the grist. This was usually about 1 to 3 percent of the green barleycorn, a measure of roasted barley that is often used now. A minimalist grist of premium pale ale malt and scant roasted barley would represent a historically correct Scotch ale. Caramel malt is often eschewed for kettle carmelization and a relatively high mash temperature.
Scotch ale yeast is something of an anomaly, and works similarly to lager or German ale yeast. That is to say that it operates at well under the temperature that a traditional ale yeast would, around 55 degrees F on average versus 65 degrees or thereabouts. The fermentation is slow and clean, thereby producing no appreciable esters. This is follow by a lagerbier-like period of cold-conditioning to smooth the edges and absorb any leftover, rogue flavors. The yeast is also a low-attenuator, producing a fuller, less alcoholic beer. Coupled with the high mash temperature, this results in a robust mouthfeel and juicy texture.
Hops rates are low, and not only does this help accent the malt, but has some historical precedence. Hops are nearly impossible to grow in Scotland and were expensive to import, a factor that helped to mold the traditional profile. There was a period of time when hops were taxed heavily in Scotland, but malt was not. The reverse was true in England. As the most available hops were those from Kent, England, the Scots grudgingly used only the amount necessary to balance their beer, instead of making commercial trade with their neighbors to the south.
The final stroke of a fine Scotch ale masterpiece is the use of soft water that was in abundance early Scottish brewing centers, that just so happens to make splendid malt-prominent strong beers. The final product generally weighs in at 6.5 to 8.5 percent ABV, and is an exceptionally smooth, satisfying, soothing quaff.
With the throes of winter upon us, wee heavy may perfectly fit the bill alongside a roaring fire and some comfort food.
Skullsplitter Orkney AleABV: 8.5
Tasting Notes: Perhaps no ale is more cozily enwrapping than this one. It is brewed at the Orkney Brewery in a former schoolhouse in rustic Quayloo, on the Orkney archipelago in northernmost Scotland. Deep mahogany with a creamy, mocha, sticky foam, Skullsplitter brings smoke, malt and toffee to the nose. The viscous mouthfeel blends with malted milk, figs, a wisp of smoke and buttery caramel in the flavor. It is named for the infamous Thorfinn Einarsson, the 7th Viking Earl of Orkney of a millennium ago. Neolithic Orkney is the perfect home for this hearty and rugged Scotch ale.
Traquair House AleABV: 7.2
Tasting Notes: From Peeblesshire in southern Scotland, the Traquair House Brewery is a restored old brewery whose products hearken to Scottish brewing traditions. The House Ale pours clear brunette, with a lacy tan head. The earthy aroma has vanilla, raisin and malt. Silky and rich on the palate, clean and flavorful with caramel, molasses and that rustic malty backdrop. The brewery dates to 1738, and the new establishment pays infallible homage to the original with its Scotch ales, including the coriander-spiced Jacobite.
Belhaven Wee HeavyABV: 6.5
Tasting Notes: From the coastal city of Dunbar in southeast Scotland, Belhaven has been producing its classic Scottish ales since 1719, and is built on a former monastery that dates to the 13th century. Garnet in color, with a fleeting head, this wee heavy offers sweet caramel, cherry, almond and faint vinous notes in the aroma. Medium-bodied and relatively zesty, the flavor has some hints of red wine, fruit and clean maltiness. The finish is fairly dry for a wee heavy, but at 6.5 percent ABV, it bridges the gap between session beer and nightcap superbly.
Duck Rabbit Wee HeavyABV: 8.0
Tasting Notes: Brewed by the Duck Rabbit Craft Brewery in the tiny, eastern North Carolina town of Farmville, the wee heavy is one of the finest strong Scotch ales among the many in America. Classic deep ruby-brown in color, the rich aroma has chocolate and cherry along with sweet malt and dark caramel. Dense and brawny on the palate, it presents a dessert-like mixture of malt, toffee and dark fruit, held together by a round earthiness, and balanced with a complement of hops.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning homebrewer and general hobbyist who thinks there is no more sublime marriage than that of art and science.