Scotland is a land of legend. Its people are hearty; its terrain can be craggy and daunting, or softly pacifying. It is mysterious, magical and formidable because of the cool and often harsh weather. Although Scotland is famous for its namesake whiskey, by far the most frequently consumed social beverage is ale, the stronger versions of which perfectly reflect the nature of the land and the people.
Scotch ales are hefty, smooth with an earth edge, inviting, and soothing.
Scotch ales are hefty, smooth with an earthy edge, inviting, and soothing. Strong Scotch ale is a redundancy, as the more common Scottish ales are more modest in character than their redoubtable brethren. Scotch ale is often referred to as “wee heavy” and can resemble lagers more than ales, especially German bock beers.
From the Past
While it is generally accepted that brewing history can be traced to the Sumerian culture of the fifth millennium BC, Scotland may have an equally extensive brewing heritage. There is evidence that Pictish tribes in present-day Scotland were making fermented beverages about the same time as the Sumerians.
Early brews were made with grain, fruit, honey or anything else fermentable, and flavored with numerous spices and herbs.
As in much of medieval Europe, Scottish monasteries housed the brewing artisans, famous for their ale. The patron saint of Glasgow, St. Mungo, was himself a skilled brewer in the sixth century AD.
In the Middle Ages in Scotland, the task of brewing often fell to the women, especially in rural areas. Many of these “broustaris” were so adept at brewing that they sold their product to the public. Aberdeen boasted a list of 152 such brewing women in 1509 and the brewing center of Edinburgh employed over 300 female brewers, or “alewives.”
The first documented beer purchase from a public brewery is in 1488, when James IV bought a barrel of Blackford ale in Perthshire. The cost: 12 Scots shillings.
The rising popularity of these public breweries led to the formation of a brewing and malting guild in the 16th century in Glasgow, known as the Incorporation of Maltmen. In another move to protect the Scottish breweries, law-makers made it illegal to import foreign beer of any sort. This allowed the brewers of Scotland to concentrate on their own products.
The outstanding strong ales of Scotland were by now well known around Western Europe, and by the early 1800s, Scottish beer was being exported all over the world. The climate was cool, hops were used sparingly because of their expense and rarity, and the beer was brewed strong to keep better. Thus, the profile of Scotch ale was evolving. A well-established barley-growing industry, and a copious supply of clean, fresh water ensured that the Scottish brewing trade was in good hands.
In nearby England, the meteoric rise in the popularity of London porter in the early 19th century threatened to supplant much of the demand for Scottish brews. In response, the Scots broadened their offerings and hired craftsmen accomplished in the arts of malting and brewing to show them how to produce these nouveau beverages.
Later, when the hoppy ales of Burton raged, the Scots employed the pale ale brewers of London and Burton tailoring their methods to approximate these highly desired brews. This flexibility not only allowed the Scots to keep a brewing stake across the United Kingdom, but also ensured that they would have something for each palate. The indisputable king of the Scottish beers, however, was Scotch ale.