To the Present
Scotch ales tend to be a specialty brew. They share much of their profile with many other strong beers, yet retain more individuality. The brewers who make them are scattered throughout Scotland, from the southern borders, to the remote Orkney archipelago in the north. Often the brewers refer to their individual brews by the shilling designations, a remnant of an old taxation system.
It is important to distinguish between Scottish and Scotch ales. Scottish ales called 60 (light), 70 (heavy), or 80 (export) shilling are in the range of 2.5 percent to 5.0 percent ABV. Scotch ale, or wee heavy, starts at 90 shilling and usually measures at least 6.5 percent ABV, with an original gravity of about 1.070. Some historical Scotch ales might be as high as 140 shilling, with a starting gravity of 1.125, although the scale has slid downward some over the last 150 years. Today’s 80 shilling might be equivalent to a 60 shilling of 1850.
The base malt of a Scotch ale is not dissimilar to those used in English ale. It is highly-modified for single-temperature mashing. It may be kilned to a slightly higher temperature after drying to attain a burnished color. The effect is a less fermentable wort, with a bit more mouthfeel than beer made with a pale ale malt.
Historically, most beers produced in Great Britain up to the end of the 18th century would have exhibited a smoky character due to the wood, peat or, later, coke used in drying prior to the development of modern indirect-heated malt kilns. Historical Scottish beers were very “peaty” in many cases.
When green barley was steeped in water prior to sprouting, a small portion of the barleycorns floated. This “slack” malt was roasted and used in the grist, and imparted a little color and flavor from the charred malt. During the porter craze of the late 18th century, amber and brown malts were used extensively. These base malts had varying degrees of intense kilning and contributed deep colors to wort and even a little more toasty flavor.