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.
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.
Strong Ale Profiles
Modern Scottish brewers color and flavor their wort with different combinations of amber, brown, or roasted barley, along with some caramelized malt. Scotch ales are amber to dark brown and may have a black accent from the roasted barley. While the malt flavor of Scotch ale is not rough, it can have a slightly coarse flavor because of these dark malts.
Hop character is very much reserved in Scotch ales. This can be attributed to the fact that historically hops were almost impossible to grow in Scotland and expensive to import. The resistance to outside influences during the heyday of Scottish brewing also limited the amount of hops that were used in beer.
The anachronistic preference for herbs held fort much longer in Scotland than anywhere else in the world. Indigenous plants like bog myrtle, heather, spruce and other botanicals remained popular. Heather is used today in at least one Scottish ale, Fraoch, and coriander adds a unique accent to Traquair House’s Scotch ale, Jacobite.
Nevertheless, as Scottish breweries sought to remain competitive with other regional breweries, they adopted hops as the primary balancing spice in their ales. Many hop varieties were used originally, probably any type that could be exported cheaply. Today, East Kent Goldings are the most widely used strain. They are used with restraint, and aroma hops are even less evident. This adds to the perception of Scotch ales as a malty beer.
Water is always an important consideration in brewing. The best malty beers are made with soft water, and hoppy beers, with hard water. Scotland has some of each, but it would make sense that the best Scotch ales would use soft water. The rural nature of the country keeps the water supply relatively pristine.
The nature and selection of yeast for Scotch ales is fairly different from most ale yeasts, having much in common with lager yeasts. Yeast is usually a low attenuator, leaving more residual character in the beer like a higher malt flavor and more mouthfeel. It works slowly, but effectively, at low temperatures.
The cool climate naturally allows for cellars with a beer-friendly ambiance. Storage at these temperatures palpably smoothes the character of the brew. Overall, the cool fermentation and storage, low attenuation, judicious use of hops, reasonably soft water, and substantial character renders a profile not unlike a robust, brawny, malty lager such as a bock but with a tangible smoky edge.
Scotch ales are not too hard to find, as at least seven Scottish breweries export their strong ale. Oddly enough, Belgium exports two, Scotch de Silly and Achouffe McChouffe, which fit the category nicely and are more neutral and softer than other Belgian beers. Moylan’s Kilt Lifter of Novato, CA, is a wonderful example that is widely distributed. French Broad Brewing of Asheville, NC, pays homage to the regional Scottish settlers of Appalachia with a Wee Heavy that has a little of the authentic dark-kilned malt backdrop.
Classic, distinct beer styles are just that because of their evolution, which can depend on things both serendipitous and intended. Scotch ales are a perfect example of beers that develop along regional conditions. They are lush, vigorous and alluring, big and satisfying, and an image of Scotland itself. Scotch ales are the perfect partner for the cool, mesmerizing landscape. Get a cache for winter, so no matter where you are, you’ll be ready for the cold.