What then, makes Scottish ales different from their counterparts to the south? The answer lies in the irony that they employ many of the same ingredients, but have craftily waged a symbiotic relationship with their distinctive climate, which approximates the distant environs of Bavaria. Scotland is famous for its barley, both northern whiskey, and southern ale varieties. The two overlap agriculturally, but the southern is of the same stock used in English and Irish ales. It is rich and substantial, even in its most lightly-kilned form, cementing the foundation for Scottish brews.
Scots maltsters were often the brewers and distillers. This intimate connection to their goods ultimately manifests itself in the ensuing production of the malt. It should come as no surprise that Scottish ales are malty in their essence, a proud platform of both craft and art. Oats, and to a lesser degree, wheat, are other crops that grow easily in the sometimes cool, forbidding climate. Each will, on occasion, find their way into a grist, lending a creaminess and full-bodied impression.
The color in a Scottish ale comes from judicious use of dark malt. Today, caramel malt is more common in the grist, but traditionally a small amount of roasted, unmalted barley is used for color and a hint of smokiness. Thrifty brewers of yore roasted the unsprouted, or slack, barley and used it in the mash, usually amounting to one to two percent on average.
There is historical evidence that Scottish beers were mashed at a slightly higher temperature than British beers. This would also add a fuller, more dextrinous wort, a characteristic that is evident in modern Scottish ales. Unlike the English, Scots were employing the practice of sparging, rinsing the grain while running off the wort, instead of the repeated drain and mash “parti-gyle” method to produce multiple brews from a single mash. As the sparge method filled the kettle slower, and resulted in prolonged contact with the fire, the wort acquired a more caramelized character. Again, this is yet another contemporary characteristic of the Scots ware, as it is achieved through a prolonged boil.
Scottish ales are lightly hopped brews, with little hop aroma. As it is near impossible to grow hops in Scotland, they resisted using them longer than most other brewers, and when they did use them, did so sparingly because of the cost. To avoid more shipping costs, hops were stored, and aged hops, which lost some of its bittering qualities were also used. This is yet again manifested in the modern ales. English varieties are used.
The cool climate of Scotland necessitated the selection of a yeast that could ferment at temperatures more like that of a lager beer. Still an ale yeast, it worked leisurely and left the beers somewhat under-fermented. Storage in cellars that approximate the lagering caves in Bavaria imparted a distinct lager-like character: smooth, full, and malty, with a dryish finish.
The brews that we know of as Scottish ales (as opposed to Scotch ales or wee heavys of 6.5% ABV or higher), are usually between 2.5% and 5.5% ABV. They are often referred to as 60 shilling (light), 70 shilling (heavy), and 80 shilling (export), a remnant of the designation based upon their invoice price per barrel, based on strength. The terms roughly equate to English ordinary, special, and extra special bitter, respectively. They are deep amber to full copper, full-bodied, and may have a bit of smoky character.
Though Scottish ales are dark and luscious, they are every bit the session beer that mild, brown ale, and bbitter are. Gentle enough to quaff a few, yet soothing enough for cool nights, Scottish ales kiss the entire spectrum of fulfillment. Mellow beers need not be boring, and, like Scotland itself, their ales can mesmerize.