Scottish Ale Crash Course

February 25,2011 by 24 Comments

Welcome to another beer style crash course video giving you quick but thorough explanations of beer styles.

If IPAs are for the hop heads, Scottish ales are for the malt heads. Their rich, sweet, caramel maltiness makes these highly addictive brews.

Unlike English beers which have fruity flavors from the yeast, Scottish ales are fermented cool (it’s cold there) which reduces the fruity esters and gives a very clean flavor.

A long boiling process creates the caramel flavors that are so coveted in Scottish ales. Peat malt is often used by breweries recreating the style, but it wasn’t traditionally used by Scottish brewers. The peat malt went to the distilleries and the brewers relied on their yeast, process, and other ingredients to create the beer’s complex flavors.

History of the Scottish Ale

Early Scottish beers were gruit, beers that used herbs and spices instead of hops. The heather flower is abundant in Scotland and was a common ingredient.

Scotch whiskey drinkers are well aware of the quality of malt produced in Scotland. The huge whiskey market means there was  plenty of barley for brewing beer, and they weren’t stingy with it. The brewers used high malt bills which are responsible for the malty sweet flavors of these beers.

An interesting feature of Scottish ales is their naming convention, which is based on the Shilling system of currency. The stronger the beer, the more Shillings it was taxed (actually other beers were taxed the same way, but it really stuck with Scottish ales). The lighter beers were charged 60 Shillings while the stronger ones were charged 70,80, or 90 Shillings. Here’s the BJCP breakdown if you’re brewing to style:

  • Scottish Light 60/- (2.5 – 3.2% abv)
  • Scottish Heavy 70/- (3.2 – 3.9% abv)
  • Scottish Export 80/- (3.9 – 5.0% abv)
  • Scotch Ale aka Wee Heavy – (6.5 – 10% abv)

Now for some commercial examples:

Scottish Ale

  • Orkney Dark Island
  • Bellhaven Scottish Ale
  • McEwan’s Scottish Ales
  • Three Floyd’s Robert the Bruce

Scotch Ale/Wee Heavy

  • Orkney SkullSplitter
  • Bellhaven Wee Heavy
  • Oskar Blues Old Chub
  • Founders Dirty Bastard

While doing this video I was disappointed at how hard it was to find Scottish ales, especially lower abv varieties since there are a decent amount of wee heavies out there. They are unique beers and a refreshing break from the onslaught of hops in American craft beers.

Do we have any malt heads out there? What are your favorite Scottish ales?

Hey, it’s Billy Broas from doing another beer style crash course video. Now I had a few people ask me to do a Scottish ale. I happen to love that style so I had no objections. So here it is a crash course in the Scottish ale beer style.

Scotland has a very long brewing tradition going back thousands of years. Back then they made what’s known as grut, which are beers that are unhopped. Instead they’re made with spices, herbs, roots, flowers and things like that. There are a lot of heather grown in Scotland so they made a lot of heather ales. The use of heather really isn’t too common anymore. They eventually did switch over to hops, but there was a lot of resistance to that because they had to import them from England, which meant one that they’re expensive, and two that they had to actually buy them from England, which they weren’t too happy about.

Even still they really don’t use a whole lot of hops in their beers. Very little. Just enough to preserve the beer and balance out the malt a little bit, but that kind of defines this style. They are really, really low hopped beers and it’s all about the malt in Scottish ales. Malt is the defining future of the Scottish ale and there is a good reason for that. When you think of alcohol in Scotland what do you think of? Probably scotch or scotch whiskey. They grow a ton of barley in Scotland. It’s really high quality barley for the distilleries and the breweries share that. So they have an abundance of barley and they definitely use a lot of that. They make these really rich malt focused ales.

You really can’t talk about Scottish ales without talking about their naming convention. They were actually named based upon the taxes that were levied upon them. The currency back then was the shilling. The lower IBU beers were taxed less than the higher IBU beers. So your lower ones like the three percent Scottish ales they were taxed 60 shillings and that became the name of that beer style Scottish 60’s shilling. Then you have 70, 80, 90 and 90 and up is known as a Scottish ale or a wee heavy same thing. 90 shilling and below, the lower IBU beers are called Scottish ales.

So what do they taste like? Like I said, really rich malt flavors. They’re very smooth, really good caramel flavors also from an extended boiling process. There is very little hop bitterness and little to none at all hop flavor and aroma. They’re often smoky, earthy and a little bit peaty. There are some butterscotch flavors in there. They’re also really clean beers. You don’t get the fruity flavors that you get from English ales. That’s because they’re fermented at pretty low temperatures for ales. So you don’t get those fruity esters and because of those temperatures the yeast often drops out and doesn’t finish fermenting the beer. That means you have residual sugar which means you have a sweeter beer.

The color is deep amber to brown and then ABB ranges from three percent on the 60 shillings to 10% or even higher on the wee heavies or the scotch ales. The IBUs range from 10 on the 60 shillings or as high as 35 on the Scottish ales which is still pretty low. So brewing these things and the ingredients got to talk about peat smoked malt or peat malt. It’s used in distilleries for making Scottish whiskey. A lot of brewers do use it and a lot of brewers think that it’s used on Scottish ales, but in fact, it’s not traditionally. So if you’re brewing to style leave out the peat malt. Save that for the whiskey. But then again, if you do like the smoky flavor that it gives you go ahead and use it. It’s your taste buds, but try to keep it to a low percentage, two to three percent or lower.

Malts you want to go with a Scottish or English base malt. Use pale malt or Maris otter. Specialty malts you want to use crystal malt. Caropills[SP] can be used and even a small percentage of roasted barley normally three percent or below. Hops should only be used for bittering and go with an English variety. For the yeast, go with a Scottish ale yeast.

Okay commercial examples and I’ll start with wee heavies or scotch ales because they’re really more common. The king in my opinion is the Orkney Skull Splitter, fantastic beer. There is also this one from Isle of Sky brewery called We Beast. Then this is a newer American one called Highway 78 by Stone, Green Flash and Pizza Port. There is also an America Old Chub by Oscar Blues and founders Dirty Bastard. Scottish ales, Orkney also makes one called Dark Island. There is also the Bell Haven Scottish ale. In America there is the Great Divide Claymore scotch and the Three Floyd’s Robert the Bruce.

Food pairing suggestions, your lighter Scottish ales, your 60 shillings, those would go well with something light like a salad. Your heavier wee heavies go great with meat. Something like pot roast would be fantastic, roast beef or say a steak that developed really good caramelized flavors that would really match the caramel flavors in the beer. These beers are also pretty sweet so you can definitely pair them with dessert. I think it would go great with cake or tiramisu. It’s really fantastic for after dinner.

So that’s a crash course on the Scottish ale beer style. Dig deeper in to them if you want. There is a really great history behind them. Thanks for watching guys. I’m Billy Broas from Cheers.

About Billy Broas

He is the founder of The Homebrew Academy, a BJCP beer judge, and the homebrewing expert on the Rocky Mountain PBS television show Colorado Brews. He lives in the fine beer town of Denver, Colorado.

24 responses to “Scottish Ale Crash Course”

  1. Jeff says:

    Well done, Billy…I’ll have to pick some up over the weekend.

  2. Great video!… I like Scotch ales as much as IPA’s… my favorite by far is brewed by Traquair House…

    • Billy Broas says:

      Thanks Jorge. I wish Scotch ales were as available as IPAs. They’re an amazing style. I read about Traquair House in one of Michael Jackson’s books. Must try it.

  3. Andy says:

    Beauty!! A man after my own heart, Billy. Great job there, and my favorite style to boot. Thanks for that.

    Have you tried Erie Ol’ Red Cease and Desist (from Erie Brewing, PA)? When it warms a bit, it smells like an opened package of DME. Sick! Wonderfully malty, and one of the sweeter wees around. AleSmith also makes a mighty fine one if you can grab a wine bottle of it. Really nice.

    I’m pleased that you took a stance on the peat factor. While a bit of smokiness from barley and caramelization can be a part of Scottish/Scotch ales (good to point out the difference there–Nice call!), Scots brewers didn’t traditionally use peat malt. So many expect it in Scots ales and are disappointed when it’s absent (they feel it’s not true to style without it); I believe the word “Scotch” confuses things for these folks. That said, good of you to bring this to light.

    Another base malt for Scottish/Scotch ales would be Simpson’s Golden Promise, the Scots equivalent of England’s Maris Otter; from what I’ve read, GP may be a touch sweeter (possibly) than MO for a base malt.

    Another great bit of education for those not in the know about this highly regarded but oft-overlooked style. Keep at ’em, and thanks.

    • Billy Broas says:

      Hey Andy, thanks for the kind words. I haven’t had Cease and Desist but I do love the smell of DME. Much better than the smell of LME in my opinion. Will have to seek out that brew as well as AleSmith’s which I’ve heard a lot about.

      As far of the peat, I think you’re right that the “Scotch” term confuses people. Ray Daniels actually has a pretty good section in “Designing Great Beers” that I meant to include in the post but will just put here:

      “Since the barley for making whiskey is quite different from that for making beer, it is likely that preparation of the two diverged long ago. Noonan related that, even among Scots brewers, the old timers can only remember one ale that posses the peat smoke flavor, or reek, as it is called. This beer was produced for several decades during the 1900s but was discontinued in the mid 1940s.

      “In his 1847 text on Scottish brewing and malting, Roberts specifies that malt kilns be fired with coke, charcoal, culms, or wood. This indicates that peat-smoked character would not have been part of Scotch or Scottish-style ale flavor during the 19th century. Given this fact, I cannot help but wonder if the use of peat in malt kilns was an extreme measure adopted during the world wars early in the 20th century.”

      Pretty interesting stuff. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of smoke but I always stay to trust your taste buds so if you like that flavor go for it. I just think it’s good to get the history correct.

      Anyways, thanks for the comment. You’re right, it’s an overlooked style but a great one.

  4. Odyssey Ales says:

    Nice article,
    Youre right they are undervalued here, and the fact that they vary so much in alcohol and character makes them a little difficult to pigeon hole. As for some suggestions, I have enjoyed a lot of Broughton’s beers, their champion double ale is great. Harvestoun makes some great ales, of all varities, although I am partial to their Old Engine Oil, (not strictly speaking a Scottish Ale, but worth finding, especially if you can get the whickey cask aged versions, Ola Dubh). I enjoyed a few beers from the Isle of Skye Brewery, especially their Red Cuillin, but I lived in scotland and I am not sure how easy it is to get them over here, but if you can find them they are worth the effort.
    I am afraid too often the beers labelled scotch ale in north america are a pale imitation lacking a bit of character. It seems like sometimes that they are a bit lazy when making them, and sort of view them as a normal beer with minimal hops, rather than really crafting the malt character. I had a recent rant about that on my blog, Let me know what you think.

    Odyssey Ales

    • Billy Broas says:

      Just left a comment on your post. Great stuff!

      I haven’t had the Ola Dubh but actually just saw it at my beer store so I’ll have to pick it up. That Wee Beast in the picture is an Isle of Sky beer. It must have been an infected bottle because there was a sharp tart flavor. Too bad because I’m sure it’s great closer to where it’s brewed, which is also a problem when tasting these beers from overseas. I think a trip is in order.

  5. Nels says:

    Great video, thanks Billy. Northern Brewer has a few Scottish ale kits, and now I think I may consider one for the next batch…

    • Billy Broas says:

      Awesome Nels. After doing this video I also got the bug to brew one and made an 80/- this weekend. Let us know how yours turns out!

  6. Great video, just had to throw a recommendation for my fav scotch ale, the Fat Woody by Silver City Brewery, I just did a review of it on my very newly created blog and it is fantastic!

  7. Royce says:

    I am indeed a malt head, and love all the beers you’ve listed. I also have Kilt Lifter on that list of fairly typical examples of a Scotch ale. Or is it Scottish? Will have to look it up. That’s a terrible naming convention by the way… wayyy too similar sounding.

    Old Chub is too cloying for my taste. It is one dimensional in a way. The Highway 78 is a revelation, however. Like we’ve talked about, it is like one extra oomph from greatness.

  8. Stephen Martin says:

    We have a brewery here in Ft Worth called “Rahr & Sons” . They have a seasonal Scottish Ale (Iron Thistle) which is an award winner. Unfortunately it is not distributed nationwide. It would be classified as a “Wee heavy”, having around 8% ABV, but it is a dark and lucious brew. It is also unfortunate that as a seasonal, it is only available here in Jan-Feb.

  9. David in FL says:

    Great video and Scotch ales are definitely one of my favorite styles. I enjoy the whole range from light to heavy. I really dig French Broad Brewery’s Wee Heavy-er ( NC ).

    Just curious why no mention of the characteristic carbonation typical of Scotch Ales?

    • Billy Broas says:

      Glad you enjoyed it David. There was a lot more I could have said about the style (like the carbonation) but to keep the videos short I leave a lot out. I felt I was already pushing the “crash course” theme with this one. Good to hear I held your attention the whole way through though!

  10. neal! says:

    Liked your article. A nice 80 sh/ innis & Gunn Irish whiskey cask Scottish ale is good one.
    The aged whiskey. Cask adds a nice flavor.

  11. Phil Dubya says:

    I just bottled my first scotch Ale, I remember years ago a friend of mine came back from scotland and brought me back some mcewans , Best beer I can I ever remember tasting. I bought some and it didnt even come close. I guess the export was different or sat way too long in poorlly controlled environments. I hope I am able to get at least close to what I tatsed back then.

  12. Peggy Noland says:

    Great and informative video! A wonderful local brewery, St George Brewing Co. In Hampton, Virginia, makes the absolutely delicious St George Winter Scotch Ale (6% ABV 25 IBU)…the favorite in our kegerator!

    • Billy Broas says:

      Thanks Peggy. I used to live in that area and had St. George’s many times, but I don’t think I had the Scotch Ale. Will have to look out for it.

  13. Unfortunately most of what you say about the history of Scottish beer isn’t true.

    The shilling number wasn’t the tax, it was the wholesale price per hogshead.

    Scottish beer wasn’t fermented any cooler than English beer. Both fermented at between 60º and 75º F.

    Scottish brewers didn’t use long boils. In fact in the 109th century they had very short boils, often not much more than 1 hour. Not only weren’t they aiming for kettle carmelisation, they were doing their best to avoid it because they wanted to keep the colour of the beer as pale as possible, That’s the reason why, like Burton brewers, they had open coppers, whereas London Porter brewers had closed coppers.

    60/-, 70/- and 80/- in their current form only really date from after WW II. They’re all basically Pale Ales.The shilling Ales of the 19th century were a completely different style, a sort of Mild Ale, but concentrating on the higher end of the strength spectrum. 80/-, 100/, 110/-, 120/-, 140/- and 160/- ranging from 6% to 10% ABV.

    In the second half of the 19th century many of the Edinburgh brewers used virtually no Scottisdh ingredients at all, other than water. They bought their barley from East Anglia and their hops from England, the USA, Germany and Bohemia. William Younger was a big fan of Saaz and used them in their Pale Ales.

    In the 19th century Scottish beers were as heavily-hopped as those in England. Low-hooping only seems to date from the 20th century.

    Scottish brewers used virtually no coloured malts other than in Stout. The colour in other beers usually came from caramel, often added at racking time. Some brewers would have as many as a dozen differnt-coloured versions of the same beer, each made for a specific town or region.

    How do I know this? Because I’ve taken the time to look through hundreds of Scottish brewing records, dating from the 1830’s to the 1990’s.

    The Scottish beers you describe are basically an American invention with little connection to the beers actually brewed in Scotland.

  14. Jonathan says:

    Link to the award-winning Alesmith Wee Heavy, YUM – their brewery is right by where I live!

  15. Ron says:

    Stone Arch Brewery in Appleton Wisconsin makes an outstanding Scotish Ale.

  16. Mark says:

    A local brewery here in St. Louis (Schlafly) has a Single Malt Scottish Ale that is awesome. Unfortunately it is a seasonal brew and not standard.

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