How To Brew Wee Heavy Beer

by Steve Thanos | Updated: December 24, 2020

Wee Heavy is one of Scotland’s distinct beers and the style is known worldwide. Originally this style was brewed during the 18th- century in Scotland.

However, this wasn’t the first time Scotland encountered beer. It is thought that fragments such as cereal, pollen, meadowsweet were discovered some 4,000 to 6,000 years ago.

On the Isle of Rhum dated around 2000 B.C. show traces of cereal, grains, honey, and heather. 

Using Ingredients Available to You

As was explored previously with other Scottish styles, hops were not a readily available ingredient for beers at this time.

Instead Scottish brewers decided to brew with heather. While Scotland was unable to grow hops due to their climate, they did produce some high-quality malting barley. 

That Distinct Scotch Ale

Besides the plentiful grains available in Scotland and their lack of hops, soft water was also a key component in Scottish brewing. The Wee Heavy, also known as Scotch Ale, is known for a high mash temperature, a long boil, and kettle caramelization rather than using crystal malts.

The long boils contribute to caramelizing the wort. This was the case when kettles were direct-fired by flames and some examples are still brewed this way today. 

Exporting Scottish Beers

Belgians were very impressed with the beer being brewed in Scotland. The Baltic countries had great interest in Scotish beer trading, with Norway, Denmark, and Holland also being interested.

However, North America was very curious about the beers produced in Scotland. There is evidence of beer being exported from Scotland around the 1750s. This beer was showing up in the new colonies in North America which followed Scottish emigration.

The demand for strong Scottish beers came from merchants and planters in the new colonies and the West Indies. By 1785 North America and West Indies contributed to 80% of Scottish ale export. 

An Update by the BJCP Guidelines:

In 2015, the BJCP reformatted their style guidelines. This beer style was renamed from “Strong Scotch Ale” and is now known as Wee Heavy.

It was also re-categorized from the “Scottish & Irish Ale” category (9E in 2009), and now resides within the “Strong British Ale” category (17C in 2015) in the official style guidelines.

Style Profile for Wee Heavy

Appearance

Color ranges from light rosey copper to dark brown, often with some ruddy highlights. Clarity should be good and a thick off-white to tan head. Due to high alcohol content, the head does not last. 

Aroma

The aroma is malt with caramel. Possible hints of smoke from the roasted malts, but peat-like smoke would be out of place for the style. Hop aroma is low if present at all.

Flavor

The taste of this beer should be the malt centric with deep caramel character, backed with hints of roasted malt. Peat smoke would be inappropriate. Diacetyl is low to none. Both hop flavor and bitterness should be low to moderate.

Esters and alcohol should be low to medium range. Esters show themselves as raisin, plum, or dried fruit. Finish can be sweet to moderately dry, with hints of nut, caramel, smoke, and darker grains in the aftertaste. 

Mouthfeel

Body can be medium to full with some versions being distinctly chewy and thick. Medium-low to moderate carbonation. Alcohol warmth helps balance the big malt presence and gives the beer a smooth mouthfeel. 

Food Pairing

When it comes to pairing a Wee Heavy with food, rich, fatty, more flavorful food with hints of sweetness pair well. A rich leg of lamb with mint sauce, or roasted venison with a sweet sauce works well with the rich deep maltiness of this style.

Pheasant and goose have enough fat on them to play well with this beer as well. Cheeses such as Asiago, Gruyere, or mild smoked cheese all pair well. Desserts such as creme brulee, caramelized apple dishes both pair well with a Wee Heavy. 

Tips for Brewing your own Wee Heavy

Grain

British base malts such as Maris Otter, Golden Promise, and Crisp’s pale ale malt are the way to go here. Whichever base malt you go with, let it be 90% of the grain bill. Keep darker malts – roasted barley, black malt, and/or chocolate malt below 2% of the grain bill.

The caramel/crystal malts can make up 5 to 10 percent of the grist and smoked malt below 2%. Munich malt can make up the rest of the grain bill, up to about 10%. 

Hops

Hopping a Wee Heavy is only important so the bitterness helps to balance the sweetness of the malt. There should be minimal if any flavoring and aroma hops in this beer.

Avoid highly flavorful hops. English hops are probably the best to use for the style. Fuggle, East Kent Goldings, Galena, Cluster, and Target are all good choices.  

Yeast

Scottish Ale Wyeast #1728 and Edinburgh Scottish Ale White Labs WLP028 would be good choices. If you prefer using dry yeast, Danstar Nottingham and Safale US-05 would work. Follow the temperature recommendations with any yeast that you pick. 

Wee Heavy Beer By the Numbers

  • Color Range: 14 – 25 SRM
  • Original Gravity: 1.070 – 1.130 OG
  • Final Gravity: 1.018 – 1.040 FG
  • IBU Range: 17 – 35
  • ABV Range: 6.5 – 10.0%

Martin Keen’s Wee Heavy Homebrew Recipe

Grain

85%          15 lbs        Golden Promise      

  5 %           1 lb          Crystal 45      

  3 %           8 oz         Biscuit Malt

  3 %           8 oz         Caramel/Crystal 120 Malt

  3 %           8 oz         Special Roast

  1 %           2 oz         Roasted Barley

Hops

  2 oz         East Kent Goldings – Boil 60 min

  1 oz         East Kent Goldings  – Boil 10 min

Yeast

1.0 pkg   Denny’s Favorite Wyeast Labs #1450

Mash at 154°F (68°C) for 60 mins

Boil for 60 mins 

Transcript: This week, we’re going big. We’re not brewing any kind of easy drinking session beer. Instead we’re brewing something that is richly malty sweet and quite alcoholic. It’s wee heavy.

I’m Martin Keen taking the Homebrew challenge to brew 99 beers in 99 weeks.

And on that challenge so far I’ve already brewed three Scottish beers; Scottish light, Scottish heavy, and Scottish export.

And they all share the characteristics of a strong malt profile, quite caramelly, but also relatively easy drinking and quite low in alcohol. Now wee heavy shares some of the basic characteristics of those Scottish beers and that it is a malt forward beer, but it’s got a much stronger malt profile. It’s a fair bit sweeter, and it’s of a much higher gravity.

When you’re brewing high gravity beers one thing to keep in mind is yeast health. You are giving the yeast a feast of sugar to chew through. And therefore oxygenating the wort provides for healthy fermentations and is more important than ever when it comes to these high gravity beers.

To that end, I have a couple of new gadgets to try out for oxygenation. I have something from a Blichmann engineering and from Anvil. We’ll get to what these things do in just a second.

But first of all, let’s hop over to talk about ingredients. And I’ve alluded to this being a big beer. How big? Well, the original gravity is 10 89. So yeah, pretty strong beer. This will get us about 8.9% ABV.

And when fermentation is done, we’re only expecting to finish up with a gravity of about 10 23. Uh, so that’s still quite high, which indicates that there will still be a bit of sugar in the beer.

So the base malt for this beer is going to be golden promise that will make up 85% of the grist. We’re also going to add in 5% of crystal 45. Now we also want to bring in some roasty character to this beer. So I’m going to add 3% of special roast and 3% of crystal 120. I’m also adding in 3% of biscuit malt, and then just a touch 1% or even less of roasted barley.

Mashing in at 68 Celsius or 154 Fahrenheit for probably about an hour.

Time for confession. Now, I’ve been using these ball lock liquid disconnect on my kegs to serve beer for years. And I didn’t really know how to clean them. My only effort really towards cleaning them as every now and again, I’d kind of rinse them out under the tap, or I would run some PBW solution through them.

It turns out though, as I learn on a Reddit thread the other day, that you are actually able to open these things up.

So I got a jar here of all of my disconnects that I’ve just taken out of my Keezer and look on the back of each one of these, there is a little hole and I hadn’t really figured out what that hole is for. It fits a screwdriver just perfectly. And in fact, from here, you can open it up.

No, you have to be quite careful because there are all sorts of little parts in here that we don’t want to lose. But basically there is this, this outer part here, which will have a rubber O-ring attached to it. And as you can see, uh, the O-ring has got a little bit of dirt on it, not too bad. Uh, also in here, if I tip this up, we’ve got a spring and then we’ve got this here, which is what connects in with the liquid post on the keg.

So I’ve got a Mason jar of PBW solution here, and I’m just going to drop all of these parts into that jar to soak. There we go. I’ll then rinse these out and reassemble this thing and hopefully have slightly cleaner liquid disconnects for future serving of beer.

Now, I did perform a mash out of this beer. I don’t always do that with my system, but I raise the temperature up to 75 Celsius or 168 Fahrenheit and left it there for about 10 minutes. Now I am getting ready to boil and thinking about adding in the hops.

And the hops for this bit, uh, East Kent Golding, nothing crazy here, going through an IBU of about 20. I’m going to add my bittering hops in at one hour. So if you’re brewing a five gallon batch, this would be one bag or one ounce of East Kent Golding, and then 10 minutes to go I’m throwing in another bag, which would give me about five IBU.

Now, I don’t oxygenate every one of my beers, typically only high gravity beers. I think the rule of thumb is sort of a gravity of an original gravity of 10 70, 10 80. That’s when you might want to start, consider doing it.

When I do my beer, I’ve been using oxygen from tanks like this, which you can just pick up at the hardware store. So pretty convenient to get hold of them. And then you take an oxygenation wand and connect it directly to this thing. And away you go.

There’s a few things I don’t really like about these tanks. First of all, because the one connects directly to the tank. There’s no regulator. There’s no way to sort of really set the flow of oxygen that’s passing through this thing.

Also, these things contain surprisingly little oxygen. I find that after only a few batches, then I’ve, I’ve drained one of these. And then thirdly, I haven’t really figured out a way to recycle this thing. I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t want to throw it away.

Yeah, so I am now using a full 20 cubic feet oxygen tank with a CGA 540 connection. Now, what we want to do is we want to get about eight to 10 parts per million of oxygen into our wort and the way that we’re going to measure that is by using this regulator from Blichmann.

Blichmann Engineering
Oxygen Flow Regulator
$49.95
Detail Page
09/25/2021 03:37 pm GMT

This is an oxygen flow regulator, and it connects directly on to this CGA 540 connections. So I can just screw it on.

There’s a knob on here that sets how much oxygen is going to pass through the regulator. And these numbers here. These are liters per minute. LPM.

So Blichmann recommend setting one LPM on your regulator. And then in a five gallon batch, you would airate for about a minute and a half. And that should approximately get you to around 8 to 10 PPM of dissolved oxygen in your wort.

Now there’s a part missing here. We need an oxygen wand. Well, got one of these courtesy of Anvil.

Best Selling

So this is going to connect to the regulator. The way it will do that is through just little bit of tubing. The tubing screws into the bottom of the regulator, and then this connects into the wand itself.

One nice feature I like about this wand is the oxygen stone here that the diffusion stone at the bottom, you never want to touch that with your skin, just because of the oil on your skin can really clog up this thing. Um, so it comes actually with a little tube to protect it.

So to use this, what you would do is you would sanitize as first, just dump this in a bucket of starsan, then put it into your wort and leave it stirring with the oxygen turned on at one LPM for about a minute and a half. That’s the theory, when I’ve brewed me beer we can put it to the test.

For yeast I’m using Wyeast 1450. That’s a Denny’s favorite. Denny being Denny Con from experimental homebrewing. I like this yeast because it will really accentuate the caramel and malty aspects of this beer and it can handle up to 10% ABV.

Okay. So I’ve sanitized my oxygenation wand. And now I’m going to put this in for a minute with a setting of one LPM on the regulator. I’m gonna leave this running for about a minute.

I will ferment this beer at around 68 degrees Fahrenheit and looking forward to giving this one a try.

So Lauren, what do you know about wee heavy? So not much, but I kind of sneakily Googled and I Googled wee heavy smell.

And it came back with “why does my urine smell this bad?”

Wee Heavy. So not much. Well, hopefully it will smell better than that for me.

Let’s take a look at the appearance. First of all, let me think. It’s very Amber. It’s a dark Amber. Yup. Yeah, definitely a very dark Scottish looking color. I would say this is similar in colors to some of the other Scottish beers we did.

Let’s see about the aroma. Trying to put your story out my mind now when I’m smelling this. Oh, it doesn’t smell like urine. No, there we go. Success. Um, yes. Sweet. Um, malty I think is what I’m getting very malty for sure. That’s let’s go for the taste.

Well, um, sweet and caramel-y I think is probably about right. What do you think? Verrrrry sweet. Yes.

So this finished at 10 21, uh, which means there’s quite a bit of sugar still in here.

So how do I feel about this? Um, I don’t think that I want a full pint of it because I don’t think that’d be able to finish it and have it tastes the way it should. But having like a half pour or a half pint or something, I think it would be like perfect. But I feel bad about just like letting it sit there.

It’s definitely a sipper.

Yes it is. And uh, you think this one was “Big Beer,” uh, wait until next week, next week is a beer bigger and stronger than wee heavy and it comes with a bonus second beer. So that’s something to look forward to, but until then…. Cheers!

I am the former President of my homebrew club, Plainfield Ale and Lager Enthusiasts (PALE) in the western suburbs of Chicago, IL. I brew on my BIAB system with my incredibly patient and understanding wife, adorable 9 year old daughter, and 12 year old brew dog.