Posted on March 4th, 2010
Scottish ales are wonderfully unique and deliciously dark, making them perfect for the colder months. Here’s a quick look at Scotland’s fine ale tradition.
Like many regional styles, the beers of Scotland are directly related to the geographic conditions of the area. The most distinctive qualities of Scottish beers are their big, malty flavors and lack of hops. This is directly related Scotland’s farmlands being largely inhospitable to growing hops. These plants generally require much warmer temperatures than what is available in Scotland. If Scottish brewers wanted hops for their beers they would have to import them, something that was for many years cost-prohibitive. At any rate, Scottish brewers brewed with what they had available and that was barley. There have been some who have recently questioned the historical accuracy of such claims, but the fact remains that most Scottish beers are big on malts with very little hops.
Using huge amounts of roasted barley in their brew and allowing it steep for an extended period of time to caramelize gives Scottish ales their signature sweet, roasted and malty flavors. Because of the lack of hops in the brews, Scottish ales tend to lack any of the bitterness and spice which are common in other heavy styles such as porters or stouts. While this can lead to unbalanced, cloying sweet beers if done poorly, in the hands of a capable brewmaster these beers can be absolutely wonderful.
Scottish ale comes in several varieties based on how sweet and alcoholic they are, using a system based on the now antiquated shilling currency system. Ranging from lightest to heaviest there is 60/- (light), 70/- (heavy) and 80/- (export). (‘/-‘ being the symbol for a shilling.)
When Scottish ales go beyond the 80/- range in sweetness and body, they are no longer refered to as Scottish ales, but Scotch ale or sometimes a “wee heavy”, which can range from 90/- to 160/- using the shilling system. There is no Scotch in Scotch ale, it’s named this because the high level of alcohol per volume and sweetness gives it a flavor akin to fine Scotch whisky.
Whichever variety of Scottish ale you choose to try, you’re in for a treat. Some personal favorites include Belhaven Scottish Ale, Belhaven 80/-, Kilt Lifter and Robert The Bruce. Oskar Blues Old Chub is in interesting American Craft interpretation of the style, with more hops than traditional versions.