Wee Heavy is a complex, strong beer originating in Scotland and characterized by substantial malt-influenced flavors. Wee heavy remains one of Scotland’s definitive beers and the style has gained a worldwide following. This strong ale is traditionally served in small (“wee”) measures, although this owes more to an alcohol strength that can range from 5.5% to 9.0% ABV rather than any alleged Scottish canniness with money and portions. And, confusingly, “heavy” in Scottish ale terms can refer to any beer between 3.5% and 4.0% ABV, which equates roughly with the relatively light “ordinary bitter,” that of most English ales.
As a general rule, a wee heavy is strong, dark, and malty with little hop character and moderate carbonation. Malt is the major aroma—which follows through on the palate as toffee and caramel—but earthy and smoky secondary aromas may also be present, accentuating the style’s renowned complexity.
The wee heavy mouthfeel is medium-full to full-bodied with some versions offering a thick, chewy viscosity. The style has traveled well and has found niche audiences in North America and parts of Europe where indigenous beer styles are readily endorsed but others of interest are taken seriously.
Wee heavy was originally a product of its time and place: 18th-century Scotland. Hops aren’t native to the country and were therefore an expensive commodity to ship from the traditional English growing centers of Kent, Hereford, and Worcestershire, let alone from abroad. But what Scotland does produce in quantity is high-quality malting barley which, from the earliest days of managed agriculture, was concentrated in key areas: Berwickshire, the Lothians, Fife, Angus, and the Buchan region of the northwest, to be malted for beer and whiskey production. So when it came to making beer at a reasonable cost, the hop content was invariably kept to a minimum.
Soft water has also been a key component in Scottish brewing, and in the wee heavy style flavors come from high mash temperatures and kettle caramelization rather than from crystal malts. Scotch ale—an alternative name for wee heavy—traditionally goes through a long boil in the kettle that caramelizes the wort. This was particularly the case in days when kettles were direct-fired by flames, and some of the better examples are still brewed this way. This also produces a deep copper-colored sweet beer with roasted malt caramel flavors (even some liquorice and coffee flavors) and wee heavies should be full-bodied and strong.
Belgians are particularly fond of Scottish-derivative ales and they have become something of a tradition in the Walloon region; their malty sweet, dark body and hint of fruit appear in several guises from Scotch Silly (8.0% ABV) to Abbaye Des Rocs Brune (9.0% ABV).
The Baltic countries were traditional Scottish beer trading grounds, with Norway, Denmark, and Holland also of great importance. But it is in North America that the wee heavy style has flourished and developed through the curiosity, knowledge, and enthusiasm of craft brewers. Its evolution in America is well documented and started early. There is evidence from around the 1750s of beer exported from Scotland to the new colonies in North America which tended to follow in the wake of Scottish emigration. Initial demand for strong Scottish beers came from the merchants and planters in those colonies and in the West Indies where their influence was also strong. By 1785 North America and the West Indies soaked up 80% of Scottish strong ale export, reflecting the concentration of Scottish emigrants to Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas with Jamaica and Grenada being important settlements in the West Indies. Today, wee heavy is brewed by dozens of craft brewers across the United States, often as a seasonal beer for the cold weather months.