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Exploring Scottish Beers from Shillings to Wee Heavy

Some of the most flavorful and misunderstood beers come from Scotland. Wee Heavy and Shilling Ales once dominated pubs and tap lists, but have lost favor for more hop-forward styles. However, these beers, and their history, are worth a closer look.

Paul Zocco 5 months ago

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Both homebrewers and brewers alike enjoy and desire to learn about particular “world” beer styles they plan to brew. Enter Scottish and Scotch ales. To fully appreciate these historic beer styles, it helps to know a bit about Scottish brewing history. I grabbed my copy of Scotch Ale, a well-researched book by Greg Noonan (Brewers Publications, 1993) and tucked this great reference into my bag before I hopped on a plane to Edinburgh. It turned out to be a terrific tour guide as well as the definitive reference about Scottish ales.

According to Noonan, archaeological evidence proves that the Picts were making some sort of fermented beverage on the Isle of Rhum as early as 6500 BC. By the time the Romans invaded Britain in AD 43, the Picts were brewing their beer with barley grains. They also used heather, an indigenous flower, to flavor and preserve (this was before hops were used) their brews. It must have been powerful stuff, because in the late fourth century, an Irish king named Niall of the Nine Hostages waged war against the Picts not to conquer the fierce tribe but to learn the secret of the legendary heather ale that Pictish warriors drank before battle to give them courage. History states that Niall wiped out the Pict population of Galloway but left without the recipe, which even the last victim refused to reveal. Heather ale survived for centuries in the Orkney Islands and has been revived nationwide in recent years.

In medieval times, according to Noonan, the monasteries around Glasgow and Edinburgh became the first “commercial” breweries in Scotland. This region was nicknamed the “Charmed Circle” for its abundant underground springs. This soft water was perfect for producing the rich and malty ales that beer-lovers identify with Scotland to this day. Secular breweries first appeared in the 1400s. Barley was grown and malted in the countryside in such fertile agricultural regions as the Carse of Forth and East Lothian. From there it was shipped to breweries in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Alloa. All three cities were blessed with cool cellars of constant temperatures, abundant soft-water supplies, and close proximity to a deep-water ports. For those reasons, these cities became, and still remain, the country’s major brewing centers.

In the early 1600s, the importation of English ales into Scotland was forbidden. The goal of the English-beer ban was to protect and encourage the Scottish brewing industry, and it worked! In the late 1700s, there were 150 public breweries in Scotland; by 1820, there were 240. True to Scottish brewing tradition and available ingredients, most of these breweries produced a range of malty, low-hopped ales. Over time, these Scottish ales gained popularity not only at home but across Europe, where they competed with the pale ales, bitters, stouts, and porters of England. By the late 1800s, thanks to the Industrial Revolution and a boom in the export market, the modern-day Scottish brewing industry was firmly established.

Styles and Shilling Designations

A note on nomenclature: Though basically all are malty with low-hopping rates, there is a difference between “Scotch ale” and “Scottish ales.” According to the BJCP style guide, Strong Scotch ale, with the catchy nickname “wee heavy,” typically has an original gravity (OG) that ranges from 1.072 to 1.088+. Any beer with an OG lower than that is considered a “Scottish” ale. Throughout this story, I rely on the official style guidelines published by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP).

Designations of strength are called “Shillings,” a historic tradition that referred to the tax rate levied on beer. The ones with the least amount of alcohol were designated with the lowest shilling number, which meant it would be taxed at a lower rate and cheaper for the patrons at their local pub. Shilling rates may be denoted by a symbol that looks like /-.

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The Scottish Beer Styles According to the BJCP Style Guide

The lowest alcohol Scottish ale is the 60-Shilling (or 60/-). This brew is often described as a session beer, which means one can have a few pints without falling off his/her barstool. This light ale typically has an original gravity of 1.030–1.035, a final of 1.010–1.013, low hops flavor presence with a bittering rate around 9–15 IBUs. Alcohol by volume ranges from 2.5 to 3.3 percent. In other words, the 60-Shilling is an easy-to-drink, low malt, low-hopped brown ale—a subdued tipple, but a pleasure to drink in draft or cask style. Popular commercial examples of this style include Belhaven 60/-, McEwan’s 60/-, and Maclay’s 60/-.

Following the 60s are the 70- and 80-Shillings. These three styles are the most common ales found in Scotland. I did see a 90-Shilling at one pub in Edinburgh, but they are rare. Per BJCP guidelines, Scottish 70s typically have an original gravity of 1.034– 1.040, a final of 1.011–1.015, and hops bitterness from 20 to 25 IBUs. The alcohol content ranges from 3.2 to 3.9 percent. The 70-Shillings are a bit maltier than the 60s and have a slightly higher alcohol level. Commercial examples of this style include Belhaven 70/-, McEwan’s 70/-, and Maclay 70/-. When I was in Edinburgh, the most common Scottish ales were the 70-Shillings.

The 80-Shilling is higher in alcohol, maltier, and hoppier than the 70. The BJCP guidelines call for an original gravity of 1.040–1.050, a final gravity of 1.013–1.017, and hops bitterness ranging from 15 to 36 IBUs. The alcohol levels go from 3.9 to 4.9 percent by volume.

Scotch (Wee Heavy) Ale… According to BJCP Style Guide

The big boy of Scottish ales is inarguably the strong Scotch ale or “wee heavy.” I love this style for its over-the-top, extremely malty, caramel and alcoholic, flavors. This strong ale has original gravities of 1.072–1.088+, finals of 1.019–1.025+ (providing lots of residual sweetness), and bittering levels of 20 to 40 IBUs. Alcohol levels range from 6.9 to 8.5 percent. These are warming, “sit-by-the-fire” type beers that pack a complexity of flavors and alcohol. I think they are best served port- or sherry-style in a brandy snifter. Commercial examples include McEwan’s Scotch Ale and Belhaven Scottish Ale. There also are some fine American examples, most notably the Wee Heavy Scotch Ale brewed at the Vermont Pub and Brewery. Before Greg Noonan’s passing, I had the pleasure of enjoying a few pints with Greg at his Burlington, Vermont, pub and found it the equal to any wee heavy in Scotland.

Comparing American Scottish Ale Styles with Scotland

I’m very interested in present-day Scottish ales and wondered if these traditional malty, full-bodied ales had lost their character through the ages. Upon arrival in Edinburgh, my goal was to sample as many different Scottish ales as I could. Thankfully, because the shilling ales in Scotland have a lower alcohol content than our American versions, I was able to drink a few pints and still walk out of the pubs under my own power. Besides Noonan’s book, I’d packed a few bottles of my own homebrewed 80-Shilling ale and some commercial examples of American-style Scottish ales to share with the breweries I visited. Transporting twelve bottles of beer was a major task, but I was on a mission. At each of the breweries I visited, I hoped the head brewer would join us in a comparative tasting. And they did!

The Scottish ales of the 1800s were markedly different from the ones that are brewed today. The final gravity of these ales has dropped considerably from their heyday of the mid 1800s, effectively changing their flavor profile. The 90-Shilling ale of the 1800s, for example, had a final gravity of 1.055, while a modern-day 90-Shilling has an FG of 1.020. As a result, the flavor is a bit more subdued. Modern American versions of the same Scottish ales, by contrast, are brewed with a higher alcohol content and tend to finish maltier.

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They are more filling than the session beers that are common in the Scottish pubs. The Scots tend to prefer a lighter ale. Most beers are cask conditioned or nitrogen forced, and are served at a warmer temperature (about 55°F/13°C). These are classic session beers and tend to be much less filling because of the lower malt presence. Though I tasted many beers when there, I didn’t come across the extremely rich and malty wee heavy ales often encountered in the United States.

Visiting the Scottish Breweries and Pubs

My first stop was the Belhaven Brewery, located in the picturesque seaside village of Dunbar. Belhaven has been brewing at this site since at least 1719, though there was brewing conducted on the premises at a much earlier date. Dunbar is a lovely small town about 35 miles northeast of Edinburgh on the Scottish coastline. The Belhaven Wee Heavy was my favorite beer from this brewery, showing a rich and malty, but not overly sweet, character. Hops presence was just subtle enough to balance out the rich malts. Belhaven’s Wee Heavy was the most alcoholic and malty of their brews with an original gravity of 1.060. The brewery also brews other more mainstream ales, such as lower alcohol brown ales, their flagship Scottish Ale, various stouts, and a very refreshing Scottish Lager. The head brewer recommended that we sample these same brews in one of the local “Tied pubs” in Edinburgh. (A “Tied pub” is one that serves only the beers of a single brewery.) Heeding his good advice, our next destination was The World’s End Pub on High Street on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.

The World’s End is a typical Scottish pub, adorned with colorful ale advertising mirrors, framed beer posters, and other beer-related paraphernalia. This is a typical friendly, Scottish pub where locals gather after a tough day on the job, just as we do back in the States. The Belhaven beers served here were either on nitrogen draft or cask, and as you would expect, as fresh as possible. For those who wanted a change from beer, there was a fine selection of single malt whiskeys. After sampling a few Belhaven ales, I was anxious to compare them with our next stop, Caledonian Brewing.

On a bright Monday morning, we descended on the Caledonian Brewery in downtown Edinburgh. Ron Davies, our tour director and a savvy beer connoisseur, led us on a thorough grain-to-glass tour through this immense brewery.

Caledonian is a 160-barrel brewery that performs open fermentation and incorporates three yeast strains (two ales and a lager). It has three Coppers (boil kettles) in the brewhouse, the oldest of which was installed in 1869. Caledonian has a fine range of cask ales, including the 80/-, a unique Golden Promise ale that uses organic Kentish hops and malted barley from the Scottish Borders, and the extremely popular and drinkable Deuchars India Pale Ale.

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The IPAs in Scotland are mostly cask conditioned and are served at a much higher temperature then Americans are accustomed to. Original gravities are lower than the American counterparts and have a more subdued presence of hops bitterness and flavor. These creamy cask ales are meant to be drunk with friends and family and is their version of a session beer. The alcohol by volume is typically 4 to 4.5 percent, though Caledonian’s Edinburgh Strong weighs in at 6.4 percent. The brewery also produces at least a dozen seasonal ales, one for each month of the year.

An American in a Scottish Court

As I mentioned earlier, I took along four commercial American versions of Scottish ales and my own Scottish 80-Shilling. The commercial beers included one from California, one from Colorado, and two from Connecticut. (I don’t want to name names since the tastings and opinions were unofficial.) All four of the commercial examples and my homebrew were rated good in flavor by the pro brewers.

There were similar flavors of treacle (molasses) in the beers from Connecticut and California. Some noted fruity characteristics (raspberry) in one of the Connecticut beers, and one reviewer found the Colorado ale a bit cloying. They all picked up on the slight licorice and treacle flavor in my homebrew.

In general, the tasting panel found the American beers more fruity and malty than their own ales and thought that all the American beers had fuller body. These characteristics are similar to American versions of other foreign styles—American IPAs and barleywines tend to be much maltier and hoppier than their English counterparts, just as our American brown ales are more assertive in bitterness than their European brothers.

Neighborhood pubs are the real-life laboratories for the breweries we visited. They are on every street corner and are quite friendly and inviting. Caledonian and Belhaven beers were the brands most commonly seen. Most were served either cask conditioned or nitrogenated. Bottled versions also were available, especially some I enjoyed from the Orkney Brewery.

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