If it’s November, it’s time to brew the beer that will carry me through the winter holiday parties. And if you’re like me, you want beer on tap that will be flavorful but also low in ABV so that your guests can still make their way home safely. So what’s a brewer to do? In my case, I make sure that one of my taps features one of the hidden gems of the craft-beer world: The Scottish 60 Shilling (60/-). Although one of the lightest beers around, it still offers a wonderful array of delicate flavors and doesn’t seem at all out of place in the dead of winter.
One of the best things about the Scottish ales (of varying strengths, but following the same basic flavor guidelines) is that they’re genuinely indicative of the region in which they’re brewed. Scots have access to great barley and ferment in the cool conditions of northern Britain, but when it comes to hops…well, let’s just say that there’s not much to be had. When tariffs limit access to hops, beers are taxed by their ABV, and the weather only rarely strays above tweed-wearing temperatures, you get Scottish ales: caramel and toffee flavors balanced by a minimum of hops, highly restrained esters, and the skirl of bagpipes if you put your ear up to the edge of the glass (Okay, maybe not that last thing, but wouldn’t it be great if it were true?).
These beers are meant to get the most bang for the buck that they can, much like the English Mild. They’re very low in alcohol (some register ABVs as low as 2.5 percent) and are highly drinkable, but they also feature the best that high-quality malts can offer. Far from being thin in flavor, they overperform relative to their gravity and grist, thanks to kettle caramelization and a judicious use of crystal malts.
The key to this recipe is using authentic British crystal malts—my personal preference is Fawcett. But first things first: start with 5 pounds (2.3 kg) of Maris Otter to give yourself a nice biscuit base and tack on a pound (454 g) of Munich (9L) malt. Someone once told me that “a pound of Munich makes every beer better,” and if I could remember who that was, I’d buy him/her a beer for the advice. The kind of depth Munich adds is incredible, and I sincerely believe that adding a pound of Munich helps nearly all recipes and hurts almost none. Once you have those base malts, you need a rather limited set of character malts to get you where you need to be. Add half a pound (227 g) each of British Medium Crystal (65L) and Victory malt and a quarter pound (113 g) each of Pale Chocolate and Crystal 120. That blend of malts should give you a broad spectrum of malt flavors without adding too much “weight” to the beer. The tendency in so light a beer is to overdo the crystal malts to add body: resist that urge. We’ll get it elsewhere.
Hops, as noted, are minimal. In fact, they’re practically non-existent. Get 16 IBUs from literally any hops you want in a 60-minute addition. It could hardly matter less which you choose—I doubt that even a professional sensory panel could pick out a Fuggles from an Amarillo at these levels.
And for yeast, blasphemy though it might be, I like the Wyeast 1084 (Irish Ale) yeast. Say what you want about those brewers across the Irish Sea, but that yeast seems like a perfect match for this beer. It lends a roundness and fullness to the malt flavors, which is precisely the counterpoint needed for a beer that is otherwise so light: this recipe should come in at about 3.5 percent ABV.
Two things are going to bulk this beer up, and both are to be found in the process. First, we’re actually going to increase the body: mash this beer high, at about 156°F (69°C) (this is one of the few that deviates from my standard 152°F/67°C mash temperature). That mash will yield a lot of long-chain sugars that the yeast won’t be able to convert into ethanol and CO2, and when left in the beer, they will impart a fullness in the mouthfeel that will make the beer feel much more mature and “big” than its ABV would suggest. Second, run off about a gallon of wort and boil it down by 50 percent. This “kettle caramelization” will add a rich malt flavor to the beer, but it will also increase the perception of body.
Once you’ve done your kettle caramelization, run off the rest of the wort (remember to add in a bit extra to your sparge water calculation to account for the evaporation you’ll get during kettle caramelization) and boil as usual.
Fermentation should resemble the kind of conditions our Scottish friends would recognize: cool. Treat this beer like a hybrid rather than a proper ale: I ferment mine at 60°F (13°C) for about two weeks. You can ramp up the temperature if you want, but I’ve never found it necessary. This is a “set-and-forget” fermentation for at least two reasons. First, the yeast doesn’t have much to do—there’s not much sugar hanging around. And second, a less-thorough fermentation won’t hurt you that much, since it will simply add a touch of sweetness and body to the finished beer.
After activity ceases, cold crash and carbonate to 1.5 volumes of CO2. It’s a little low, but I think you’ll find it makes it possible to really appreciate the malt character!
By the time our Christmas party rolls around, this beer will be ready to go, and even if the party-goers don’t kill it (they will, though), it also ages wonderfully despite its low alcohol content. Feel free to lager this beer for a while before cracking it open—in fact, given its wonderful malt flavors, it should only improve with age as the weeks tick by and the weather gets warmer! Enjoy, and drink a pint for me this holiday season.
From ingredients to equipment, process, and recipes—extract, partial-mash, and all-grain—The Illustrated Guide to Homebrewing is a vital resource for those new to homebrewing or those who simply want to brew better beer. Order your copy today.