In matters of fermented grain drinks, Scotland is a misunderstood land. To the extent Americans are familiar with Scottish ales at all, it is usually through an American misinterpretation called “Scotch ale,” thick with the peat of distiller’s malt—unlike any beers made in Scotland for centuries. Or perhaps they have encountered the lyrically paradoxical “wee heavy” and spent a moment considering poet and lyricist Robert Burns and haggis, wondering what it was.
The true tradition of Scottish brewing, however, is at once more grand and celebrated, if lost to those an ocean away.
A Tradition of Strong Ale
Brewing extends back millennia in Scotland, but we can move directly to the late 1700s to find the taproot of the strong-ale tradition. In this era, two cities dominated Scottish brewing, Edinburgh and Alloa. Both were port towns along the Firth of Forth, which positioned them to capture the export trade when it began booming in the nineteenth century.
But more important were their wells, including Edinburgh’s ring known as the “charmed circle” that once fed 40 breweries there. Both cities’ water came up through sandstone and arrived in liquor tanks full of gypsum—just like the water of Burton upon Trent.
Burton was on the way to becoming a brewing rival to London, and at the time, breweries were making a strong, heavy, and intense beer named for the city. That’s not a bad description for a beer made in Edinburgh, which also bore that city’s name—Edinburgh ale. In both cases, the nature of the water led brewers toward newfangled pale ales, for which Burton would one day become legendary.
In Scotland, Edinburgh ale was taking a similar course. But, where Burton seemed to attract ambivalence and awe in equal measures, Edinburgh’s homegrown ale inspired only admiration. In 1833, Robert Chambers reported it “had no rival. It is as clear as amber, and of the same colour; soft and delicious in taste.” Like Burton ale, Edinburgh ale eventually transcended its city of origin, and soon brewers elsewhere were making Edinburgh ale and exporting it widely. The French scientist Louis Figuier (1819–1894) called it “the strongest and best beer made in Great Britain,” and that seems to be a sentiment shared by the masses who happily received shipments.
Edinburgh ale was made with pale malt to Burton-like gravities—at least 24°P (SG 1.100), and sometimes far higher—and it was noted for its clarity. A photograph from about 1845 shows three men drinking this beer, and it glows brightly in their glasses. But like most Scottish ale, then and now, it was not heavily hopped. This meant it would go sour after “about a season,” according to one source. That may even have been a part of its appeal, however. Figuier, in praising Edinburgh ale, described its “balsamic taste”—a clue of what happened after it had been allowed to ripen a bit. Despite all the positive notices it received, it was also much like Burton in density. Chambers wrote in an earlier piece that it was “a potent fluid which almost glued the lips of the drinker together.” The era of Edinburgh ale lasted more than a century and secured Scotland’s status as a major brewing center.
Edinburgh ale isn’t the only tradition of strong ales in Britain, however; also noteworthy were those made at domestic breweries. They were the province of the aristocracy, and any fully appointed home in the seventeenth or eighteenth century would have been outfitted with a brewery. In the years before coffee and tea found their way aboard British ships and back to the homeland, beer was the safe drink of choice. Most of the beer was made for daily use, but some of it was prized specialty ale, socked away in estate cellars for years. This strong rich beer was made with the finest freshly harvested ingredients and was sipped from a cordial glass like brandy.
Very little of this tradition still exists—with one important exception. In the early 1960s, Laird Peter Maxwell Stuart was poking around his 900-year-old estate in the Scottish Borders south of Edinburgh. One of the forgotten outbuildings contained “family junk” (his words) collected over the decades; amid it all, he discovered brewing equipment that dated back almost 250 years and was in excellent condition.
Maxwell Stuart’s daughter Catherine, the current and twenty-first Lady of Traquair, described his discovery to me. “By the early 1700s, (the outbuilding) was being used as a brew house. This we know as there is a receipt for the purchase of the copper in 1738. What was unique about Traquair was that all of the equipment and vessels still remained in place, down to the stirring paddles and old oak fermentation tuns.” Maxwell Stuart investigated the history of brewing at Traquair. Catherine continues the story: “There are few early recipes, but beer is frequently mentioned in the early accounts, and it appears that servants were part paid in beer during the 1700s.” The brewery was in service through the end of the century and then sat idle and forgotten until the Laird stumbled across it. When he began brewing again in 1965, it became the only licensed domestic brewery in the country.
Understanding Scottish Ales
In general, the keys to understanding Scottish ales—and their differences from English ales—lie in malt and yeast. Because it’s so far north, hops don’t grow well in Scotland. Brewers imported them from England and, owing to their high cost, were parsimonious in their use. Barley does grow well in Scotland, however, and is the soul of the ales made there. Whether in slight session beers or booming giants such as Edinburgh ale, malt is the signature flavor.
And if hops don’t interfere much with the expression of malt flavor, neither does yeast—another way Scottish ales differ from their English counterparts. In traditional English breweries, yeasts are re-pitched over the decades, becoming adapted to specific brewhouses. They are expressive, fruity, and unique to the brewery. That’s not the case with Scottish yeasts, which are clean and neutral, almost lager-like. In 2011, I toured the Belhaven Brewery (Belhaven, Scotland) with Head Brewer George Howell, who had been working in breweries since the 1970s. When I asked him about Belhaven’s yeast, he said, “To be quite honest, nobody really knows where that yeast came from.” Breweries traded yeasts back and forth, and they never developed that house character. “When I came down here and started, we were getting yeast from Scottish & Newcastle, from Tennent’s—basically it was any yeast you could get,” he told me, adding that this was common at other breweries as well.
Led by Traquair’s example, strong ales have returned to Scotland. There are now a number of examples, and together they do a great job connecting this era to a former one. Traquair House Ale is drier and woody, for example, while Orkney’s Skull Splitter (Orkney, United Kingdom) is rummy and fruity. Some, such as Harviestoun’s Ola Dubh (Alva, United Kingdom), are even aged in whiskey barrels—borrowing from a different tradition.
Few styles can so ably remind a country besotted with hops how versatile and appealing barley can be. Doubters should pick up a bottle and see for themselves. If nothing else, it’s a lovely way to drink in some history.
Further Reading (and Brewing)
To learn more about strong Scottish ale (and to brew your own), check out these articles on beerandbrewing.com.
“A Wee Spot of Malt: Scottish Strong Ale,” Jester Goldman
“Make Your Best Strong Scotch Ale,” Josh Weikert