The Scotch ales of the 19th century had surprisingly little in common with what we expect from the style today. You might be surprised to hear, for example, that the original Scotch ales were often pale, heavily hopped, and dry-hopped. Even more fascinating: They often were brewed to astonishingly high gravities and matured with Brettanomyces.
The 19th century tradition of strong, funky, stock Scotch ale is one from which we draw inspiration at Epochal. So, I want to explain these inspirations as I understand them and to discuss how Scotch ale is brewed at Epochal.
Big, Pale Grain Bills
Setting aside porters and stouts, 19th century Scottish brewers didn’t much use speciality malt. Apart from a couple of brief dalliances, they didn’t use brewing sugars either. So, the classic Scotch ale grain bill is surprisingly simple: 100 percent pale malt.
There’s a persistent myth that pale malt from this era wasn’t actually pale. However, the brewing and malting textbooks of the time outline the desired moisture contents and kilning temperatures clearly—and the malt was definitely pale by our contemporary standards.
At Epochal, I like to use Scottish grain when I can, so I often use malt from Crafty Maltsters in Auchtermuchty. However, I also like Thomas Fawcett Maris Otter and Simpsons Golden Promise. Basically, just go with your favorite flavorful base malt—because you’ll be using lots of it.
The gravities of these 19th century Scotch ales are often a sight to behold. They frequently exceed 1.100 and can be found at 1.120 or even 1.130. The highest I’ve seen was Fowler’s Twelve Guinea Ale, clocked by beer historian Ron Pattinson at 1.159 in brewing records from the 1850s.
Now, you may be thinking, “If they’re using pale malt to hit numbers like these, they must be using very long boils.” Not so. In fact, Scottish brewers were going for shorter boils, and they developed modern sparging to allow for that. (Meanwhile, the parti-gyle system of other British brewers ordinarily required boils of two or three hours.) Scottish brewers sometimes boiled for less than an hour. The advantages included paler color, smoother (though not necessarily lower) hop bitterness, and better-preserved hop aroma. So, contrary to myth, Scottish beer in the 19th century was actually (and famously) pale—including those enormous Scotch ales.
This is one of the impressive and unrecognized feats of 19th century Scottish brewing. Today, we tend to reach very high gravities by adding sugars or malt extract, or by employing very long boils. Old Scotch ale brewers were hitting these numbers with nothing but pale malt, a one-hour boil, and true brewing grit.
In a nod to this tradition, this is how we brew Scotch ales at Epochal—high gravity, 100 percent pale malt, and, typically, a short-ish (60-minute) boil. In our case, we get that high gravity by substituting for true brewing grit partial batches brewed across two or three days, with the first part acting usefully as a yeast starter for subsequent parts.
Hops in Big Scotch Ales
While it’s true that Scotland has never grown a lot of hops, it’s a myth that we didn’t use a lot of them. It’s possible to find 19th century Scottish stock beer with hopping rates in excess of 25 grams per liter (roughly 3.3 ounces per gallon, or nearly six and a half pounds per barrel), with theoretical IBUs soaring above 100.
The hops came from hop merchants. For example, Scottish brewers sent a lot of beer to London, and boats would return with hops from all over the place. Many Scottish brewers preferred English hops such as Kent Goldings, but they also favored European Noble hops while using U.S. hops for bittering.
At Epochal, we also use a mixture but are especially fond of Goldings in Scotch ales. We also use only whole hops; I find their impact to be more delicate. I can imagine raised eyebrows at the idea of reaching 100-plus IBUs using only whole-cone Goldings, but I’d recommend trying it at least once. There’s a very particular character and a smooth, rich bitterness that comes from adding a lot of delicate European hops to the boil.
Another way we follow 19th century brewers at Epochal is in dry hopping our stock beers, including our Scotch ales. Whereas these days brewers add dry hops solely for their aroma and flavor contributions, it was once a more multifaceted contribution.
It’s well-documented (as in Walter John Sykes’ 1897 The Principles and Practice of Brewing) that stock beers gained their keeping qualities from a synergistic interaction between hops and Brettanomyces fermentation. Specifically, the enzymes involved in hop creep break down unfermentable carbohydrates and feed them to Brettanomyces. In turn, the Brett keeps the beer highly charged with CO2 and develops its prized funky character. For that to be effective, the dry hops would typically have been in contact with the beer for the entirety of its aging—from a month or two to more than a year.
Inspired by these ideas, all Epochal beers—including our Scotch ales—undergo an extended dry hop for the duration of their secondary aging. A further benefit to the process comes from Brett’s biotransformation of hop compounds: A well-developed, fruity, floral, hop-fueled funk develops over time.
A final hop-related myth to puncture is that British brewers used old or poor-quality hops. On the contrary, the hops used in pale ales and fancy styles such as Scotch ale were of the highest quality. They were kilned at lower temperatures than we use today, packed tight, kept cold, used fresh, and often treated with sulfur to prevent oxidation. The best brewers also got their pick of the best hops, ironing out inconsistencies. So, there’s nothing anachronistic about using the best hops you can get.
At Epochal, we do open fermentation with our house Saccharomyces culture. While some Scottish brewers in the 19th century maintained their own house culture, many used yeast from all over the place, thinking that it was healthier to change yeast pitch regularly. Metaphors concerning crop rotation popped up in this context.
Given the variety involved historically, I’d suggest you could just use your favorite characterful ale strain. If you’re determined to use one of authentic origin, the usual labs have a selection thought to originate from the likes of McEwan’s and William Younger.
At Epochal, we tend to ferment fairly warm—we want a Scotch ale to rise to 24°C (75°F). While 24°C is warm, it’s not unheard of in traditional Scottish brewing. The idea that Scottish brewers always fermented cold is another myth; letting the temperature rise to 22°C (72°F) would have been pretty standard for ales.
After primary fermentation in our open stainless fermentors, we transfer the beer to oak casks inoculated with our house Brett strains. We stuff the barrels with whole hops and purge with CO2 before transferring the beer, which should ferment for six to 12 months, to taste, and until the gravity of the beer is stable. We top up the barrels regularly, though this is optional—without it, more acetic acid is likely to develop. We also watch for the development of nail-polish aromas.
The exact attenuation depends on several factors, but the combination of hop creep and Brett is a powerful attenuator and likely to leave the beer quite dry—more so than with Brett alone.
A lot of 19th century beer left the brewery in trade casks, steadily undergoing Brettanomyces fermentation to stay carbonated, so often it was not primed in the modern sense. Since we can’t send out unstable beer in bottles or kegs, we ferment our beer until stable and then prime it to referment in the final package.
At Epochal, our way to prime is to blend fully mature beer with a small portion of one-day-old fresh beer. This provides both fermentables and fresh yeast to ensure a healthy refermentation. It also adds some foam-positive compounds and freshening flavors. It’s a nice process and, for some historical precedent, it was the same process used by Glasgow-born brewer James Steel at his Glasgow and Edinburgh breweries.
As far as carbonation levels go, aim high. While you might assume that old British beer was flat, discussions of stock beer frequently mention its high carbonation. As you might expect, these styles develop wonderfully in the bottle.