A Sermon on Style: Scotch Ales

The Scotch Ale style has a long and storied history, and much has been said on it in other publications. I’ll not get into the history, except in a very general way to discuss how the style has evolved. Finally, I would like to talk about my love for the style and why, as well as why I think the style could use a little more…smoke. Read on to find out what I’m talking about…

I’ve talked many times about the styles of beer that first got me interested in craft beer brewing and appreciation. The first craft beer I had was Anchor Steam, which I found to be an interesting flavor. I soon learned that I had a sort of intolerance for hops, leading me to an initial dislike for many Pale Ales, IPA’s, etc. It was not until many years after that I developed a liking for the West Coast style of brewing, but one west coast ale knocked my socks off early on, and that beer was Moylans Kilt Lifter Scotch Ale.  I quickly developed a love for the scotch ale style, and this love drove me to understand and eventually brew some Scotch Ales, myself.

Soon after starting my research, I discovered that most of the stories surrounding the Scotch Ale style are likely apocryphal at best, and fabricated outright from whole cloth at worst. The concept that Scotland did not use hops, the suggestion that hoppy styles were not well-received in Edinburgh, and the suggestion that strong, malty ales were unique to Scotland have all largely been disputed or disproved by historians. The fact remains that several Scotch-style ales were brewed in Scotland using something called the shilling categories of ale, and brewers in the U.S. have latched on to this style as being uniquely Scottish and uniquely awesome.

The shilling category of a scotch ale referred to how many shillings a hogshead of that particular strength would fetch.  Low shilling ales were 60 shilling, (aka. 60-bob, 60/-) and were roughly 3.5% abv, and the shilling categories went up to 90/- ale, which were over 6% abv. The shilling system, itself, was always variable, and likely only represented accuracy for a short period of time, currency fluctuations being what they are, and likely were not very formalized even when they were regularly used.  What we do know is that Scots often ordered their ales based on common names, such as “heavy”, or “export”, and the style nickname of Wee Heavy is a particularly Scottish designation of the Scotch Ale style.

Regardless of the history of the style, or lack thereof, a Scotch Ale is distinguished in the U.S. by being stronger than your average pale, brown, or amber ales. A Scotch Ale can regularly be found up to 8 or 9% abv. They are highly malty, and use very little hops, relying instead on the alcohol of the beer as a preservative. Slight smoke character is also acceptable, but not common. This is probably where I have my greatest problem with the standard classification of the BJCP style guidelines of the Scotch Ale.

In my study of Scotland, both from my own computer chair and when I traveled to Scotland in 2007, I have found that peat was commonly used as a fuel in Scotland. It isn’t as though they don’t have trees in the fair land of the Scots, but rather that peat was so abundant, I feel that the maltthouses of Scotland would have regularly and commonly used as fuel to kiln their malts. Thus, I feel that ales brewed in Scotland would have often carried a smoke character, especially as one travels north and to the coasts. When I brew any beer, I always attempt to add a bit of peated malt to my grain bill to reflect what I believe was the habits of my Scottish ancestors.  So far, it has always turned out well, and when I brewed my award-winning Crazy Hamish Scotch Ale, I used more peated malt than the BJCP style guidelines would have stood for. That being said, those who judged my efforts were very pleased with the finished product, as was I.

I love the Scotch Ale for the caramel, toffee, and butterscotch notes contained therein. The long boils required for the high gravity of the wort create these flavors of caramelized sugar which I love so much.  I have certainly come to an appreciation of hops, but I will always have a fond place in my heart for those styles which use a tremendous amount of malt and very little hops. I think of Old Ales and Scotch Ales in particular. That butterscotchy, toffee-like flavor just makes me sigh with pleasure at every sip. I sure could use one now.

That’s all for now, Congregants. The noble Scotch Ale style is the nearest and dearest style to my heart, and while I appreciate most styles for what they are, I always return to my favorite  standbys.  I hope you are all able to enjoy a tasty Scotch Ale sometime soon.

4 thoughts on “A Sermon on Style: Scotch Ales

    • I’m sure there’s more than one problem with my theories. Lol. Thanks for the information, sir, and welcome to the blog. I guess I’ll have to say that I put a touch of peated malt in all my brews because it reminds me of the peat smoke I smelled when I was in Scotland. Thanks again for the comment!

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