Scotch Ale

Scotch ale can be divided into roughly four categories.  The standard ale is available in three strengths: light, heavy and export.  A fourth category is often broken out for strong Scottish ales or “wee heavy” ales.  These ales are also often named by their 19th century per-barrel price in schillings (now obsolete) as 60/-, 70/- and 80/- for the light, heavy and export and higher numbers of 100/- to 160/- for strong and “wee heavy” styles.

The History of Scottish Ales

Scotland has traditionally produced a wide array of beer styles including many that are either English or Irish in character.  During the 18th and 19th centuries Scotland was a major exporter of all kinds of beer to both England and also its colonies, and Scotland was first in the British isles to begin producing lager in large quantities.

Despite the influence of neighbors, Scotland’s unique geography and political situation combined to produce a uniquely Scottish style of beer that we now know as scotch ale.  According to Daniels, two of the major factors were the availability of malt and hops.  Barley has always been grown in Scotland, with a large portion dedicated to the production of whiskey.  However, in Southern Scotland significant portions of the yearly crop were dedicated to beer production.

Hops, however, has never thrived in Scotland.   The soil and conditions are poor for hop production, so hops had to be imported often from England at high expense.  As a result a variety of hop alternatives were traditionally used including spices, herbs and quassia.  Later when hops were used, they were added only sparingly resulting in a distinctly malty character.  In contrast to the South in England malt was heavily taxed and hops plentiful resulting in more highly hopped styles such as IPA.

A look at traditional brewing of Scottish ales reveals that these ales were mashed with one or at most two steps, usually at high temperature (often above 160F!) and sparged slowly and often fermented at relatively cold temperatures.  The combination no doubt produced a beer full of body and resulted in very low attenuation of the yeast.  Bitterness was low, resulting in a malty full bodied beer.  The finished beer was aged only a few weeks and then shipped directly to pubs for consumption.  When aged, the beer was often kept cold which aided in enhancing clarity.

Brewing a Scottish Ale

As mentioned above Scottish ales have four major categories.  The three traditional scotch ales are distinguished primarily by strength and bitterness: original gravitie for 60/- light is in the range 1.030-1.035, for 70/- heavy it is 1.035-1.040 and 80/- export comes in at 1.040-1.054.  Strong scotch “wee heavy” ales have very high gravities in the 1.070-1.130 range.

Bitterness is low – with about 10-15 IBUs for light and ramping up to 15-30 IBUs for the export version.  Even the strong ales has a low bitterness in the 17-30 IBU range.  Malty and caramel flavors dominate the style with little to no hop aroma or flavor.

Scotch ales have an amber to light brown color.  All have a target color in the 9-17 SRM range, though the strong ale may be darker (up to 25 SRM) due to the large amount of malt added.

Formulations for scotch ales very, but they all start with a pale malt or pale extract base, generally making up about 70-80% of the grain bill.  Crystal malt is used in both commercial and homebrewed recipes making up from 5-10% of the grain bill.  Black or roast malt provide color and character in the 2% range, though most purists prefer roast malt over black malt.

Interestingly almost all commercial examples use either wheat malt or sugar in the 5-10% range, though sugar is rarely added to homebrewed versions.  Other commonly added homebrew grains in small amounts include chocolate malt, cara pils for body, munich and amber malts though these are not commonly added to commercial browns. [Ref: Daniels]

There is no specific hops tied to the scotch style, though low alpha traditional English or Continental hops are considered most appropriate.  Goldings, Williamette and Fuggles are often used commercially, though noble hops such as Hallertauer or Saaz can also be used.  Bitterness and hop flavor should be kept to a minimum, so use just enough hops to balance the malt.

The selection of scotch yeast is not as important as the fermentation method. Scotch ales are fermented at much lower temperatures (50-60F) than traditional ales, and the fermentation can take several weeks to complete as a result.  After fermentation the ale is cold aged to aid in clarity.  This produces a very malty but clean beer profile.  You also want to select a low attenuation yeast that can handle the lower temperatures.

Though Edinburgh is famous for its pale ales and hard water, high sulfate water is not a critical element in brewing scotch ale and in fact can be detrimental as it brings out the hop sharpness too much.  I personally recommend a moderate neutral water profile low in sulfates that will support the malty base and not enhance the hops excessively.

Scotch Ale Recipes:

Brad Smith

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