Scotland is more often associated with spirits than with beer. Like many civilizations, though, the hardy Scots have a rich beer brewing history. Archeologists have found evidence of this in pottery shards that contained traces of ingredients consistent with beer production, dating back 4,000 to 6,000 years. Shards found on the Isle of Rhum dating back 2,000 years have been found to contain traces of grain, honey and heather—an ingredient that was used before hops. Other ingredients often associated with early Scottish brewing include meadowsweet, myrtle and broom, a kind of shrub.
Abbeys and monasteries became centers of brewing in Scotland as they did in much of Europe. The craft then passed on to women, called “browster wives,” who brewed beer for home consumption and sold excess beer to others. But, as the 14th century dawned, so did commercial brewing. Glasgow, Edinburgh and Alloa were hubs for breweries known for their IPAs, porters and stouts. The trade grew and, by the 1800s, Scotland was a brewing force, producing a wide range of styles and its own native creations. The brewers of Edinburgh developed a highly respected export trade that, by the mid-19th century, rivaled that of their British neighbors.
To many, Scottish ales evoke thoughts of exceedingly malt-forward styles imbued with smoky notes of peat and higher alcohol. Those are American interpretations of Scottish styles. Surprisingly, while Scottish ales do carry a heavier malt characteristic, true Scottish ales are much lower in alcohol, lack the smokiness of Scottish whiskies, and are relatively low in alcohol when compared with their British counterparts.
Scotland’s native ales were named for the pricing system that measured their alcohol content. The higher the alcohol, the higher the price. Therefore, a 50-to-60-shilling beer was generally a lighter ale, 60-to-80-shilling beer had a medium alcohol content, 80-to-100-shilling beer was export beer, and a 100-to-160-shilling beer usually topped out between 6.5 percent and 10 percent ABV. The highest-priced ales were usually Strong Scotch Ales also known as Wee Heavy.
First developed in Edinburgh, Wee Heavy is defined as deeply malty with heavy caramelization with low-to-medium-low hop presence and higher alcohol content. The style’s characteristic caramel aromas and flavors are a result of a longer boil time, letting malt sugars caramelize. The result is a deep-brown brew with a full mouthfeel. Flavors are often compared to the brew’s southern cousins, English Barleywines.
American versions of Scottish Ale or Wee Heavy have evolved the style into a hoppier and smokier feel, barely present in true Scottish examples. The Brewers Association, a craft beer advocacy group, goes so far as to say, “Though there is little evidence suggesting that traditionally made Strong Scotch Ales exhibited peat smoke character, the current marketplace offers many examples with peat or smoke character present at low to medium levels.” It seems American brewers liked the way peat smoke evoked the idea of a Scottish beverage and ran with it.
If you fancy trying a traditional Scottish version of the style, look for Belhaven—Scotland’s oldest brewery still in operation—Wee Heavy. American brews include Oskar Blues Brewery’s Old Chub or Dirty Bastard by Michigan’s Founders Brewing Company.