Recently, my wife traveled across the pond to enjoy some R & R with a good friend of hers who comes from a small village in Scotland. It was to be a quick trip, a long weekend, really, for two girlfriends to sneak away, one experiencing a tiny Scottish village through the eyes of a native, and the other to reconnect with family and friends. They were to leave on a Wednesday night, and return the following Monday. What could possibly go wrong?
Of course, merely asking a question like that of someone who has traveled in Europe this winter is likely to get one slapped, if not worse, and suffice it to say my wife did make it home, but not as scheduled. She arrived, a la Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, on Christmas Eve, scant hours before Santa. Miraculously, all of our kids survived their extended time with Dad as the only responsible adult around the house, but they clearly appreciate having their Mom back. And since I do not have to be the only responsible one in the house anymore, let’s talk beer. And since my wife came back with tales of wonderful Scottish drinking customs, let’s talk about Scottish beer.
Scotland, part of the United Kingdom which occupies the northern section of the isle of Great Britain, has long held a prominent place in the popular culture of the United States. Whether i is James Doonan as Scotty exclaiming “I canno’ give her any more, Cap’n!” on Star Trek, or Groundskeeper Willy saving the wee turtles on the Simpsons, Scotland and her residents have become part of the cultural milieu Stateside. (Yes, I had to look the spelling of “milieu” up…Sheesh!)
Known primarily for the rugged landscape, shepherding, and perhaps their whiskey (Scotch, for those unfamiliar with the hard stuff), Scotland also has a long and proud tradition for brewing beer. Ancient Scottish beer recipes incorporated bittering herbs, which were easy to find, and this practice lasted in Scotland long after it fell out of favor in the rest of the Brittish Isles. Hops came into use in Scotland in the latter part of the 18th century, and the introduction of this ingredient lead to the development of pale, hoppy beers that could well be considered the predecessors of what we now call India Pale Ale.
Brewers in Scotland tend to hold on to their traditions with a little more tenacity than the rest of the brewing world; not only did the use of bitters instead of hops hold on beyond the rest of England, but they also held on to the use of “Shilling Categories” as a means of signifying the alcohol content of their wares. These categories were based on the price charged per hogshead (54 gallons) during the 19th century. The less alcohol a beer contained, the less expensive it was to buy. The categories go something like this:
Light – 60 shillings, approximately 3.5% ABV
Heavy – 70 shillings, approximately 4.0% ABV
Export – 80 shillings, approximately 4.5 – 5.5% ABV
Wee Heavy – 90 shillings, approximately 6.0% ABV and above
These categories, while not unique to Scotland in the 19th century, are still in active use there today.
It was in the 18th century that many of the “big guns” in Scottish brewing came into existence. After the Acts of Union 1707, beer taxes were lower in Scotland than the rest of the Empire, and malt was likewise given favorable tax treatment, resulting in lower costs for brewers and lower prices for beer drinkers. These favorable conditions resulted in the establishment of large scale, commercial breweries such as Belhaven, Wellpark Brewery (makers of Tennant’s Lager), and a bit later, the Caledonian Brewing company. These large brewers forged Scotland’s reputation as a producer of quality beers, making it prime breeding grounds for today’s smaller craft-style breweries.
In 1996, a Scotish traditional beer festival (presented by the Campaign for Real Ale, or CAMRA) began awarding a prize called the Champion Beer of Scotland. Although some of the early prizes went to established breweries, such as Caledonian, it has in recent years been dominated by newer, smaller brewers. The Highland Brewing Company (est. 2005), Orkney Brewery (est. 1988) and Harviestoun Brewery (est. 1985) have all claimed the prize, illustrating that the newer Scottish brewers have continued to produce the high quality brew that the older breweries pioneered.
Because of the early history of beer in Scotland being made with bitter herbs other than hops, some brewers, particularly in Belgium and the US have begun to label pale ales with low hop content and a more malty flavor as “Scotch Ale”. These brews are very good, but they are generally not from Scotland. Beers produced in Scotland may be labeled as “Scottish Ale”, but they are just as likely to carry the tag of “British”. “Scotch Ale” is a style of beer, not anything denoting the beer’s origin. Still, for contrast’s sake, I did include a Scotch Ale in my sampling.
This classic Scottish ale comes in an almost-pint can (14.9 oz) that, like Guinness or Boddington’s, contains a little widget to help produce a draught-like head on the pour. It is a dark beer that produces a thick, creamy head and tight carbonation. It has a subtle, earthy nose, a little nuttiness, maybe some caramel. It has a smooth fruitiness, with some apple notes in the tasting. This is a very drinkable beer, which, like Boddington’s and Guinness, goes down very easily. This is a well crafted, easy drinking beer. There is a slight hoppy bitterness in the finish, but this gets our Scottish journey off to a very good start.
$2.42 for a 14.9 oz Can
This is a product of a Bed and Breakfast that bills itself as “Scotland’s Oldest Inhabited House”. Originally a hunting lodge for British royalty, the house now serves as a function hall, bed and breakfast, and brewery. Their House Ale is a very dark – almost blood red – brew that has a slightly yeasty nose. It has a very thin head on the pour. The taste is one of malty sweetness with a slightly bitter finish, but I detect hints of root beer (!) and molasses. This is a nice beer, but it seems to be very…subtle. I can see developing a taste for a beer like this, holding it in a snifter like a brandy, while looking down my nose at my friends who drink less refined brews. But as for today, at this moment, I prefer more beeriness in my beers. And at this price, I expect to be wowed, not wooed, you know?
$5.99 for 11.2 Oz Bottle
This is a unique beer in that, unlike any I have had before, and I have had plenty, it is aged in oak barrels that previously held – wait for it – rum. The beer is aged fro 57 days in casks that previously held Navy rum and the rum fingerprint is all over this beer. On the pour, it smells like a rum and coke. There is definite rum notes in the taste, and in fact, it reminds me of kind of a rum-beer hybrid, or possibly a rum bomb. There is a nice oakiness, as well.This reddish colored beer is exceptional, in my opinion, and I wish I had a couple more to sample…Not getting me back to beer basics, mind you, but this beer gave me something new that I am vowing to explore further. What an unexpected treat!
$3.29 for 11.2 Oz Bottle
This clear, medium brown colored beer is pretty strong at 8.5%, which I am sure played in to the naming of this beer. It has a fruity nose with hints of figs and sweet honey. It has a thin head but is strongly carbonated. It has a strong, complex flavor; coffee, molasses, raisins, and caramel all find their way into this beer. The finish is just as complex, with some hoppy bitterness. The website indicates that the beer was, in fact, named after Thorfinn Einarsson, the 7th Viking Earl of Orkney, so I was wrong about the alcohol content dictating the name, but my guess is he must have been a complicated guy. This is a good, strong beer – bold and well built.
$3.19 for 11.2 Oz Bottle
This is another Bellhaven product, but it has a more reddish color and grape notes in the nose that were not present in the Scottish Ale we tried earlier. It also has a noticeably thinner head, but that might be because this one’s in a widget-less bottle. The flavor is similar to the Scottish ale, but a bit sweeter, and with a longer finish (which makes sense, given the higher alcohol content). This is a very nice beer, but I think I prefer the Scottish ale. I also notice that the shilling categories also carry over international monetary lines, as the Wee Heavy is more expensive than the Scottish Ale in American dollars, as well!
$4.69 for 16.9 Oz Bottle
This is the only Scotch Ale in the lineup today, from Michigan’s Founders Brewery. This beer is a deep red color on the pour. The nose is of black coffee and burnt chocolate. The taste is very bold and complex, with the chocolate coming through along with some banana and a hop bitterness that carries through the finish. I was at a fancy-pants restaurant not too long ago where we were drinking some very high end beers while eating our high end food, and the wait person, Brad, asked us to try a beer they were considering adding to their list; it was a Dogfish Head Theobroma, and it was wonderful. This beer reminded me a bit of that one, in that it is a delicious, serious beer. It has a big, unapologetic flavor that I enjoyed quite a bit.
$2.29 for 12 Oz Bottle
And there you have it. Five Scottish beers, and one Scotch Ale. As Mike Meyers used to say, “If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!!”
Evil Eddie C