Scottish-style ales do more than offer a pleasant alternative to the beers of St. Patrick's Day.
The beers that make up this family of ales are well-suited to this transitional drinking season. The beers range from hearty ales to fight the cold to lighter beers which welcome the ease of warmer days.
Modern interpretations of Scottish-style ales are often influenced by the circumstances of their ancestors. In the days of earthen mugs and dark, gritty beer, Scottish brewers dried their malt by the fuel of peat driven fires. Much like the smoky, earthy flavors imparted upon their scotch liquors, Scottish ales also took on the deep imparts of the bog.
Centuries ago, Scottish drinkers ordered their beers by the amount of tax levied on the particular drink. The government taxed beers containing lower alcohol levels at lower levels, while higher gravity beers were taxed for a few additional schillings. The schilling tax system exists to this day in name alone. Scottish-style light ales are known as 60 schilling ales, Heavy ales are 70 schilling ales, Export ales are 80 schilling ales, and Wee Heavy ales are 90 schilling ales.
In the modern era, these four main categories of Scottish ales offer a broad range of flavors, bodies, and complexities. They range from the heartiest of beers, big in mouthfeel and strong in flavor, to lighter bodied ales with simple touches of malt flavor.
At the lightest end of the flavor spectrum, Scottish-style light ales offer a simple body and low alcohol levels. The beers present little bitterness, with almost no hop flavor or aroma. Although it is light in name, this style remains sizable in flavor. Scottish light ales present noticeable malt hints, ranging from caramel to nutty, and are typically amber to brownish-red in color. This style may possess some smoky or peaty characteristics in small amounts.
Part of the problem with old styles of beer, however, is that the youngsters start messing around with them and then they are never the same. In the United States, the meddling youngster was not so young at all. As one of the earliest commercial pioneers in the American microbrewing industry, the late Bert Grant, almost single-handedly brought the Scottish-style ales to American drinkers. When he opened his Yakima Brewing and Malting Co. in Washington State in 1982, Grant had a vision that revived, or recreated, a handful of old styles, including imperial stouts.
Nestled in the heart of Washington State's dominant hop growing region, Bert Grant's brewery was an early testament to the power of the hop. During his lifetime, Grant received much ribbing about his surprisingly hoppy Scottish ale, but he took it all in stride. To the end, the kilt-clad brewer remained Scottish in his heart and in palate, with his Scottish-style remaining his favorite beer.
Grant's Scottish ale best fits into the Scottish light ale category, but with a decidedly hoppy twist. This full bodied beer includes pale and caramel barley malts, and is infused with locally grown Cascade hops for an American accent.
MacTarnahan's Highlander Pale Ale is another style-bending brew that best fits in the Scottish light style. The beer offers some fruity esters from the use of a traditional Scottish ale yeast, mixed with touches of hop essence from distilled hop oil. Brewers at the Portland Brewing Company finish the beer off with a touch of heather flower, a traditional Scottish brewing ingredient used to soften the malt flavor of the beer. The use of heather also adds some herbal, earthy notes that mix well with the hop aroma.
At the 70 schilling level, Scottish-style heavy ales are another step up in the flavor wheel of Scottish ales. Heavy ales have a more predominant sweet malt flavor, balanced by some hop bitterness. The color deepens to a darker amber of light brown, and the beer may also exhibit some smoky hints. While style guidelines call for only a mild increase in alcohol levels, American versions tend to stretch this style to its limits. So hold onto your kilts as American versions routinely run up to eight or nine percent alcohol by volume.
The well-named Moylan's Kilt Lifter definitely fulfills a consumer's expectations of a Heavy ale. Weighing in at eight percent a.b.v., this beer shows its strength throughout consumption. The flavor offers hints of caramel malt, with some residual sweetness and some hints of smoked malt. For a West Coast Scottish ale, there is surprisingly little hop balance. Instead, the brewers let the sizable alcohol presence work against the malt bill.
From the Midwest, the Three Floyds Brewery offers its popular Robert the Bruce Scottish ale. While the color of Robert is a bit lighter than traditional examples, the alcohol level will ruddy your complexion. Aroma has some caramel and mild fruit esters, with some hints of smoke. The beer has a large malt that give it several layers of complexity. Again, increased alcohol levels heavily influence the final product.
Scottish-style Export ales increase the levels of caramel maltiness and body, while including a noticeable smoky character. Alcohol levels should go up as compared to the Heavy ale style. Leave it to the Scottish (well, in this age of consolidation, it's still sort of Scottish) to offer a beer more to the style guideline. Belhaven's Scottish Ale is a traditional export ale, if a little low in alcohol. It has a nice toasted flavor, with small levels of smokiness, and a balance of hops.
My first foray into the malty, peaty world of Scottish ales came at a little brewpub on the island of Coronado, outside of San Diego, California. Unfamiliar with the style, I ordered a pint of New Scots Ale at the Coronado Brewing Company. The first aromas were distinctly scotch-like, with obvious notes of peat, earth and smoke. In the background, sizable malt notes played behind the scenes. Upon first sip, I swore I was drinking a scotch, or some very close relative. And indeed this is true. With some peat smoked malt, the Coronado perfectly matched beer with its malt cousin whiskey. The combination of smoke, peat and malt still occasionally plays in my mind.
At the end of the flavor spectrum, Scottish-style strong ales offer lovers of cognac, port and heavier after-dinner drinks another entry into the world of beer. Strong ales offer a big malt base, a full body and a deep, rich color. Malt flavors are sweet and distinct, and sometimes roasted in low levels. Some fruit hints are acceptable and alcohol notes should be present. A smoky character infuses some Scottish strong ales. Alcohol levels generally run to eight percent a.b.v.
For many years, when people would ask me of my favorite beer or style, I was completely unable to give a definitive answer. I had tried many thousands of beers across a breadth of styles, but nothing crossed me as the "perfect" beer. That all changed one chilly summer day in Burlington, Vermont.
On my return home after visiting the Mondiale de Biere festival in Montreal, I stopped for lunch at the well-respected Vermont Pub and Brewery, run ably by Greg Noonan. After running through a sampler of most of the pub's offerings, I ordered a 10 ounce sample of the Wee Heavy Scotch Ale.
This beer, brewed in February 1999 and sampled in June 2001, is a cellared Scottish strong ale. As the server progressed to my table, a subtle but strong aroma of sweet malt seemed to precede her. The strength of this beer, served in a small snifter, was so powerful as to be obvious from ten feet away. The aroma was part alcohol, part sweet, enticing malt. On first sip, the beer coats the mouth in a thoroughly full mouthfeel, gliding over the tongue. Big alcohol flavor balanced the sweet, caramel malt, with a slight hop backbone to prevent the beer from becoming cloying. I've returned to this pub many times since, but sadly, I believe this beer is gone forever.
A more readily available, if less perfect, version is the McEwan's Scotch Ale, clocking in at eight percent a.b.v. The beer is almost syrupy on the palate, with fruit hints, sizable alcohol notes and almost cloying malt sweetness.
Scottish-style ales exist in a no-mans land between darker ales, such as stouts and porters, and the lighter Irish-style red ales. Scottish-style beers are often overlooked for the much-heralded stouts of Ireland, and forgotten against the wide backdrop of milder, hoppier ales of England.
While they may not wear their pedigree on their sleeve, Scottish-style ales have a story to tell and a flavor to match the palates of consumers. Seasonal beer drinkers will enjoy the heavier styles, such as the strong ale, and its viscous, malty body and warming alcohol flavors. As a transition to warmer drinking months, the Light and Heavy styles offer a more full-flavored comparison to Killians and other so-called Irish-style beers.
Besides seasonal beer drinkers, retailers should sell scotch lovers on the flavor profiles of Scottish-style ales. Depending upon the ale, many Scottish-style beers can offer scotch fans the chance to find their beloved flavor characteristics in another malt-based beverage. The best Scottish-style ales evoke flavorful, smoky peat bogs, and the rich flavors of scotch.
During the early months of the year, especially in January, Scottish-style ales are also popular for brewers' dinner events. The most common event is the dinner celebrating the life of Scottish poet Robert Burns.
Born on January 25, 1759, Burns' poetry evoked the everyman's life, including the simplicity and hardships of a farm existence. During his short life, Burns produced more than 700 poems and songs, including the New Year staple "Auld Lang Syne". In his works, he also celebrated drinks, including whiskey and beer.
Burns died of rheumatic heart disease at age 37, and dinners celebrating his existence and works started a scant five years later.
In Waltham, Massachusetts, the Watch City Brewing Company held its second annual "Skotch & Scotch" Robert Burns Night Dinner in early February. Brewers, writers, Scots, and citizens celebrated his life with bagpipes, scotch, readings, Scottish-style ales, and haggis of course. Traditional Burns dinners would not be complete without the unveiling of the haggis - a giant sausage made with sheep's stomach as a casing, and filled with oats, onions, and multiple sheep organs, including the lungs. This traditional dish, noted in a tribute poem by Burns, is a little as lutefisk is to the Norwegians - an old world dish continually foisted upon undesiring audiences for misguided sentimental reasons.
At the Watch City event, local breweries including Boston Beer Works, Cambridge Brewing Company, John Harvard, Concorde Brewing Company, and Rock Bottom produced a range of Scottish-style ales to celebrate the poet.
The memory of the Scottish poet has inspired brewers across America to produce special beers. At Watch City, the brewpub produces the Rabbie Burns Quintesensual Ale, a smooth drinking pale/Scottish ale hybrid with a 4.9 percent alcohol by volume.
At Barley's Smokehouse and Brewpub in Columbus, Ohio, the brewers offer the Robert Burns Scottish Export Ale, a fairly strong beer served in a snifter with distinct fruit hints.
March is only a month, not a command. It need not be all about Guinness and Killians. This transitional season calls for a suitable, adaptable beverage - such as Scottish-style ales. Scottish-style ales offer a range of flavors and are a right proper beverage for after-dinner drinks and session ales. The smoky versions provide peat and scotch lovers a new drinking experience. And Scottish-style ales don't leave a green ring around your mouth when you drink them on St. Patricks' Day.