Initially, dating back 5,000 years or so, Scottish Ales were brewed across Northern Europe where temperatures remained cool. With the lack of hops in this region, these beers were flavored using other methods such as adding gruit (an herb and spice mixture) or kvass (a fermented drink made from rye bread) during fermentation. Today, however, Scottish Ales are typically made with hops and are known to be copper in color and fairly malt-forward. There is also an understated hop bitterness that compliments the aromas and flavors of burnt sugar with hints of smokiness. The smokey flavors of Scottish Ales nowadays are due to the addition of peat-smoked malts which were not traditionally used by Scottish brewers.
Throughout the evolution of this brew style came 4 sub-styles which were distinguishable by their strength and by the prices at the time, in shillings, for a full cask. You could order a Scottish Light (60/-), Scottish Heavy (70/-), Scottish Export (80/-), or a Wee Heavy (90/- to 160/-) also known as a Scotch Ale.
The first three sub-styles (Light, Heavy and Export) are virtually the same aside form the increase in alcohol levels from Light to Export. These beers have a modest, velvety-white head and are dark in appearance with amber hues when held up to the light. The aroma can be described as having delicate sweetness, low hop elements and smokey characteristics. Due to the popularity of Scottish whiskey, barley is readily available and highly used in this style as well. Incomplete fermentation gives the beer modest amounts of sweet caramel flavors and a viscous mouthfeel. The finish is typically dry and can have a subtle earthy aftertaste. Light (60/-) has an ABV range of 2.5-3.5% and IBU’s between 10-20. Heavy (70/-) has an ABV between 3.5-4.0% and IBU’s between 10-25. Export (80/-) has an ABV range of 3.9-5.0% and IBU’s between 15-30.
While those are the common features of a Scottish Ale, the English adaptation has fruitier qualities as a result of adding yeast. The US has also deviated slightly from the original by brewing them stronger and allowing them to attain higher malt flavors. Traditionally Scottish Ales are not as hoppy as the English versions and are fermented cold which minimizes the fruitiness and gives it a clean, even flavor. As a result of this colder fermentation, Scottish Ales are able to stand out from other dark brews because of their fresh, crisp taste.
The Scotch Ale / Wee Heavy brews are stronger than the three other sub-styles mentioned. This beer stays in the kettle and boils longer which translates into the caramelized flavors and deep, rich color that customers are familiar with. The aromas and flavors are similar to the other sub-styles as well but have a stronger malt presence and complexity in addition to earthy and/or toasty elements. The Scotch Ale / Wee Heavy beers are sweeter and richer than other Scottish Ales but have similar levels of hop bitterness and dry finish. The mouthfeel is fuller-bodied, well-rounded and has a higher range of Alcohol By Volume(ABV). This style is most suited if served in a “thistle” glass. The usual ABV range is between 5.5-6.5% but breweries in the US tend to make them stronger resulting in an ABV of 7-10% and have IBU’s of 17-35.
We are proud to have featured this brew style from Church Street Brewing Company. Their beers are exclusively distributed in the Chicago area, making it almost impossible to find unless you're a local. Just another perk of being a Craft Beer Club member!