Scottish Ales

Masters Table 1998

By Adrian Tierney-Jones

For most of us Hogmanay conjures up images of blazing log fires, chorus after chorus of Auld Lang Syne, steaming plates of haggis plus, most importantly, toast after toast of the finest malt whisky. This year try something different to accompany the chimes of Big Ben: put the whisky to one side and welcome in the new year with a glass or two, or even three, of Scottish ale. Sacrilege cry the purists, but Scottish beer has a history and uniqueness which more than measures up to that of whisky’s.

The rich past and diversity of Scottish beer will perhaps come as a surprise to those who think that the highly hopped bitters of the south of Britain sweep all before them. A rich and rounded maltiness underpins the flavour of Scottish ales, thanks to the extensive use of pale ale malt, much of which comes from the Scottish lowlands. Traditionally, hops have been used sparingly. Even though some of the newer breweries are bucking the trend with much more bitter, hoppier ales, most Scottish beers have a distinctively smooth, warming flavour, a taste which has inspired brewers in the US and Belgium to create strong and malty imitations. These usually have the prefix Scotch Ale. But what has led to this difference?

According to Roger White at Orkney Brewery, who count the award-winning Dark Island (4.6%) and the dangerously drinkable Skullsplitter (8.5%) among their ales, ‘first and foremost there’s the matter of history. When hops became more common in the late 17th and 18th century, they were very expensive for Scottish brewers.’ The reason for this was climate. The cooler temperatures are unkind to hop-growing and there’s no Scottish equivalent of the Kentish hop fields. Brewers had no option but to pay for their hops to be transported. So, as Roger White explains, ‘there wasn’t as much used, as opposed to London where they were liberally used because they were so cheap. Transport costs increased the further you went so less hops were used. After that, there was always a lot less hops.’

The climate had a further influence on the industry: in pre-refrigeration days, brewing in Scotland was all-year because of the cooler weather. In England it was suspended in the summer, so Scottish ales made the journey south. The marketing men of the day had to call these ales something, so unsurprisingly they chose the name Scotch.

Ales also travelled to the colonies wherever Scots emigrants had settled and wanted a drink that reminded them of home. These were designated as Export ales, a name which still survives with Scottish-Courage’s McEwan’s Export and Maclay’s 80 Shilling Export. The good times couldn’t last, though. When refrigeration became universal in the 1870s and English breweries started brewing all year round, many Scottish breweries closed as demand fell.

Finally, there was also the matter of local drinking habits. According to Dougal Sharp of Caledonian Brewery, ‘Scottish beers have in the past been known for their sweeter, more malty character — I believe that it was because drinkers often drank a half-pint of beer with a nip of neat whisky, a sweeter beer being the preference to take away the harsh taste of the whisky. I think that tastes have changed in part now, and hoppier/better balanced beers are acceptable to most. There’s still a market for the sweeter malty beers though, and our Caledonian 80 Shilling would come under this category, albeit it’s a little hoppier than other brewers’ 80 Shillings.’

The Shilling rating of Scottish beers goes back to the 1870s when the price of beer, including the duty, was worked out in the old pre-decimal shillings: 60 Shillings meant a light ale; 70 Shillings a heavy; 80 Shillings an export and 90 Shillings, or even 100 Shillings, a barley wine-style known as ‘wee heavy’. To confuse matters even more though, the light ales which corresponded to the English mild in strength were dark in colour, while the heavy, akin to a English bitter in strength, was lighter in colour.

The survival of these terms shows the great strength of tradition that remains in today’s Scottish real ale breweries. Time has seen the usual round of mergers, closures and takeovers but the likes of Belhaven and Maclay (who share centuries of brewing between them) have endured to be joined by thriving smaller concerns such as Caledonian, Orkney and Broughton, whose scintillating range of ales includes a Scottish Oatmeal Stout, in which a blend of roast barley, black malt and Scottish oats combine to produce a rich flavour and silky aftertaste.

Tradition is also at a premium at the Traquair Brewery near the River Tweed. Situated at Traquair House, the ancestral home of descendants of the Stuarts and the oldest inhabited stately home in Britain, modern day brewing began in 1965 when the then laird rediscovered the old brewhouse with its mash tun, open coolers and wooden stirring paddles in perfect condition. Within a short while he had started brewing the rich, dark and strong Traquair House Ale (7.2%) which was the business’ sole beer for many years. It became highly sought after by connoisseurs and usually improved with age. These days it is joined by Bear Ale (see notes), plus specials such as the deliciously spicy-flavoured Jacobite Ale (8%).

One of the more intriguing brewing styles brought back to life has appeared at Heather Ales, set up in 1992 by Bruce Williams. As the name suggests heather flowers are used instead of hops. Brewed in Scotland since 2000BC, heather ale, claims Williams who uses old Pictish recipes, ‘is probably the oldest style of ale still produced in the world. Years ago when people made fermented beverages hops were not available and heather, herbs and bog-myrtle took its place. When I started I looked at a lot of old domestic recipes. People used to use local herbs; heather gives astringency which balances the sweetness of the malt and bog-myrtle was also used to give balance. Both are also naturally antiseptic like hops and so help stop beer going off.’

His Fraoch Heather Ale (5%) has an almost peaty, floral nose, a malt texture on the palate and a dry, astringent finish and is recommended as an accompaniment to rich and spicy foods. Other unusual beers Williams has revived include the seasonally available Gooseberry Wheat Ale Grozet (5%), which is ideal for light foods such as pastas and salads, an Elderberry Black Ale Ebulum (6.5%) and Alba, a delicious Scots pine ale where Scots pine and spruce roots replace hops (see tasting notes).

Scottish beer is thriving. Whether it’s a Scotch, a light and refreshing 60 Shilling, a warming Wee Heavy or a sparkling Heather Ale, there are plenty of beer styles for any would-be malt advocate to seek out. So as Hogmanay approaches and the haggis emerges, try a Scotch ale for a change.

Tasting Notes
Caledonian Flying Scotsman Ruby Ale; 5.1%.
Dark ruby colour with a delectable maltiness and fruitiness on the warm comforting nose; an aroma reminiscent of an old ale without the cloying alcoholic strength. On the palate the rich, well-rounded fruit and malt is balanced by a floral hoppiness and the finish has a moreish hint of sweetness which is soon reined in by a well-balanced finish of hoppiness and malt. Very drinkable. Available in bottle only.

Alba Scots Pine Ale 7.5%
The Vikings apparently introduced this unusual ale style. The colour is tawny brown with reddish highlights; there’s a piney, resin, spruce aroma but it’s the taste which is sensational. A firm malt body starts the proceedings to be followed by a refreshingly tangy spruceness with a subtle Bakewell tart/almond lingering finish. This is a scrumptious beer which could be served as an appetiser, with seafood or Serrano/Parma ham or take at the end of the meal with cheese. Bottle only.

Traquair Bear Ale 5%
Amber or even deep copper in colour. This complex premium ale has a masterful hop and malt balance on the nose followed by hints of fruit. A good hop character on the palate plus fruit, coffee and chocolate notes with a refreshing balance of bitter and roast on the dryish finish. Has character and bite. On first tastings the complexities are hidden but they reveal themselves as the beer spends longer in the glass. Fermented in 200-year-old oak vessels and named after Traquair House’s Bear Gates which have been closed since 1745 and will remain so until a Stuart king returns to the throne. Available in bottle and draught.

Caledonian Golden Promise 5%
Golden amber in colour with a marmaladey, floral nose tickled by a hint of maltiness. It’s a very balanced beer with a big mouthful of maltiness followed by a tangy citric finish which invigorates the taste buds. It’s brewed using only organically grown barley and hops and was Britain’s first organic ale. Would be excellent with a traditional lamb or beef roast or game or even try with haggis. Available in bottle and draught.

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Adrian Tierney-Jones