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Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Did Americans Invent Scottish Ale?

I've been thinking a lot about Scottish ales over the past week or two. Like everyone else who's ever written a book about beer, I had a chapter planned on Scottish ales. But when I went to Scotland, I was mystified to find very little in the way of the beers we so often describe as "Scottish." For example, Google the style and this comes back in the top position:
The Scottish style of ales break down into Light, Heavy and Export. In the 19th century Scotland, a nomenclature, based on the now obsolete shilling currency, was devised in order to distinguish each. 60/- (light), 70/- (heavy), 80/- (export), 90/- to 160/- for Scotch Ales.

Scottish Ales traditionally go through a long boil in the kettle for a caramelization of the wort. This produces a deep copper to brown in colored brew and a higher level of unfermentable sugars which create a rich mouthfeel and malty flavors and aromas. Overall hop character is low, light floral or herbal, allowing its signature malt profile to be the highlight. Smoky characters are also common.
And then I read. Fortunately, Ron Pattinson has been obsessed with the beers of Scotland for going on five months (I use "obsessed" as a compliment). If you start reading through his research, you begin to see that the current state of Scottish brewing is roughly equivalent to former states: yes, it's a bit different from English brewing, but that's if you average out all the different regional styles of England. If you take them all separately, Scotland looks a lot like a distinctive regional expression of British brewing. You find little support for almost any of the "information" I quoted--and evidence that disproves quite a lot.

(Scottish ales may have been classed by shilling cost, but this had little to do with style--and it changed as prices fluctuated--they didn't go through long boils and were therefore not darkened or caramelized by long boils, and "smoky characters" may now be common, but that's because people mistakenly believed Scottish malts were smoky or peaty. I think smoky characters are far less common now that you can't smoke in pubs.)

Scottish brewers made Edinburgh ale, a beer that sounds a lot like Burtons. They made a range of pale ales. They made stouts and porters. Looking through Ron's brewing logs, I don't see anything very much different from English styles. It is worth noting some variations: Scottish brewers added dark malts to their pale ales for color. They did ferment their beers at colder temperatures, and this gave them a lager-like quality. (George Howell at Belhaven's confirmed that yeast never used to be significant. When he worked for Tennent's in the 70s and 80s, they used to give their yeast to other area breweries. Whatever was on-hand was fine because the temps were low enough that ester production was minimal.) But really, none of this justifies a separate style.

I blame American's tendency to romanticize foreign lands. We started thinking about Wallace, Burns, and haggis, and the bare mention of shilling ale got us spinning yarns. I'm writing a chapter about Scotland's ales. I don't think there will be much in there about Scottish ale, though.

PHOTO: The new brewhouse at Belhaven, constructed outside the building to avoid running afoul of local codes that protect the main building--which will be 300 years old in seven years.


  1. I think Pike invented the Scottish ale.

    Americans invented the IPA as well, didn't we?

  2. It's interesting that when shillings were used, they were an indication of strength only, not of style. So you could have a 60/ Mild and a 60/ Pale, but US style guidelines don't mention that at all. Also considering the myth that Scottish beers didn't use a lot of hops because they're not native, they sure did brew a lot of IPA in Glasgow in the 19th Century.

  3. Thanks for posting this. It seems to me that Sam Adams’ Scotch Ale was very influential in shaping American ideas of what Scottish beer ought to be like. Greg Noonan often gets a bad rap on this subject, but he wasn't the one who popularised the idea of peaty, smoky Scottish beer; he explicitly pointed out in his book that no Scottish brewery used whisky malt. That idea came from homebrew forums and ignorant blogs where it's still being repeated today.

  4. When I lived in Scotland for a few months, I never saw a peaty beer, and I am not personally fond of peat in beer, even though I like peaty scotch. I was a bit mystified by all the peaty American "Scottish" ales until I realized it was primarily an American invention, with only one or two Scottish examples that are more of a novelty than a distinct style.

  5. Barm, agree on Noonan. He got some stuff wrong, but he got quite a bit right. That book was published twenty years ago and included more historical sources than almost any other contemporary American writer. If the stuff I write holds up as well after 20 years of subsequent scholarship, I'll be delighted.

  6. Isn't the Scottish Ale thing very similar to what is happening now with "Abbey" style beers, Rauchbier or, to a certain extent, Bock?

    Meaning that at some point someone recreated a beer of some kind, other people followed suit and BAM! You've got a style, which, as styles tend to do evolves, gets copied by homebrewers in Europe who will claim they make Abbey Beer or a Bamberger Rauchbier....

    Great post, by the way

  7. I’m not really defending Noonan’s scholarship. I just think he's not the worst offender, and Scots as well as Americans have done their bit to mythologise and romanticise Scottish beer. That traditional kettle caramelisation stuff? I suspect that was told to Michael Jackson by Russell Sharp, who ran the Caledonian Brewery, where the beers conveniently exhibited just that characteristic.

    And at least Noonan bothered to visit Scotland and talk to Scottish brewers (though one can't help getting the impression he was a bit of an innocent abroad, or perhaps even overly reverent). There are greater villains than Noonan, not least the charlatan who recently wrote utter claptrap about Scottish beer in a book with a much higher profile.

  8. Greg Noonan's involvement in the whole peat thing is two sided. He never suggested peated malt should be involved in the creation of Scottish-style ales, and in fact stated plainly that only one "in recent memory" displayed such a characteristic. However, he did use peated malt in his Vermont Pub & Brewery Scotch Ale, so that's what a lot of people, particularly, I suspect, homebrewers, picked up on.

  9. Re: the comment about Pike inventing Scottish Ale. Grants Scottish Ale was being brewed in Washington and at Portland Brewing before Pike Brewing ever opened.