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.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 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.
(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.