You love the blog, so subscribe to the Beervana Podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud today!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What's Authentic? -- The Scotch Ale Example

Have you ever considered a thing so long that you came back to where you started from the other side, thinking maybe you had it all wrong in the first place? I've been thinking. The topic remains Scotch ale, a style that seems pretty clearly invented by Americans. Therefore, we consider this an inauthentic style, one invented from ignorance.

In the early days of American craft brewing brewers had only fragmentary information about world beer styles and the history of beer. Drinkers had even less. Many of the early beers were not brewed to style nor made with methods appropriate to style. (Old-timers will recall "pilsners" made with ale yeast and American two-row malt.) The market has matured, though, and now brewers and drinkers have a far better sense of style. Breweries were doing some pretty terrible things in the eighties, so this was an important corrective.

On the other hand, “authenticity” isn’t as obvious as it looks. Consider this thought experiment. What if, in the 1980s when Scotland was enjoying its own craft brewing renaissance, the first breweries had decided themselves to add peat-smoked malt to their grists? It would have been a perfectly native instinct—malteries were already producing the product for distilleries. What if Scottish breweries had tried to distinguish their beers from English beers with this small change? We would surely now be discussing the necessity of using peated malt in the recipes for authentic Scottish ales. Instead, it was Americans who did it, and the whole thing now strikes some people as a shameful example of brewing juvenilia. But is it, really?

There's an interesting complication to all of this. Peaty American Scotch ales are pretty tasty--and popular. For Americans, a bit of smokiness is what defines Scotch ale and what they expect. Because of this, I can't imagine breweries abandoning peat-smoked malt, at least not in those pretty popular extant brands. Which likely means that in two or three decades, peaty American Scotch ales will have been around so long no one will remember or care that there was something embarrassing about all of this. They'll just enjoy the beer and think nothing about its ahistoricity. We'll have a new style, and it will have become as authentic as any other.


  1. At this point, does India Pale Ale have much to do with India? I would venture to guess, no.

  2. Styles certainly evolve over time and geography, and there is nothing wrong with American versions of British styles. On the other hand, it is a bit annoying to be told, as a newbie homebrewer, that "Scottish ale always has peated malt". Having an accurate historical perspective probably has some value as well (the origins of IPA don't have much more to do with India than the modern versions do) and I would prefer to know as accurate a history of the beer I drink and make as possible, rather than some mythology made up recently.

  3. I really like where you ended up with this post. Styles do evolve and there is clearly a place for both authenticity and innovation in the world of craft brewing. And really, who hasn't had a Scotch Ale that kicked ass at one point or another?

  4. It doesn't matter that they have decided to add peated malt. But if for however it becomes thought that Scotish brewers traditionally used peated malt and that becomes the accepted history it becomes a falsely propagated myth.

    Also if American consumers try a real scotch ale (ie, one from Scotland) expecting peated malt and find one, are they not more likely to mark it down?

  5. In the time frame of the late eighties, when I first got into craft beer/homebrewing, the benchmark example of Scotch Ale was MacAndrew's, a bottled version of Caledonian Brewery's Edinburgh Strong Ale. It was bottled specially for Merchant du Vin to import into the US. It was certainly as authentic a Scotch Ale as anything available in Scotland (since that's where it came from!) and made a wonderful impression on me.

    In my current homebrewed version of this beer, I do add a small amount of peat-smoked malt. I do this not because it is stylistically needed, but because over the years I have come to realize that I like a hint of smoke in my Scotch Ale.

  6. Jeff, I hate to bring this up, but isn't "authentic" a loaded word? We both agree that styles change over time - sometimes dramatically. If Scottish brewers started adding peated malt to their beers 30 years ago and a US homebrewer made his beer the same way, it could be considered "authentic" for a Scottish beer brewed in the last 30 years. If he didn't add peated malt, could it be "authentic" for a Scottish beer from 40+ years ago?

    If we want to start getting hung up on authenticity, we have to start adding a time element to it. What's "authentic" Mild? A amber/brownish beer at 8 Plato (1.032) or a pale beer at 14 or 15 Plato? Doesn't it really depend on what we consider to be authentic: present day Mild or 1870 Mild.

    Moreover, with or without peated malt, Scottish ale as defined by US homebrewers seems to disregard an awful lot of historical info about how Scottish brewers viewed their own beers. In the US we have this conception that the whole shilling thing denoted a "style" when all it denoted when it was used was strength. 60/ Mild, 60/ Pale ale. So 60/ on it's own doesn't really tell you what the beer is, but we've turned it into a "style" and claim it's "authentic."

    The shameful part is classifying foreign beers with our own definitions and without doing the research to actually understand them and then foisting those ideas on the drinking public as some expert opinion.

    And, yes, Scottish ale, as defined by the BJCP is an American invention.

  7. Bartimaeus, Steve, and Bill S,

    I agree that it's not ideal to have bad history confuse the issue--but that's exactly why I used the word "authentic." I think sometimes we do get a little hung up on adhering to tradition. I've had the smoky/peaty Scotch ales and enjoyed them quite a lot. I would consider it a loss if people quit brewing them. They're tasty. A new thing, an American thing, admittedly, but far from a bad thing.