You can't read about the history of Scottish ales without reading about their use of local natural plants for bittering and flavor instead of hops. Long after the English began to use hops, the Scots continued to use other bittering agents.
Why didn't they use hops like their English neighbors to the south?
Hops don't grow well in Scotland and imported hops were expensive, so they naturally used less than the English for whom the hops were cheap.
The Scottish people's tastes are bound by tradition, the British and Scottish have been far from friendly throughout their history and Scottish brewers were not about to begin hopping their beers simply because British brewers were using them. The Scots preferred things that were Scottish in origin. Thus they used heather and/or bog myrtle among other plants that were native to their lands. These two plants were also antiseptic in nature and astringent in flavor, which helped preserve their beers and balance the sweetness of the malts. Scottish ales of today may vary in strength, but they all have some similar characteristics. They are all malt forward and balanced with low hop bitterness, flavor, and aroma.
In Scotland, agriculture is still a big part of life. Barley is still a major crop and is grown both in the north, where whiskey is made from the barley, and in the south, where beer is made from the barley grown there. So, the Scottish brewers always had plenty of malt on hand for brewing which meant malty beers. Plus, when Scotland and England joined in 1707, the Treaty of Union which joined the two countries excluded the Scottish from a huge malt excise tax. This gave the Scottish brewers an advantage over the higher taxed British breweries. Beer can also be brewed year round in Scotland and prior to refrigeration, Scotland was a major exporter of ales to the rest of the world, including the Americas.
Styles and shillings
Now a note on nomenclature: Though all are malty with a low hopping rate, there is a difference between “Scotch” ale and “Scottish” ales. Strong Scotch ale, also nicknamed a “wee heavy,” has an OG that ranges from 1.072 to 1.088+. Any beer with an OG lower than that is a “Scottish” ale.
Designations of strength are based on an obsolete unit of currency called “shillings,” an historic tradition that referred to either the tax rate or the price per barrel. The beer with the least amount of alcohol was designated with the lowest shilling number, which meant it would be taxed at a lower rate and be cheaper for the patrons in the local pub.
The “smallest” Scottish ale is the 60-shilling (or 60/-). This brew is often described as a “session” beer, which means you can drink a few pints before feeling the alcohol. This light Scottish ale should have an original gravity between 1.030 to 1.034, a final gravity of 1.010 to 1.013, an SRM of 12 to 34 and a hop bitterness rate from 9 to 15 IBUs. The alcohol by volume ranges from 2.5 to 3.3 percent. In other words, the 60-shilling is an easy-to-drink, low malt, low-hopped brown ale. They are subdued, but a pleasure to drink on cask. Popular commercial examples of this style include Belhaven 60/-, Caledonian 60/- and Maclay 60/-.
Following the 60s, of course, are the 70s and 80s. These three styles are the most common beers in Scotland. The AHA guidelines for Scottish 70 state that the style should have an original gravity between 1.034 to 1.040, a final gravity of 1.011 to 1.015, a color range of 10 to 19 SRM (it can be a little lighter in color than the 60) and hop bitterness from 20 to 25 IBUs. The alcohol content ranges from 3.2 to 3.9 percent. The 70 shillings are a bit more malty, with a slightly higher alcohol level. Commercial examples of this style include Belhaven 70/-, McEwans 70/- and Maclay 70/-.
As expected, the 80-shilling is higher in alcohol, maltier and hoppier than the 70. The AHA guidelines call for an original gravity of 1.040 to 1.050, a final gravity of 1.013 to 1.017, a color range of 10-19 SRM and hop bitterness from 15 to 36 IBU. The alcohol content ranges from 3.9 to 4.9 percent by volume.
The big boy of Scottish ales is unarguably the strong Scotch ale or wee heavy. This style is noted for its over-the-top, extremely malty, caramel and alcoholic flavors. A strong Scotch ale should have an original gravity of 1.072 to 1.088+, a final gravity of 1.019 to 1.025+ (it has lots of residual sweetness), a color range from 10 to 47 SRM and a bitterness from 20 to 40 IBUs. The alcohol can range from 6.9 to 8.5 percent. This beer packs a wallop of flavor and alcohol. Commercial examples include Samuel Adams Scotch Ale, Scotty Karate Scotch Ale from Dark Horse in Marshall, McEwan’s Scotch Ale and Belhaven Scotch Ale.
Brewing a Scotch Ale
Sweetness and maltiness are hallmarks of this style, it has a ratio of bittering units to original gravity lower than any other style. This means you are brewing a beer with low bittering and high starting gravity. You should use hops at the start of the boil for bittering and no later additions for flavor and aroma. You may consider using your older hops for a scotch ale because the flavor and aroma components are of little importance. Also, most hop varieties will work since the volatile flavor and aroma components will boil off over the course of a 60-90 minute boil.
Consider a longer boil to carmelize the wort.
Use pale ale malt for the base with small additions of roasted barley, black malt or chocolate malt for coloring.
Use character malts such as munich, biscuit or special roast for 1 to 5 percent of the grist.
You may want to experiment with smoked malts such as peat smoked malt or hardwood smoked malt. Traditional scotch ales don't use smoked malts but their use has become popular with craft and home brewers in the last few years. For peat smoked malt, use it very sparingly, 6 ounces or less for a 5 gallon batch. A little of this stuff goes a long way.
Water that is high in dissolved minerals works well for this style. Hard water with lots of calcium, sodium, carbonate and chloride.
Mash at 154-158 to produce a thick, dextrinous wort.
High pitching rates are required for high gravity beers. Consider making a starter to get the cell count up. A low attenuating (70-75%) yeast such as Edinburgh Scottish Ale yeast, WLP028, will let the residual sweetness come through.
Fermentation should be at 55-60 degrees and should take up to three weeks. Low fermentation temps will inhibit the production of fruity esters which are definitely not appropriate for this style. Cold condition the beer for six weeks to three months at 35-40 degrees.
Wee Heavy, A Strong Scotch Ale (5 gallons, all-grain)
Recipe supplied by: Mark Edelson, Iron Hill Brewery, Media, PA.This beer won a bronze medal in the Strong Scotch Ale category at the 2001 Great American Beer Festival.
Brewer's comments: "Yeah, yeah, I know purists don't think peated malt belongs in this product, but in small amounts it adds great complexity. The judges seem to agree."
Malt13 lbs Maris Otter Pale Malt1.5 lb Carapils®6 oz Roasted Barley6 oz Medium Peated Malt
Hops2 oz UK Fuggles (4.3% AA) at 90 min
White Labs WLP028 - Edinburgh Scottish Ale YeastORWhite Labs WLP005, British Ale Yeast
Mash Schedule - Single step infusion at 158 degrees F, mash off at 165 degrees F
Original Gravity: 1.085Mash Efficiency: 80%IBU's: 35
Mel MacGregor’s Scotch Ale (5 gallons, extract and grains)
Ingredients:• 13 lbs. malt extract syrup• 2.5 lbs. crystal malt, 20° Lovibond• 1.5 oz. roasted barley• 0.7 oz. Chinook hops (11% alpha acid) for 60 min.• Wyeast 1728 or other Scottish-style ale yeast • 3/4 cup corn sugar for priming
Step by Step:Steep muslin grain bag loosely filled with crushed grains in 5 gal. of water at 160° F for 15 min. Stir to extract flavor from the grains. Remove bag and squeeze to remove any liquid. Bring water to boil and add malt extract. Stir to dissolve. When boil starts add hops and boil for 60 min. Cool and aerate. Pitch yeast at 55° F.
Ferment at 50° to 60° F until finished. Rack and age at 40° F for three weeks prior to bottling.
OG = 1.088 FG = 1.020