Scotch Ale Recipes: Beer Styles

by Brad Smith on September 6, 2008 · 7 comments

Scotch Ale brings forth visions of fog filled bogs, dimly lit pubs and a hearty pint of ale. Scotland has always had its own distinct brewing style with an array of unique beers from the 60/- shilling light Scottish ale to the “wee heavy” strong ales. This week we examine the history of scotch ales as well as some Scottish ale beer recipes.

Scotch ale can be divided into roughly four categories. The standard ale is available in three strengths: light, heavy and export. A fourth category is often broken out for strong Scottish ales or “wee heavy” ales. These ales are also often named by their 19th century per-barrel price in schillings (now obsolete) as 60/-, 70/- and 80/- for the light, heavy and export and higher numbers of 100/- to 160/- for strong and “wee heavy” styles.

The History of Scottish Ales

Scotland has traditionally produced a wide array of beer styles including many that are either English or Irish in character. During the 18th and 19th centuries Scotland was a major exporter of all kinds of beer to both England and also its colonies, and Scotland was first in the British isles to begin producing lager in large quantities.

Despite the influence of neighbors, Scotland’s unique geography and political situation combined to produce a uniquely Scottish style of beer that we now know as scotch ale. According to Daniels, two of the major factors were the availability of malt and hops. Barley has always been grown in Scotland, with a large portion dedicated to the production of whiskey. However, in Southern Scotland significant portions of the yearly crop were dedicated to beer production.

Hops, however, has never thrived in Scotland. The soil and conditions are poor for hop production, so hops had to be imported often from England at high expense. As a result a variety of hop alternatives were traditionally used including spices, herbs and quassia. Later when hops were used, they were added only sparingly resulting in a distinctly malty character. In contrast to the South in England malt was heavily taxed and hops plentiful resulting in more highly hopped styles such as IPA.

A look at traditional brewing of Scottish ales reveals that these ales were mashed with one or at most two steps, usually at high temperature (often above 160F!) and sparged slowly and often fermented at relatively cold temperatures. The combination no doubt produced a beer full of body and resulted in very low attenuation of the yeast. Bitterness was low, resulting in a malty full bodied beer. The finished beer was aged only a few weeks and then shipped directly to pubs for consumption. When aged, the beer was often kept cold which aided in enhancing clarity.

Brewing a Scottish Ale

As mentioned above Scottish ales have four major categories. The three traditional scotch ales are distinguished primarily by strength and bitterness: original gravitie for 60/- light is in the range 1.030-1.035, for 70/- heavy it is 1.035-1.040 and 80/- export comes in at 1.040-1.054. Strong scotch “wee heavy” ales have very high gravities in the 1.070-1.130 range.

Bitterness is low – with about 10-15 IBUs for light and ramping up to 15-30 IBUs for the export version. Even the strong ales has a low bitterness in the 17-30 IBU range. Malty and caramel flavors dominate the style with little to no hop aroma or flavor.

Scotch ales have an amber to light brown color. All have a target color in the 9-17 SRM range, though the strong ale may be darker (up to 25 SRM) due to the large amount of malt added.

Formulations for scotch ales very, but they all start with a pale malt or pale extract base, generally making up about 70-80% of the grain bill. Crystal malt is used in both commercial and homebrewed recipes making up from 5-10% of the grain bill. Black or roast malt provide color and character in the 2% range, though most purists prefer roast malt over black malt.

Interestingly almost all commercial examples use either wheat malt or sugar in the 5-10% range, though sugar is rarely added to homebrewed versions. Other commonly added homebrew grains in small amounts include chocolate malt, cara pils for body, munich and amber malts though these are not commonly added to commercial browns. [Ref: Daniels]

There is no specific hops tied to the scotch style, though low alpha traditional English or Continental hops are considered most appropriate. Goldings, Williamette and Fuggles are often used commercially, though noble hops such as Hallertauer or Saaz can also be used. Bitterness and hop flavor should be kept to a minimum, so use just enough hops to balance the malt.

The selection of scotch yeast is not as important as the fermentation method. Scotch ales are fermented at much lower temperatures (50-60F) than traditional ales, and the fermentation can take several weeks to complete as a result. After fermentation the ale is cold aged to aid in clarity. This produces a very malty but clean beer profile. You also want to select a low attenuation yeast that can handle the lower temperatures.

Though Edinburgh is famous for its pale ales and hard water, high sulfate water is not a critical element in brewing scotch ale and in fact can be detrimental as it brings out the hop sharpness too much. I personally recommend a moderate neutral water profile low in sulfates that will support the malty base and not enhance the hops excessively.

Scotch Ale Recipes:

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Barry S. McKee November 2, 2008 at 10:25 am

I have read the entire article on Scotch Ale’s and found it most informatve. I currently have a Scotch Ale in the primary which is a BB kit. I am looking forward to sampling my efforts soon and will return to this blog to compare what I have to what is presented here.


Check your facts December 30, 2012 at 5:21 pm

The article on Scottish brewing is about as inaccurate as it is possible to get.It is just a repetition of baseless assumptions and beer myths.
Not only do hops grow in Scotland , they have been grown commercially there. But this doesn’t matter as nearly all Scottish brewing was centred in Edinburgh and Alloa which have ports.Hops were easily transported by sea , vast quantities came in not only from England but also from the Continent and the USA. England also imported a lot of its hops as it was nowhere near self sufficient.
Examination of brewing records going back from around 1800 show that Scottish beer was no less hopped overall than English.Practically all Scottish malt was used in whisky and the vast majority was imported from England.Neither is there any evidence that fermentation temperatures were much cooler than English ones,obviously there were variations but as annual temperatures in Edinburgh and Burton are almost the same there would be no reason for widely different fermentation conditions.
By the mid 19th century and onwards Scottish and English beers, though given different names, were practically the same.

Craig Barnett November 12, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Thank you, lots of good information.

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