Scotch isn’t just served neat or on the rocks anymore. Did you know you can fill up a pint glass with Scotch?
No, we’re not talking about the liquor. Scotch Ales are an esoteric style of beer known for their super malty, rich caramel flavors and boozy ABV. Think of a Scotch Ale like the bottom log on a fire, simmering and smoldering. Is it the star of the fire? No, but it’s the piece of wood that burns the longest and keeps the whole fire going. Similarly, Scotch Ales aren’t sexy. But if you give them a shot, their bold toffee flavors, hint of smoke, and caramelized sugar will warm your soul.
Before you go seek out your first taste here’s a primer on the basics you need to know about Scotch Ales.
The History of Scotch Ales
Part of the strong ale family, Scotch Ale originated in Edinburgh, Scotland during the 1800s. Born in the United Kingdom, a region unsuited for highlighting hops, the Scotch Ale focuses instead on a more readily available ingredient: Malt.
“The true character that makes Scotch Ales shine would be the malt,” says Anthony Chen, Lead Brewer at AleSmith Brewing Co. in San Diego, CA. As one of the few breweries in the U.S. championing the style, AleSmith has been known for making award-winning higher gravity beers like Scotch Ales.
The style transformed from a traditional English Strong Ale. Some of the first Strong Ales, called Old Ales or Burton Ales, originated in the British Isle. From there, these rich, strong, dark amber ales inspired the English Barleywine eventually making its way to Scotland and taking on its own character in the form of a Scotch Ale.
“Old Scottish brewhouses would scorch caramelized sugars, which compiled with a low hopping rate made for a very malt dominant beer, darker and more focused on caramel and toffee notes,” says Chen.
A confluence of malt character, submissive hops, and a more subdued yeast strain, Scotch Ales are distinct in their flavor profile. And, although aptly named, the style does run into a little bit of murky lingo.
Scottish Ale vs Scotch Ale vs Wee Heavy
Similar in sound and malt profile, Scotch Ales and Scottish Ales have one main difference. (Oh, and when a brewer says Wee Heavy, they’re really just referring to a Scotch Ale; they’re interchangeable.)
Scotch Ales, or Wee Heavys, tend to be higher in ABV, above 6% at least, with a higher final gravity that makes them a touch sweeter. Scottish Ales on the other hand essentially refer to the lower ABV equivalent of an English Pale Ale, clocking in at around 3-5% ABV.
While water, hops, and yeast are all important to brewing a Scotch Ale, just like in any beer, it’s
the often underappreciated ingredient of any beer–malt–that truly makes Scotch Ales and Scottish Ales shine.
How to Brew Scotch Ales
Normally a pale malt is standard. AleSmith uses different levels of crystal malts to achieve two things: 1) imparting a distinctive dark ruby and amber color indicative of the style and 2) adding a high sugar content to the wort that will carry over into the beer during fermentation to help create that high ABV. Creating a sugar-rich environment is the key to a good Scotch Ale. Choosing the grain is a good start, but brewers can also add adjunct sugar such as syrup or molasses later on in the brew. Alternatively, a long boil super concentrates the wort to create a cornucopia of complex sugars for yeast to munch on. Chen said that at AleSmith they send their Wee Heavy through a 90-minute boil. Hello, boozy beer!
Hops really don’t play a big role in a Scotch Ale, but anything English like East Kent Goldings, Fuggles, or Admiral with delicate tea-like floral hop character works well. “You’re looking for a hop that isn’t overly aggressive, canceling out many American styles and spicy Noble Hop varieties,” says Chen. “Malt needs to take the show. Hops should just be a hint.”
Lastly, the yeast can be British or American but it definitely needs to be on the cleaner side devoid of those higher fruity esters you regularly find in Belgian beers. AleSmith actually uses its own West Coast strain. Although the region isn’t important here the fermentation temperature is. Typical Scottish climates were a little bit colder, forcing Scottish brewers to employ a lagering technique on their beers, so traditional Scotch Ales ferment at a colder temperature.
Mild hops, clean yeast strain with restrained esters, cool fermentation temperatures, and, above all, malt taking the spotlight are the keys to any recipe for a Wee Heavy.
Caramel, Toffee, Molasses, Oh My
One word comes to mind when describing a Scotch Ale: Sugar. Different flavors of sugar dominate the aroma and flavor of a Scotch Ale. “Just to paint a picture: brown sugar, molasses, treacle, caramel, toffee, burnt sugar, these flavors will highlight any Wee Heavy,” says Chen.
Different varieties will often include a light smokey or peaty flavor, but, overwhelmingly, Scotch ales are rich and malty.
According to the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), Scotch Ales are, “light copper to dark brown color in appearance with deep ruby highlights….a deeply malty and caramel aroma…with some versions having a thick, chewy viscosity. A smooth alcoholic warmth is usually present and is quite welcome since it balances the malty sweetness.”
Think of a Scotch Ale like a holiday fruit cake–caramely, nutty, sugary, boozy, and perfect to enjoy on a cold winter night.
Who Would Enjoy a Scotch Ale?
Sir Sean Connery? Great Scotch. You don’t need to be a Scotsman with a lisp to enjoy a Scotch Ale. Chances are you’re already drinking a style that could be a great gateway.
“People who like Pastry Stouts might enjoy this style,” says Chen. “Once they’re over marshmallows and cookies they might want to look for something deeper.” A Scotch Ale is the perfect next step.
Most craft beer drinkers aren’t even aware this style exists, so it hasn’t caught on in the U.S. with the same fervor as IPAs and imperial stouts.
Why Aren’t Scotch Ales Popular in the U.S.?
Despite a boozy backbone and all these wonderful flavors of holiday fruit cake, raisin, and caramel, Scotch Ale has had a hard time making headway in the U.S. It’s an esoteric style.
“A lot of American craft beer drinkers enjoy and appreciate flavors of nostalgia in their beer,” says Chen “Hazy IPAs are like the orange juice you drank as a kid. [Pastry Stouts remind people of dessert.] People look for flavors that remind them of childhood…..juicy, fruity, vanilla, chocolate. These are all common terms to describe beer, but [not necessarily a Scotch Ale]. Once we understand more about flavors we can recalibrate ourselves to appreciate older styles of craft beer like a Wee Heavy.”
The style has been so slow to catch on that AleSmith actually stopped making their Wee Heavy back in 2017. Currently, AleSmith only makes a barrel-aged version that has its own cult following.
But while the transition might be slow, people are starting to catch on again. Chen recalls drinking in AleSmith’s tasting room after work one afternoon last year. He overheard a couple trying a variety of AleSmith’s barrel-aged beer from the iconic Speedway to the lesser-known Wee Heavy. He said overwhelmingly the couple enjoyed the Barrel-Aged Wee Heavy the most.
“There’s hope that people will come back to trying beers that just taste like beer,” says Chen. “Beer is cyclical. People get bored. No doubt that Hazy IPAs and Pastry Stouts are here to stay but it’s important for consumers to diversify.”
If you’re willing to explore something new (well actually pretty old) consider trying one of these traditional Scottish and American versions of the Scotch Ale for your own below for your own drinking adventure.
A Few of the Best Scotch Ales
Wee Heavy and Barrel-Aged Wee Heavy
AleSmith Brewing Co. — San Diego, CA
Even though AleSmith doesn’t brew any new versions of its Wee Heavy you can still find this traditional Scotch Ale out in the market. Rich, malty, and roasty, Wee Heavy is the epitome of an American version of the Scotch Ale. The Barrel-Aged version hangs out in premium bourbon barrels for up to a year adding complexity and richness. This beer has its own little cult following for its 10% ABV and high notes of vanilla, oak, and bourbon that complement those characteristic caramel and toffee notes.
Oskar Blues Brewery — Lyons, CO
The most widely available, accessible, and affordable version of a Scotch Ale in the U.S. Oskar Blues brews Old Chubb with copious amounts of crystal and chocolate malts and a touch of beechwood-smoked malts for a malty, caramel celebration of the style with a hint of smokiness.
Chronology: 12 – Wee Heavy
The Bruery — Placentia, CA
Soy sauce and dark fruits like raisin play second fiddle to the strong caramel and bourbon that dominate this Scotch Ale.
Belhaven Brewery — Belhaven, Scotland
As the oldest surviving independent brewery in Scotland (until it was acquired in 2005), Belhaven makes, “Probably the most accessible Scotch Ale and a good example of a Wee Heavy that’s lighter in color, low-hopped, and very straight-forward,” says Chen.
McEwan’s Scotch Ale
The Eagle Brewery — Bedford, United Kingdom
Another suggestion from Chen due to its availability in the U.S., McEwan’s Scotch Ale hits all the traditional sweet aromas of caramel, toffee, malt bread, and dried fruit.
Orkney Brewery — Stromness, United Kingdom
A little bit dark and focusing a bit more on the sugary notes with a hop kick in the back, Skull Splitter hails from a brewery in Orkney, Scotland. According to Chen since it’s brewed in the Northern Islands of Scotland, Skull Splitter is a great example of a low-ester production and high-malt focused Scotch Ale.
Liked this article? Sign up for our newsletter to get the best craft beer writing on the web delivered straight to your inbox.