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Issue 26 - Scottish ales are not small beer

Scotland Magazine Issue 26
April 2006


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Scottish ales are not small beer

Scotland has become a major centre for great beer. Adrian Tierney-Jones looks at what is on offer

It’s a May afternoon in the Bow Bar in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket area. There’s a low hum of conversation as a handful of drinkers grab a pint before the end-of-work rush.

Despite its traditional pubby appearance– brewery mirrors line the wall alongside framed posters of long forgotten Edinburgh breweries – the Bow was once a shop and only converted in the 1990s.

However, whatever its age the pub’s place in Scottish beer history is assured – it was the first outlet for Scotland’s current national ale: Deuchars IPA. It was here in these airy and well-lit confines that Deuchars was tested out on the city’s drinkers by its maker Caledonian Brewery.

It’s still there, alongside an excellent selection of beers, which show off both the past and present of Scottish ales. Deuchars IPA is very much of now – a light coloured, hoppy, floral, exceedingly drinkable beer with plenty of flavour and aroma.

At 3.8% ABV it’s light in alcohol, so you can have several pints without feeling the worse for wear next morning. In 2001 it was the Champion Beer of Great Britain, the first time for years that a Scottish beer had gained that accolade.

Or you might want to try something like Atlas Brewery’s Three Sisters. This is closer to the more traditional style of beer usually associated with Scotland: dark and rich with plenty of chocolate, coffee and malty flavours.

Beers like these are not just found in the metropolitan hotpot of Auld Reekie, as 19th century Edinburgh used to be called due to its profusion of breweries. Beerhunters in Scotland would be advised to check out homely taverns in neat towns on the Borders, lonely pubs in the glens, along the lochs, far north in the windy and wild islands and even on the Shetlands – these are places where the local brew is often made just round the corner, in a windswept shed, at the back of a pub, or at a fully-built, specially constructed brewery. The Scottish brewing renaissance is in full swing.

Traditionally, Scottish beers were dark and full of malt character with a slight sweetness. When hops became more common in the late 17th and 18th century, they were very expensive for Scottish brewers.

The reason for this was climate. The cooler temperatures of Scotland are unkind to hop-growing and there was no Scottish equivalent of the Kentish hop fields.

So brewers had no option but to pay for their hops to be transported. After that, there were always a lot less hops. Maybe patriotic brewers also saw hops as an English invention to be used as little as possible.

A half of ‘heavy’ with a shot of whisky was a common tipple. Heavy, despite sounding like a beer with enough alcohol to make the weakest of drinkers a raging Braveheart, usually referred to a low-alcohol beer. It was the mouth-feel that made beers ‘heavy’ – plenty of malty character and a full body.

Beers were also graded according to the Shilling system: 60 shilling, 70 shilling, 80 shilling and 90 shilling.

The tradition still survives with Caledonian’s 80/- and several other examples from Scottish breweries. However, these days it’s very much just a name.

In the past it was a reference to the price of brewing barrels when things were measured in pre-decimal pounds, shillings and pence.

It was first noted in the early years of the 19th century and the more expensive the beer, the stronger it was.

Scotland was also noted for its love of lager. One of the first breweries to make lager was William Younger in Edinburgh in 1879. Tennent’s in Glasgow then had a go after a member of the brewing family came back from the continent fired with enthusiasm for the bright golden beers he had encountered.

However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Scotland joined the rest of the United Kingdom in majoring on the amber nectar.

In the 1970s Scotland was seen as a real beer desert but since then a thriving culture of small and regional breweries has grown up producing all sorts of beers.

At the moment, golden coloured ales such as Deuchars IPA, Harviestoun’s Bitter & Twisted and its ‘real’ lager Schiehallion, Arran’s Blond and Inveralmond’s Ossian’s Ale are leading the way and winning awards both at home and south across the border.

Lots of fresh fruity aromas, a light dance of hops on the palate and a lasting, satisfying and quenching finish are the main characteristics of these style of beers.

Despite this love for all things golden the malty, more traditional beers haven’t gone away. Broughton Ales is a long-established small brewery based in the Scottish Borders and one of its most famous beers is the powerful and richly malty Old Jock.

At 6.7% ABV, this is a book-at-bedtime beer, to be sipped and savoured as the wind and rain does its worst on a wild Caledonian night.

Broughton Ales also makes a rich and silky Scottish Oatmeal Stout, yet another Scottish brewing tradition.

Tradition is at a premium at the Traquair Brewery near the River Tweed. Situated at Traquair House, the ancestral home of descendants of the Stuarts and the oldest inhabited stately home in Britain, modern day brewing began in 1965 when the then laird rediscovered the old brewhouse with its mash tun, open coolers and wooden stirring paddles in perfect condition.

Within a short while he had started brewing the rich, dark and strong Traquair House Ale (7.2%) that was the business’ sole beer for many years.

It became highly sought after by connoisseurs and usually improved with age. These days it is joined by Bear Ale plus specials such as the deliciously spicyflavoured Jacobite Ale (8%).

The golden ales and malty marvels of Scottish brewing have in recent years also been joined by a variety of speciality beers. Wheat beers, spicy beers, heather ales, beers flavoured with gooseberry and spruce tips and beers aged in oak casks can be discovered amongst the ranks of Scottish brewers. For instance there’s Cairngorm’s Trade Winds.

Twenty years ago the thought of finding a Scottish beer flavoured with elderflowers would have been on a par with the chances of Scotland winning the World Cup. Football glory is still awaited, but Scottish drinkers have been enjoying the brewery’s elderflower flavoured ale since 2003.

Trade Winds is an exquisitely refreshing beer, which has dried elderflowers in the boil, giving a floral, hoppy and elderflowery nose.

“We see it as a cross between a traditional ale and a continental wheat beer,” says Robbie Walker at the brewery, “the elderflower gives it a beautiful bouquet.”

Other Scottish beers making use of the bounty of nature include the famous Heather Ale, produced by the Williams Brothers Brewing Company. As the name suggests heather flowers are used instead of hops.

The brewery’s Bruce Williams claims that heather ale has been brewed in Scotland since 2000BC and “is probably the oldest style of ale still produced in the world.”

Further use of the nature’s bounty comes with Inveralmond’s Thistle Ale and Cairngorm’s Blessed Thistle, both of which do indeed use the Scottish national symbol in the mix.

Finally, how about a beer that celebrates the close relationship between beer and whisky? In the summer of 2003, Innis & Gunn’s Oak-Aged Beer arrived on the beer stage, a remarkably tasty beer that was the brainchild of former Caledonian head brewer Dougal Sharp.

This was a 6.6% beer that had spent its postfermentation time snoozing for 30 days in oak barrels. After this, all the barrels were emptied into a marrying tun (shades of whisky) for a further development of the flavour.

The result was a smooth, slightly fiery, buttery, vanillary, fruity, mouth filling beer which, it can be argued, completes the circle between Scotland’s rich brewing past and the bright and colourful golden ales of now.

Recommended breweries

Arran Brewery

Broughton Ales

Cairngorm Brewery

Caledonian Brewing Company

Harviestoun Brewery
Tel: +44 (0)1259 769 100

Innis & Gunn Brewing Company

Inveralmond Brewery

Traquair House Brewery

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