Scottish Ale – History, Appearance, Taste, and Ingredients

NOTE: In the 2021 BJCP Style Guidelines, Scottish Ales are in Category 14 Scottish Ale. This category includes the beers more commonly known as the “shilling” beers, the 60/- Scottish Light, the 70/-Scottish Heavy, and the 80/- Scottish Export. The Strong Scotch Ale (or Wee Heavy) has now been moved to the Strong British Ale Category 17 as style 17C Wee Heavy.

Although all the information in this style sheet was correct at the time of writing, it’s advisable to check the current BJCP style guidelines page if you are studying for the judging exams.

Scottish ale describes a fairly broad range of ales in varying strengths and styles, but they all follow traditional Scottish original style recipes and tend to have more of a malt character and be less focussed on the hops.

The harsh climate of Scotland meant hops were unable to be cultivated, so the malt which was traditionally used for the production of spirits such as Scotch whiskey was used to produce malty beers.

With the exception of the Wee Heavy style or Scotch Ale, most Scottish ales tend to be lighter beers with relatively low alcohol content.

Historically, these beers would be named in terms of shillings with numerical names such as 60,70, 80, and so on. The numbers would refer to the price of a hogshead or large cask of ale in shillings.

Naturally, the higher-priced options were normally better beers and would also have a stronger ABV, but all forms of shilling beers were popular at one time or another.

If the names didn’t confuse outsiders enough, it happens that the lighter ales, which were equated with the English mild, were dark beers. And the heavy beers, similar to English bitters, were light in color.

The fact that the breweries in Scotland still use these terms to describe their beers, shows how much the Scots believe in tradition and history.

The History of Scottish Beers or Ales

Flag of Scotland
Photo by Chris Robert on Unsplash

The tradition of brewing in Scotland goes back nearly as far as the history of the country itself. There are historic documents that show some breweries being discovered at least 5000 years ago, if not longer.

Scottish ales as we know them today, however, don’t go back quite that far.

In the 1400s, the only commercial breweries of Scottish ales were in the form of monasteries. It wasn’t until the 1600s and the early 1700s that public breweries took off, due to a ban on the importation of English beers.

The aim was to encourage local breweries, and the law certainly worked.

Although Scottish ales have had their ups and downs over the centuries, the Scottish brewing industry is now as good as it has ever been, with hundreds of breweries all across Scotland and particularly in major cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow.

You can’t look at the history of Scottish ales without noting their use of local, natural plants for bittering and flavor instead of hops.

The harsh climate made Scotland unsuitable for the cultivation of hops, and, when they were finally able to import hops, they were so expensive they would prefer to use them sparingly to cut down on the costs of producing the beers, compared to the English who tended to be hop-happy in their own approach.

There is also the argument that the Scottish people’s tastes are tied up in tradition, particularly that they had grudges against the British marketplace, and therefore preferred ingredients and products 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.

Of course, with any rule there are exceptions. Many of the newer breweries are making hoppier beers in the English style.

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.

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.

The Difference Between Scottish Ales and Scotch Ale

The Scot plays music on the mountain
Photo by Gene Taylor on Pexels

Scotch Ale is an esoteric style of beer that is renowned for being super malty, rich in caramel flavors, and which generally has higher ABVs.

Scotch Ale is never going to be a sexy kind of ale, but its bold toffee flavors, kettle caramelization of sugars, and hints of smoke will warm your soul on a cold winter’s night.

A member of the British strong ale family, Scotch Ales are a style of beer originating from Edinburgh in the 1800s. With a lack of readily available hops, the Scotch Ale instead uses a more readily available ingredient: malt.

The original Scottish brewhouses would scorch the caramelized sugars which balanced with a very low hopping rate, making for a more malt-forward beer that was darker in color and focused on caramel and toffee notes.

The main difference between the style of beer known as Scotch Ale or Scottish Ale is the alcoholic strength of the beer.

Scotch Ales or the Wee Heavy tend to have a higher ABV of above 6% and a higher final gravity, making them a bit sweeter.

Scottish Ales by comparison will normally have an ABV similar to that of an English Pale, clocking in at around 3% – 5% ABV.

The Characteristics of a Scottish Ale

Original artwork for McEwan's Scotch Ale. Artwork shows a man in Highland dress with the Scott Monument, Edinburgh Castle and Carlton Hill. The poster reads "McEwans, Edinburgh. The Home of good beer. Refreshing Scotch Ale from the Fountain Brewery".
image by Wiki Commons

Scottish Ale refers to any Scottish beer with a classification of anything under 90 shillings, or 90 /-. Anything which has a shilling rating of over 90 is considered too high to be referred to as a Scottish Ale and instead is called Scotch Ale or a Wee Heavy.

Although there are officially three classifications of Scottish Ales, the Light, the heavy, and the Export (60/-,70/- and 80/- respectively), you are very unlikely to encounter the 60/- very low alcohol ale as it is normally available only on draught and rarely bottled for export.

A recently revived interest in more sessionable beers, however, has seen some American styles of the 60/- ale brewed for consumption in craft beer taprooms that exhibit more of a Scottish influence.

The Scottish Light, Heavy and Export guidelines read nearly the same for each style of beer.

As the gravity increases, so does the character of the beers in question.

Historically, the three types of beer were made to different strengths, and represented an adaptation of English Pale Ales but with reduced strengths and hopping rates, and darker colors (often from added caramel).

More modern versions (post-WWII, at least), tended to use more complex grists

Flavor and Aroma

The heavier focus on a malt profile means you won’t typically taste any hops at all or any of an English hop aroma found in other UK-based beers.

You should however be able to pick up on sweet aromas like a caramel aroma or toffee aroma, or flavors dependent on what type of malt has been used.

Malt Character

The main ingredient of a Scottish Ale is the rich malt sweetness, and this sets the tone of the brew.

Flavor options can vary from caramel, toffee, coffee, or even butterscotch. It can be a dry, grainy malt profile to a toasty or even caramelly malt backbone, but should never be roasted malt.

Although normally a pale malt base, different levels of crystal malts, chocolate malts, or darker malts can be added to the higher shilling beers or Wee Heavy to impart a deeper ruby-tinted color, and more sugars can be added to the wort for those higher ABVs.


The Scottish Ale mouthfeel is often described as soft and chewy. Like all ales, there will be slight carbonation, but this typically ranges from light to medium level.

Clarity and Color

Scottish Ales, especially the lower shilling ales, will normally be of lighter color in appearance with very clear clarity.

On the rare occasion that wheat malts are used, there may be a slight haze to the beer. The color can range from light gold to dark brown color, depending again on the malt which is used.

A darker caramel color tends to be more present in ales that veer towards the Scotch Ale category thanks to their higher alcohol content.

Food Pairings for Scottish Ale

Scottish Ales are a perfect beer to pair with a wide variety of meats, cheeses, or desserts. They combine well with anything from poultry to lamb, other red meats, and even game meats like venison.

A Scottish Ale also goes well with bar snacks like chips or pretzels or even creamy desserts or fruits.

The flexibility and compatibility with a wide range of foods is one of the things that make Scottish Ales so popular.

It’s not just about the haggis, neeps, and tatties – although they would work extremely well with such a Burn’s Night feast!

Scottish Ales by the Numbers

Category 14A Scottish Light (60/-)- Vital Statistics

IBU10 - 20
SRM17 - 25
OG1.030 - 1.035
FG1.010 - 1.013
ABV2.5% - 3.3%


Belhaven Best, McEwans 60/-

Category 14B Scottish Heavy (70/-) – Vital Statistics

IBU10 - 20
SRM12 - 20
OG1.035 - 1.040
FG1.010 - 1.015
ABV3.3% - 3.9%


McEwans 70, Orkney Raven Ale

Category 14C Scottish Export (80/-) – Vital Statistics

IBU15 - 30
SRM12 - 20
OG1.040 - 1.060
FG1.010 - 1.016
ABV3.9% - 6%


Belhaven Scottish Ale, Broughton Wee Jock 80 Shilling, Caledonian 80 Shilling, McEwans 80/-, McEwans Export, Orkney Dark Island, Traquair Bear Ale

Category 17C Wee Heavy (90/-) – Vital Statistics

IBU17 - 35
SRM14 - 25
OG1.070 - 1.130
FG1.018 - 1.040
ABV6.5% - 10%


Belhaven Wee heavy, Broughton Old Jock, Gordon Highland Scotch Ale, Inveralmond Blackfriar, McEwans Scotch Ale, Orkney Skull Splitter, The Duck-Rabbit Wee Heavy Scotch Style Ale

An important factor to remember when brewing Scottish ales is that they are traditionally brewed colder than most ales. Therefore the beers are much cleaner with very low esters and a lot of clean malt flavor.

Using Edinburgh/Scottish Ale yeast (ie. a clean yeast strain) and controlling fermentation temps to the low to mid-60s (Fahrenheit) will help keep these beers in style.

Keep the hopping moderate to low and do not add peated malts as some of the older recipes suggest.

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