Scottish Ales Style Profile

Scottish Ales and Irish Red Ale
Style Profiles

NOTE: In the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, Scottish Ales are in Category 14 Scottish Ale.
The original meaning of ‘schilling’ (/-) ales have been described
incorrectly for years.

A single style of beer was never designated as a
60/-, 70/- or 80/-. The schillings only referring to the cost of the
barrel of beer. Meaning there were 54/- Stouts and 86/-IPAs and soon.

The Scottish Ales in question were termed Light, Heavy and Export which
cover the spectrum of costs from around 60/- to 90/-and simply dark,
malt-focused ales. The larger 120/- ales fall outside of this purview as
well as the strongest Scotch ales (aka Wee Heavy).

The Scottish Light,
Heavy and Export guidelines read nearly the same for each style of
beers. As the gravity increases, so does the character of the beers in
question. Historically, the three types of beer were pari-gyled 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. 

Irish Red Ale is now Style 15A in Category 15 Irish Beer.  The traditional beers of Ireland contained in this category are amber to dark, top-fermented beers of moderate to slightly strong strength, and are often widely misunderstood due to differences in export versions, or overly focusing on the specific attributes of beer produced by high-volume, well-known breweries. Each of the styles in this grouping has a wider range than is commonly believed..

A picture of scottish ale in a glass.

All of the Scottish ales share the same description and are differentiated mainly based on gravity and alcoholic strength. The Scottish ales follow in the English tradition of having a confusing naming convention.

The names are steeped in tradition and history, one thing the Scottish are famous for. To start with are the Schilling designations. These are remnants of the 1870 rating system in which the price of beer, including the taxes, was rated in the old pre-decimal shillings. 60 Shillings was a light ale; 70 Shillings was a heavy ale; 80 Shillings was an export; and 90+ Shillings was a barley-wine known as “wee heavy”.

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

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. There are several theories why. I prescribe to the theory that number 1, hops just won’t grow in Scotland, and number 2, when they were finally able to import hops from abroad, they were expensive, so they naturally used less than the English for whom the hops were cheap.

There is also the argument that the Scotish people’s tastes are tied up in tradition, they had grudges against the British marketplace, and they also 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. 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.

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.

Some important factors 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 a neutral ale yeast 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 peat smoked malts as some of the older recipes suggest.

Scottish Ales and Irish Ale Style Pages

The beers in this category are:

References: Information for this page was taken from the article Scotch and Scottish Ales in All About Beer Magazine by Ray Daniels, the article Scottish Ales from the Masters Table 1998 by Adrian Tierney-Jones, the BJCP 2008 Style Guidelines, and Brewing Classic Styles by Jamil Zainasheff and John Palmer.

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