Although not as popular as some other international beer styles like Belgian and German, Scottish ales have seen somewhat of a resurgence in recent years.
Maybe it’s the influence of the Scottish ex-pats, or maybe it’s a reaction to the over-hopped ales that seem to dominate the craft beer scene nowadays. Whatever the reason, Scottish ales have become much more popular.
Scottish ales have their own distinct malt-forward characteristics with an array of beer styles from the 60 /- shilling lighter beers all the way up to the “wee heavy” stronger ales.
Scottish ales can generally be divided into four categories. Standard Scottish ales come in three different strengths: light (60/-), heavy (70/-), and export (80/-). A fourth category exists for the stronger Scottish ales, colloquially known as “wee heavy” ales.
You may have noticed the old shilling denominations (/-), which are commonly used in the names that refer back to the 19th-century price per barrel in the now obsolete shillings.
Although you usually see the 60 /-, 70 /-, and 80 /- monikers on beer bottle labels from breweries like Caledonian or Belhaven, stronger ales would have numbers higher than 100 /- and sometimes up to 160/-.
A more common name for these stronger ales would be Scotch ale or “wee heavy.”
Let’s take a quick look at what makes Scottish ales such distinct beers, how they are brewed, a few brewing tips for creating your own ale at home, and finally, a few Scottish ale recipes for the different beers.
A Brief History of Scotch Ales – Where It Gets That Scottish Taste From
Scotland has traditionally produced many different styles of beers, including both beers, which are similar to the English or Irish Ales in character.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Scotland exported all kinds of beers to England. All of its colonies and Scottish brewers were the first in the British Isles to begin producing beers in much larger quantities.
Despite making beers similar to their neighbors, the unique geography of Scotland was to give birth to a style of unique beer which we now know as Scotch ale. The availability of malt and hops heavily influenced beer production in Scotland.
Barley had always been grown in Scotland, with the majority used to produce malt whiskies. However, in the south of Scotland, larger portions of the yearly crop were used to make Scottish beers.
English malts were also heavily taxed with beer duty. Hops, on the other hand, never prospered in Scotland due to the climate and poor soil composition, meaning hops had to be imported from England at a high cost.
Alternatives were found for hops, including spices, herbs, quassia, and even the heather plant used for floral aromas. As a result, Scottish styles had a distinctly malty character with hops when available and added only sparingly.
The traditional brewing methods of Scotland would mash with one or two steps at higher temperatures (often above 160ºF) for a kettle caramelization process, which was then sparged slowly and fermented at relatively cold temperatures (due to the harsher climate!).
The result was a full-bodied beer with a very low attenuation yeast level. The bitterness range would be low, with only the aroma of hops or other additives giving that English-type hop scent.
Finished beers would only be aged for a few weeks before being shipped off to the local pubs or abroad for consumption. Storing the beer in the colder climate when it was aged would help enhance the clarity of the beer.
Brewing Tips for Scottish Ales
The Grain Bill
The base grain for a Scottish ale, whether it’s a “wee heavy,” an 80/- beer, or a Scottish Export, will be a pale ale malt or a high-quality pale or amber extract.
Although originally Scottish pale malt, grits (or flaked maize) would be used for that cereal grain goodness. Today, an English pale malt like Maris Otter is most common. Golden Promise could also be a good choice for the base malt.
The paler homebrew grains generally make up 70 – 80% of the total grain bill. Crystal malts are also commonly used in both commercial and homebrewed recipes, making up a further 5-10% range of the grain bill.
Black malt or roasted malt can provide color and be added in the 2 % range, though most formulations for Scotch ales would recommend roast malt every time.
Other home-brew grains, which are commonly added to home-brew scotch ales but in much smaller quantities, include both dark and light chocolate malts, chocolate rye, Cara Pils for extra body, and Munich or amber malts.
As hops grow so poorly in Scotland due to a harsh climate, they must be imported from England, the closest area with healthy hop cultivations. Most Scottish ales will use varieties such as East Kent Goldings, Fuggles, Target, or Williamete – basically low alpha traditional English or continental style hops.
Some noble hops can be used too, such as Hallertauer or Saaz, but the bitterness and hop flavor should be kept to a minimum. Hopper additions for the bittering charge should only be added at 60 minutes for this style.
Malty and caramel flavors will normally dominate a Scottish ale with very little hop aroma, flavor, or bitterness. Even the stronger Scotch ales will normally have a low bitterness in the range of 17 – 30 IBU.
The lesser shilling beers like 60 or 70/- will normally fall between 10 – 15 IBUs, ramping it up slightly for the Export versions to 15 – 30 IBUs.
A yeast that is clean and neutral with minimum flavor additions should be used with Wyeast 1728 Scottish Ale yeast or White Labs Edinburgh Scottish Ale, both being a good choice. Safale S-04 or Danstar Windsor are suitable as dry yeast choices, too.
The selection of a full-blown Scotch ale yeast isn’t quite as important as the fermentation process itself. Traditionally, Scottish ales ferment at much cooler temperatures (50 – 60ºF) than traditional ales and can often take several weeks to complete fermentation.
After this process is complete, the ale should be cold-aged to aid in clarity. All of this results in a beer that is very malty but has a clean profile.
You will need a low attenuation yeast that can handle these lower temperatures, which, fortunately, most of the Scottish ale yeasts are capable of.
Although Edinburgh may be famous for its harder water composition as much as its pale ales, high sulfate water isn’t a prerequisite when brewing Scottish ales and can, in fact, bring out too much hop sharpness if it’s too rich in sulfate.
A moderate neutral water that is low in sulfates can help support the malty base while not enhancing the hops too much.
You should aim for amber to a light brown color in most Scottish ales with a target range of 9 – 17 SRM. Some of the stronger ales, however, like the “wee heavy,” will have a much darker color often unto 25 SRM due to the higher proportions of darker malts used.
Scottish Ale Recipes
I have included a few of my personal favorite Scottish Ale recipes for you to try below. A 60/- shilling style beer is a great introduction to these malt-forward beers, yet remains very drinkable thanks to its session beer low ABVs.
The ABV can always be bumped up in most recipes, including this one, by boosting the grain bill for a higher Original gravity.
Using 8 lbs rather than 6 lbs of base malt or adding some extra DME/LME to the wort could increase that OG to sufficient levels to give a 70/- or even 80/- beer.
I have also included a “wee heavy” recipe for those who enjoy a slightly stronger beer. This is one where if you wanted to add more hops, the alcohol would balance out that hoppiness and could also counterbalance some of the sweetness often found in the wee-heavy style of beer.
Although I have recommended Scottish yeast in each recipe, as they are low attenuating, there’s nothing to stop you from collecting the yeast slurry from one earlier Scottish ale brew to use in the next. It could even aid the fermentation process for a cleaner beer profile.
60/- Shilling Light Scottish Ale Recipe (ALL GRAIN)
One of the light-in-alcohol Scottish ales, this amber-brown ale has a malty nose and a subdued hops aroma. The smoked malt gives hints of smoke and toastiness to what is otherwise a soft malt.
Roasted barley gives the beer a complex background taste, and with an OG of only 1.030 to 1.035, this is truly a lower-alcohol-session beer. You could always increase the amount of grain used if you want to bump up that OG for a 70/- or 80/- kind of beer.
|5 GALLONS (19 L)
|1.030 - 1.035
|1.010 - 1.013
|9 - 15
|2.5 - 3.3 %
Ingredients – The Grain Bill
- 5.25 lb (2.4 kg) pale malt
- 2 oz (57 g) peat-smoked malt
- 4 oz (113 g) Carapils malt
- 4 oz (113g) roast barley
Hops and Other Adjuncts
- 2 oz (57 g) treacle – add at 90 minutes
- 0.5 oz (14 g) cascade hop pellets (7% AAU) – add at 90 minutes
- 1 tsp Irish moss at 15 minutes
Wyeast 1728 Scottish Ale yeast or White Labs WLP028 Edinburgh Scottish Ale yeast
- Using a quart (946 ml) of water for every one pound (454 g) of malt, mash the crushed grains. To achieve that kettle caramelization, you’ll need to heat the mash water to 15ºF (8ºC) higher than the actual mash temp. So, for this recipe, you will need to heat 6 quarts (5.7 L) of water to 173ºF (78ºC) before mixing in the crushed malts. Adjust the actual mash temperature to 158ºF (70ºC) using hot or cold water and hold for 1 hour in an insulated mash vessel.
- Recirculate until the wort runs clear, and then sparge the grains in your kettle with water at 172ºF (78ºC) to get a wort volume of 6 gallons (22.7 L). This will subsequently be boiled down to 5 gallons (19 L).
- When the wort comes to a boil, add the bittering hops and treacle and boil for 90 minutes, adding the Irish moss for extra beer clarity 15 minutes before flame out.
- After the boil is complete, chill the wort to below 80ºF (27ºC) and pitch the yeast. Vigorously aerate the wort before leaving it to ferment at 55 – 70ºF (13 – 21ºC) for 10 days.
- After 10 days, transfer to a secondary fermenter and allow the beer to ferment for a further two weeks until fermentation has completed and the yeast has dropped clear.
- Transfer the brew to a bottling bucket and condition it with either 3/4 cup (177 ml) of corn sugar or 1/4 cup (59 ml) of dry malt extract that has been boiled in 2 cups (473 ml) of water.
- Bottle and cap the beer and leave it to sit for 10 days in a dark warm place (about 65 – 70ºF or 18 – 21 ºC) to achieve moderate carbonation. Store at refrigeration temperatures when the beer has been carbonated.
A Scottish Ale Partial Extract Recipe 60/- Style
For the partial extract brewers, this Scottish ale recipe is full of caramel malts both in the extracts and specialty grains used.
Chocolate malt, roasted barley, and peat smoke malt complete the profile of this full-bodied, malty ale with a low ABV, making this beer sessionable.
|5 GALLONS (19L)
|1.034 - 1.038
|1.010 - 1.014
|21 - 25
|3.25 - 3.5%
Ingredients – The Fermentables (Extracts)
- 3.3 lb Amber Malt Extract LME
- 1 lb Amber Malt Extract DME
- 4 oz (113g) Cara Munich Dark
- 4 oz (113g) Peat Smoked malt
- 4 oz (113g) Chocolate Barley malt
- 1 oz (28g) Black Barley
- 1 oz (28g) Cluster – add at the start of the boil
- 1 oz (28g) UK Fuggles Hops – add at 40 minutes
Safale S-05 Dry Yeast (1 sachet)
- Pour 2.5 gallons of fresh water into your kettle and heat to 150ºF – 165ºF. While waiting for it to reach the desired temperature, place the specialty grains into your brew bag and loosely knot them at the top. Once the water is at the appropriate steeping temperature, place the grain bag into the pot and allow it to steep for about 20 minutes. Remove the grain bag at the end of the steep, being careful not to squeeze or tear it and allow the liquid to drain back into the pot.
- Bring your wort to a boil, adding both the LME and DME while continuing to stir as the wort comes back to a boil.
- At the beginning of the boil, add the Cluster hops, and 5 minutes before the end of the boil, add the Fuggle hops for aroma. The total boil time is 45 minutes.
- Chill the wort down to approx 70ºF (21ºC) by putting your brew pot in a sink filled with ice water before pouring or siphoning your wort into a sanitized fermenting vessel. Try to avoid transferring the heavy sediment or turbo from the brew pot to the fermenter.
- Add enough clean water at approx 64º – 72ºF to bring the wort up to 5 gallons (19L) before pitching the yeast. Simply sprinkle the dried yeast (don’t rehydrate!) over the entire surface of the wort before stirring well with a sanitized paddle or spoon.
- Seal your fermenter and place it in a temperature-stable place (64º – 72ºF) to ferment for 7 days. The wort may not begin to ferment for up to 48 hours. Don’t worry – this is normal when using dried Safale yeast. If there still seems to be no activity after 48 hours, check with a hydrometer, and if the gravity reading is lower than your original gravity, then fermentation has started.
- Once fermentation is complete, leave until the lees have settled and rack off into a bottling bucket.
- Prepare 3 oz of priming sugar in 2 cups of boiling water and add to the bottling bucket before bottling the beer.
- Bottle condition at a 69- 73% temperature range for two weeks to allow the beer to naturally carbonate – be patient! Once the two weeks of carbonation are over, chill in a refrigerator and enjoy.
A Scottish “Wee Heavy” Ale Recipe
At the other end of the scale, we have one of the more intense beer styles – the “wee heavy.” These high-gravity beers are kind of like the IPA of the malty beer world.
What’s ironic is, despite having heavy in the name, a “wee heavy” isn’t really that much of a heavy beer at all compared to many other styles of beer.
From the same family as the 60/- shilling and other “lighter” Scottish ales, despite the difference in gravity, wee heavy shares many of the same characteristics.
Both ales feature some actual kettle caramelization and low hop utilization in both bittering and flavoring, with some more noticeable yet still restrained esters.
A Scotch ale or a Scottish heavy adds a much richer malty flavor profile, which balances with the higher ABV levels. It can also be a sweet beer but shouldn’t be overly sweet, which can be a difficult spot to hit.
|5 GALLONS (19L)
|1.034 - 1.038
|1.010 - 1.014
|21 - 25
|3.25 - 3.5%
Ingredients – The Grain Bill
- 17.8 lbs (8.1kg) British pale ale malt or Marris Otter malt
- 17.6 oz (0.5kg) crystal malt 45ºL
- 14.1oz (0.4kg) Munich malt
- 7 oz (0.2kg) crystal malt 120ºL
- 1.8 oz (50g) roasted barley 500ºL
Hops and Other Additions
- 6.5 AAU Kent Golding hops (1.3oz (37g) at 5% alpha acids) – Add at 60 minutes
- 2 AAU East Kent Goldings hops (0.4oz (11g) at 5% alpha acids) – Add at 10 minutes
- 1 tsp Irish moss (optional) – add at 15 minutes
- Wyeast 1728 Scottish Ale yeast or White Labs WLP028 Edinburgh Scottish Ale yeast. A fresh yeast slurry can also be used, so don’t throw away those lees from a previous batch of shilling ales you may have produced.
- Mill the grains and dough in, aiming for a mash of about 1.5 its (1.4L) of water per 1 pound (454g) of grain at a temperature of 154ºF (68ºC). Hold the mash at 154ºF (68ºC) until the enzymatic conversion is complete, approx. 60 mins. Once the enzymes are converted, infuse the mash with near-boiling water and recirculate to raise the temperature to 168ºF (76ºC) to clear the wort and mash out.
- Sparge slowly with water at 170ºF(77ºC) to collect around 6.5 gallons (25 L) in your boil kettle with a gravity reading of 1.076. If the pre-boil gravity should come up short, try topping off the wort with some dried malt extract.
- Bring the wort to a boil. The total boil time is 90 minutes. Add the first hops at the 60 minutes mark, then add the Irish moss if using 15 minutes before the end of the boil and the second hop addition 10 minutes before flame out.
- Chill the wort to 68ºF /18ºC0 and aerate thoroughly before pitching the yeast. The correct pitch rate is 3 packages of liquid yeast or a starter made with one package of liquid yeast in 1.5 gallons (6L) of water.
- Ferment for seven to ten days or until your desired Final Gravity is reached. A cooler fermentation starting at 65ºF (18ºC) with the temperature finally rising to 70ºF(21ºC) for the last 1/3 of fermentation helps moderate the production of hot-tasting alcohols. This ensures the yeast fully attenuates and reduces the amount of dactyl in the finished beer.
- Once fermentation has finished, rack off into a keg or bottling bucket and carbonate to approximately 2 volumes C02.