Strong Scotch Ales are considered the Scottish equivalent of an English Old Ale. They were traditionally served in small glasses, thus the name “wee heavy”. It’s hard to say how old the style actually is, as there weren’t many records kept regarding the malts or hops used and the amounts. When pale ales arrived, the Scotch ale effectively disappeared.
Scotch Ales, along with all the other ales, were defined by their Shilling designation. Strong Scotch Ales begin where the export style leaves off, at 90 Shilling. The beers are still ordered by its shilling name in the highland’s bars. The gravity can go up to around 120 Shilling or 120/-. The use of yeast which are not particularly alcohol tolerant leaves the wee heavy with a lot of residual sweetness that is barley balanced by hop additions. The use of highly kilned malts helps somewhat by giving the beer a roastiness which counters the cloying sweetness somewhat. Without all the hops of other strong beers, such as the English old ale, the beer doesn’t age as long before stale flavors take over. The alcohol is the only thing keeping the beer from “going off”.
Often times, Strong Scotch Ales end up being cloyingly sweet. The low hopping rates don’t do much to cut the malty sweetness either. Strong Scotch Ales usually go through a long boil which adds a big caramel flavor from the melanoidins that develop, and a deep copper or brown color to the wort. These beers often resemble lagers more than ales, and have more in common with German bocks than their lighter Scots cousins, the Scottish ales. The natural selection for the yeast in Scotland favors yeast which will ferment well in the cold temperatures there. These yeasts work slower and are usually low in attenuation, leaving behind lots of residual sugars and dextrins in the beer. Scottish Ales are a good example of beers that have developed because of regional conditions such as a scarcity of hops, cold temperatures, soft water, and an abundance of locally grown malts.
So what are the important factors to consider when brewing Strong Scotch Ales? Fermentation temperature control is one of the key factors you must use to keep the alcohol from becoming harsh or hot. Pitch a big starter of healthy yeast to handle the high OG and keep the fruity esters to a minimum. Use a good English pale malt and English hops for a more authentic profile. As with Scottish ales, let the fermentation profile and yeast produce the peat smoked nuances in the beer, not peat malt.
- Aroma: Look for a beer that has a big malty nose, very often with caramel notes as well. These beers are known for having peaty, earthy and/or smoky secondary aromas which add complexity to the beer. Caramelization is often is mistaken for diacetyl, which should be low to none. This is a popular topic and hopefully judges will be more aware of the difference during competitions. Low to moderate esters and alcohol are often present in stronger versions. Hops are very low to none.
- Appearance: The color can range from light copper to dark brown and you will often see deep ruby highlights. The clarity is usually good due to cold conditioning. Normally these beers have a large tan head, which may not persist in stronger versions due to the high alcohol content. Legs may be evident in stronger versions, similar to a wine.
- Flavor: Strong Scotch Ales are richly malty with kettle caramelization often apparent (particularly in stronger versions). Hints of roasted malt or smoky flavor may be present, as may some nutty character. Hop flavors and bitterness are low to medium-low, so the malt sweetness is never really balanced. Diacetyl is low to none, although kettle caramelization may sometimes be mistaken for it. Low to moderate esters and alcohol are usually present. Esters may suggest plums, raisins or dried fruit. The palate is usually full and sweet, but the finish may be sweet to medium-dry (from light use of roasted barley).
- Mouthfeel: A Strong Scotch Ale will exhibit a medium-full to full-body, with some versions (but not all) having a thick, chewy viscosity. A smooth, alcoholic warmth is usually present and is quite welcome since it is the only element which can balance the malty sweetness. Moderate carbonation is typical.
- Overall Impression: Rich, malty and often cloyingly sweet. Complex secondary malt flavors prevent a one-dimensional impression. Strength and maltiness can vary.
- Comments: These beers are also known as a “wee heavy.” Fermented at cooler temperatures than most ales, and with lower hopping rates, resulting in a clean, intense malt flavor. Well suited to the region of origin, with abundant malt and cool fermentation and aging temperature. Hops, which are not native to Scotland and formerly expensive to import, were kept to a minimum.
- Ingredients: Well-modified pale malt, with up to 3% roasted barley. May use some crystal malt for color adjustment; sweetness usually comes not from crystal malts rather from low hopping, high mash temperatures, and kettle caramelization. A small proportion of smoked malt may add depth, though a peaty character (sometimes perceived as earthy or smoky) may also originate from the yeast and native water. Hop presence is minimal, although English varieties are most authentic. Fairly soft water is typical.
- Vital Statistics: OG: 1.070 – 1.130 FG: 1.018 – 1.056 IBUs: 17 – 35 SRM: 14 – 25 ABV: 6.5 – 10%
- Commercial Examples: Traquair House Ale, Belhaven Wee Heavy, McEwan’s Scotch Ale, Founders Dirty Bastard, MacAndrew’s Scotch Ale, AleSmith Wee Heavy, Orkney Skull Splitter, Inveralmond Black Friar, Broughton Old Jock, Gordon Highland Scotch Ale, Dragonmead Under the Kilt.