Wednesday, July 27, 2016



Emphasis on the “ISH.” There is a bit of confusion that developed over the last few years amongst craft beer enthusiasts when it comes to Scottish Ale. The name has been associated with dark, high ABV beers aged in whiskey barrels, but this is far from what traditional Scottish Ale is. Scottish Ale is a dynamic, rich in history British ale favoring malt flavors over hop. This blog article supplements Podcast 5, “Scottish Ale,” on TAPROOM TALK, the spoken word of the HOMETOWN CRAFT BEER NETWORK.

Historical Background

Historical knowledge tells us the necessity of brewing beer dates back as far as 5500 years (roughly 3500 BCE) to Mesopotamia (modern day Iran and Iraq), during the late Copper Age.  This time period also coincides with the introduction of agricultural processes to the region, including the mass production of grain.  With the manufacturing of copperware and abundant grain, it’s reasonable to associate the modern Middle East with early beer brewing.


So, what does beer brewing in the Middle East have to do with Scottish Ale?  At the time the Mesopotamians were just getting started brewing beer, tribal inhabitants of the British Isles were just entering the Neolithic period.  Just to give some context, the Neolithic period is largely associated with the building of Britain’s widely known stone structures and megaliths.  This period also included the introduction of British Isles-specific agricultural processes.  Barley, in particular, grew well across the region and the rea associated with Scotland saw heavy migration between other European tribes.  Ales made from herbs and flowers, known as gruit, were typically brewed.

Scottish Ale in Transition

Through the centuries, Scotland, as well as Ireland and England, developed their own brewing processes and use of interesting ingredients.  To be completely forward, most brewing in these days was done by women. [1]  In the 1700s, beer brewing was starting to shift more towards entrepreneurial interests.  Edinburgh emerged not only as Scotland’s governmental capitol, but it's beer brewing capitol as well.

With the gain in popularity of English porters and pale ales, as well as German Lagers, Scottish Ales began to fall out of international favor, falling back to within Scotland as the primary area of production and enjoyment.

Scottish Ales were brewed with some unique aspects.  First, Scottish maltsters were also usually the brewer. [1]  This connection brought a bit of a higher quality of malt going into the beer.  Scots practiced sparging, which we know today is an integral part of the brewing process, essentially rinsing with hot water the mashed grain, drawing out as much of the sugars as possible.  English brewers, by contrast produced several batches of beer from a single mash (parti-gyled)


Hops did not grow well across the British Isles and were very expensive to import; thus, hops were used sparingly in British beers, including Scottish Ale.  Hops bought but not used were saved and stored, losing some of the bittering, flavoring, and aroma-producing alpha and beta acids. 

Finally, yeast was a bit problematic as well.  The cooler temperatures demanded a viable yeast at cooler temperatures.  This conjures notions of lager yeast, but ale yeast was typically used.  Because “ale” fermentation was at lower temperatures, more time was needed and typically pulled off under=fermented. [1]  The cooler climate also lent itself to cool-conditioning (lagering) Scottish Ale, leaving a wonderful malt-forward, full-bodied, drinkable beer.

Modern Scottish Ale

Modern Scottish Ales are further segregated into three separate varieties: 1) Light, 2) Heavy, and 3) Export.  Please do not associate “Wee Heavy” with Scottish Heavy – they are two distinctly different beers.  Scottish Light, Heavy, and Export are all relatively similar in characteristic; however, differ in terms of alcohol content.  Now, Scottish Ale aficionados will argue there is much more – and to a certain extent there is.  Scottish Lights are brewed with the least amount of grain; therefore, Light has the least alcohol by volume (ABV) coming in at between 2.5 – 3.2%.  Truly a session ale.  Heavy comes in at 3.2 – 3.9%.  Again, a sessionable beer, but on the top end.  The higher ABV indicates a bit of a more complex grain bill and with it a bit more complexity.  Finally, Export is a 3.9 – 6.0%+.  The term “export” indicates its original intent which was as an export product from Scotland to other beer-loving regions.

The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) [2] describes Scottish Ale as:

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 parti-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.

Scottish Ale vs. Scotch Ale

Scottish Ale, emphasis on the “ISH” is not Scotch Ale, no “ISH.”  Scotch Ale is indeed the higher ABV cousin to Scottish Ale.  Scotch Ales, also referred to as “Wee Heavy” comes in at 6.5%+ ABV, often exceeding 10%.  The grain bill is much more complex and truthfully, Scotch Ale (no “ISH”) is closer to a Barley Wine than it is to a Scottish Ale.  We’ll address Scotch Ale in a later blog and podcast.  

The “Schilling” Convention

The naming convention most closely associated with Scottish Ale is the “schilling” (/-), with 60/- associated with Scottish Light, 70/- with Scottish Heavy, and 80/- or 90/- associated with Scottish Export.  (Yes, yes…120/- is associated with Wee Heavy, but that’s a later blog and podcast).  The BJCP clarifies this historical misuse as follows:

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 so on.

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).


AROMA: low to medium sweetness reminiscent of bread or English biscuits.

APPEARANCE: Copper – colored to dark brown:

Scottish Light: SRM 17-22

Scottish Heavy and Export: SRM 13 – 22

MOUTHFEEL: Medium-bodied with low to moderate carbonation.

OVERALL IMPRESSION: Malt-forward with little or no hop bitterness or aroma.  Notable flavors of caramel, toffee, or caramel.  Sweetness sometimes subtly accented with herbs or flowers (look for Heather).

COMMON INGREDIENTS: Traditional malts include Scottish pale malt and grits / flaked maize.  Modern malts include amber, brown, crystal, and wheat malts accented by roasted grain and brown or dark sugars.



[c]  Hill & Adamson, metmuseum,org, Public Domain,


[1]  K. Florian Klemp, "Scottish Ales," All About Beer Magazine, Volume 27, Issue 4, September 1, 2006.
[2]  Beer Judge Certification Program, 2015 Beer Styles Guide,