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The history of beer in Scotland & the true origins of Scottish Ale
February 23, 2006
Written by SilkTork
While beer lovers in Europe and America share common interests in the brewing and appreciation of beer, there is a curious divide when it comes to classification. Europeans, from an American perspective, are very casual and indifferent when it comes to grouping beers by style. Europeans may group beers by colour or strength.(1) Or they may not. Europeans may group by country.(2) Or not. By ale or lager yeast.(3) Or not. This lackadaisical approach is perhaps because many European brewers and drinkers have come from a tradition which existed before beers were split into styles, and still don’t quite understand the American enthusiasm for nailing down the specific colour, bitterness and strength of every beer. For years the question "What beer style is this?" was rarely heard in Europe, unless spoken with an American accent.
However, this American obsession with beer classification has recently been creeping over the Atlantic. And the beer style question is being increasingly heard in festivals and pubs in Britain. Half-understood conceptions of beer style theory are called into use during debates on a pint of black beer which may be a mild or a stout or an old ale. Does a pinch of ginger in a glass of bitter make it a spice/herb/veg beer, a traditional ale, or simply a glass of bitter with a pinch of ginger? And is a beer brewed in Scotland really a Scottish Ale or a Scotch Ale or just a beer brewed in Scotland?
The Scottish Ale question is one that will come up now and again in a British pub or on RateBeer’s forums. What is a Scottish Ale? Who invented it? Does it exist in Scotland? The Scottish Ale style grouping on RateBeer is one that I questioned in 2002 shortly after first joining the site. I understand that American brewers are making beers which they call Scottish Ale, and which conform to RateBeer or BJCP style guides.(4) But brewers in Scotland are not making this beer today. And the history of Scottish brewing does not seem to fit in with a number of explanations I have read and heard about the evolution of this Scottish Ale style.
Such as: " less hops than their English counterparts (due to the need to import them)" from the BJCP style guide. (5)
Such as: " Scottish brewers dried their malt by the fuel of peat driven fires" from the BeerScribe website.(6)
And such as: " Centuries ago, Scottish drinkers ordered their beers by the amount of tax levied on the particular drink."
None of the available hard facts supports any of this. Quite the opposite. Edinburgh brewers competed with the brewers in Burton-on-Trent with strong hoppy ales.(7) It is the whisky distillers who peat smoked their malts, not the brewers - the brewers used coke kilned malt.(8) And drinkers asked for beers by the names Light or Heavy. The shilling grades were whole cask prices, which were also used in England, and the ordinary pub drinker would not be aware how much the pub landlord had paid for his cask.
I am happy to debate beer style with anyone, but let’s first make sure we are debating with true facts. It is difficult enough to recover the truth from the past, but when people make guesses and assumptions that only serves to make the truth harder to find. Especially when these guesses and assumptions start to be taken as fact, based on the principle that if you repeat something often enough people will start to believe it.
History of Brewing in Scotland
Brewing in Scotland goes back at least 5,000 years. Archeologist Merryn Dinsley, of Manchester University, has suggested that one of the buildings uncovered at Skara Brae could have been a brewery, producing ale from malted spelt, flavoured with meadowsweet in the manner of a Kvass or Gruit made by various North European tribes including the Celts and the Picts.(9)(10) By analysing remains found inside one of the Grooved ware pots, Merryn Dinsley was able to reconstruct this beer which she named Grooved Ware Beer.(11) The use of bittering herbs to flavour and preserve beer continued longer in remote parts of Scotland than it did in the rest of the British Isles. Thomas Pennant wrote in A Tour in Scotland in 1769 that on the island of Islay "ale is frequently made of the young tops of heath, mixing two thirds of that plant with one of malt, sometimes adding hops".(12) Though, as in the rest of Britain, hops had replaced herbs in Scotland by the end of the 19th century, this Celtic tradition of using bittering herbs was revived in Brittany by Brasserie Lancelot in 1990,(13) and in Scotland by the Williams Brothers two years later.(14)
Even though ancient brewing techniques and ingredients remained longer in Scotland than the rest of Britain, the general pattern of development was the same, with brewing mainly in the hands of "broustaris" or alewives and monasteries, just as it was throughout Europe; though, as with brewing ingredients, the trend was for developments to move more slowly. The Leges Quatuor Burgorum, a code of burgh laws, showed that in 1509 Aberdeen had over 150 brewers – all women, and they were to set an ale-wand outside their houses when their beer was ready for sale, or pay a fine of fourpence. That figure of 150 women compares with figures for London which shows that of 290 brewers, around 40% were men. After the Reformation in the 1560s commercial brewing started to become more organised, as shown by the formation in 1598 of the Edinburgh Society of Brewers - though London had formed its Brewers’ Guild over 250 years earlier in 1342.
However, after the Acts of Union 1707 new commercial opportunities became available that proved a substantial stimulus to Scottish brewers.(15) During the 18th century some of the most famous names in Scottish brewing established themselves, such as <xxyxx hrefhttp://www.quaffale.org.uk/php/brewery/758>William Younger in Edinburgh, Robert & Hugh <xxyxx hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/brewers/wellpark--(interbrew-uk---inbev)/240/>Tennent in Glasgow, and George <xxyxx hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Beer/younger-of-alloa-sweetheart-stout/18400/>Younger in Alloa. In Dunbar in 1719, for example, Dudgeon & Company’s <xxyxx hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/belhaven-(greene-king)/696/>Belhaven Brewery was founded. Scottish brewers, especially those in Edinburgh, were about to rival the biggest brewers in the world.
Edinburgh - Brewing Centre of the World
While it has long been assumed for various reasons that Scottish brewers didn’t make much use of hops, the available information from brewing and trade records show that brewers in Edinburgh (which amounted to approximately 80% of Scottish brewers in 1845) used as much hops as English brewers, and that the strong, hoppy ale that Hodgeson was exporting to India and which became known as IPA, was copied and brewed in <xxyxx hrefhttp://www.beer-pages.com/protz/features/origins-pale-ale.htm>Edinburgh in 1821, a year before Allsopp is believed to have first brewed it in Burton. Robert Disher’s brewery in the Canongate area of Edinburgh had such a success with his hoppy Edinburgh Pale Ale that the other Edinburgh brewers followed, exporting strong, hoppy Scottish beer throughout the British Empire, and into Russia and America. The beer historians Charles McMaster and Martyn Cornell have both shown that the export sales figures of Edinburgh’s breweries rivalled that of Dublin and Burton upon Trent.
When it comes to brewing records for hop usage, Dr John Harrison of the <xxyxx hrefhttp://www.beerhunter.com/documents/19133-000070.html>Durden Park Beer Circle in <xxyxx hrefhttp://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0951775219/qid=1140348362/sr=8-2/ref=sr_8_xs_ap_i2_xgl/026-3977326-4349216>Old British Beers gives a recipe for <xxyxx hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/brakspear--(refresh-uk)/729/>Brakspear’s 1865 50/- Pale Ale in which 1.8 oz of hops are used per imperial gallon, along with the Scottish brewery W. Younger’s 1896 Ale No 3 (Pale) which also uses 1.8 oz of hops per imperial gallon. This both indicates that there was no difference in use of hops, even for the everyday domestic beers, and that the shilling designation was used in other parts of the British Isles. Other examples show Younger’s using 2.1 oz Goldings for Ale No. 1, and 2.6 oz for the 160/- Ale, compared with an average of 1.1 oz for all pale ales in Britain. Younger’s used hops from Kent, France and America for a Double Brown Stout in 1873. Interpretations may vary, but using hops from three different sources for one beer doesn’t indicate difficulty in obtaining hops, nor a reluctance to use the hops.
Joining in with Edinburgh’s brewing empire was Dr. William McEwan of Alloa who set up his Edinburgh brewery in 1856. Toward the end of the 19th century McEwan and Younger’s had emerged as the two most successful Edinburgh breweries and had started to absorb the smaller breweries. By the start of the 20th century, and especially by the time of the First World War with all the accompanying disruption, beer sales had declined to such an extent that the two breweries came together in 1931 to form Scottish Brewers Ltd.
By the 1960s the English brewers, Vaux,(http://www.quaffale.org.uk/php/brewery/76) Watney and Whitbread had found their way into Scotland. Vaux of Sunderland bought out Lorimer & Clark (the brewery that would become Caledonian),(http://www.caledonian-brewery.co.uk/brewery_history.html) Steel Coulson & Co, Thomas Usher & Son, and John Wright & Co, and by 1985 had closed them all down. The Newcastle Breweries Ltd merged with <xxyxx hrefhttp://www.archiveshub.ac.uk/news/sandn.html>Scottish Brewers Ltd in 1960 to form Scottish & Newcastle, using the <xxyxx hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/fountain-(scottish-courage---scottish-&-newcastle)/25/>Fountain Brewery as the Scottish brewery. By the end of the 1960s the only Scottish owned breweries still producing cask ale were <xxyxx hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/maclay/181/>Maclay’s of Alloa and <xxyxx hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/belhaven-(greene-king)/696/>Belhaven of Dunbar. The scene was now set for the 1971 entry of CAMRA into the British brewing scene.
The Shilling Categories
Much attention has been focused on the Scottish shilling system. Yet, as brewing records show, brewers throughout Britain gave trade names to their beers based on the retail value of a whole cask. It wasn’t until keg beers were introduced that beers had brand names - until then drinkers requested a beer by strength: Ordinary or Best; Heavy or Export. With the introduction in the mid 20th century of bar counter keg dispensers with the beer brand name, cask beers also started to be given names and a brand image with the use of pump clips. While the practise of classifying beers by the shilling price was not specific to Scotland, the brewers in Scotland did use the shilling names during the cask ale revival in the 1970s. Scottish brewers resurrected the shilling names to differentiate between keg and cask versions of the same beers. This differentiation has now been lost.
While the shilling names were never pinned down to exact strength ranges, and Scottish brewers today produce beers under the shilling names in a variety of strengths, it was largely understood that:-
Light or 60/- was under 3.5% abv - the equivalent of a Mild or Boys Bitter
Heavy or 70/- was between 3.5% and 4.0% abv - the equivalent of an Ordinary or Session Bitter
Export or 80/- was between 4.0% and 5.5% abv - the equivalent of a Best or Premium Bitter
Wee heavy 90/- was over 6.0% abv - the equivalent of a Strong Ale or Barley Wine.
Scotch Ale & Whisky Ale
Scotch Ale is the name given to a strong pale ale that originated in Edinburgh in the 19th century. Beers using the designation Scotch Ale are popular in Belgium and the USA where most examples are brewed locally. Those few examples of a Scotch Ale brewed in Scotland are mainly exported to the USA, though may also be available in Scotland under a different name. Such as Caledonian’s Edinburgh Scotch Ale which is sold from the cask in Scotland as Edinburgh Strong Ale.
Though the market for strong ales started to decline toward the end of the 19th century, the Belgian importer John Martin in the 1920s encouraged both English and Scottish brewers to make strong beers for his Belgium customers. John Martin used the names Bulldog Ale, Christmas Ale and Scotch Ale. Although John Martin’s Scotch Ales are now brewed in Belgium, the assumption has grown that Scotch Ale is a style of strong ale unique to Scotland.
Scotch Ale is also known as Wee Heavy. Examples of beers brewed in the USA under the name Wee Heavy tend to be 7% abv and higher, while Scottish brewed examples, such as Belhaven’s Wee Heavy, are typically between 5.5% and 6.5% abv. As with other examples of strong pale ales, such as Barley Wine, these beers tend toward sweetness and a full body, with a low hop flavour. Examples from the Caledonian brewery would have toffee notes from the caramelising of the malt from the direct fired copper. This caramelising of Caledonian’s beers is popular in America and has led many American brewers to produce toffee sweet beers which they would label as a Scotch Ale.
Even though the malt used by brewers in Scotland is <xxyxx hrefhttp://www.praguepost.com/P03/2005/Art/0505/featu2.php>not dried by peat burning, the Scottish whiskey distilleries use low nitrogen barley dried by peat burning. The distinctive flavour of these smoked malts when used in beers is reminiscent of whiskey, and such beers are popular in France, Belgium and America. These beers are often named Whiskey Ale or Scotch Ale by the brewers. The most popular French example is Fischer’s <xxyxx hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/beer/fischer-adelscott-malt-liquor/10/>Adelscott, while the most popular American example is <xxyxx hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Beer/samuel-adams-scotch-ale/161/>Samuel Adams Scotch Ale. The brewer Douglas Ross of the Bridge of Allan brewery has recently made the first Scottish example of one of these Whiskey Ales for the Tullibardine Distillery.
The American Scottish Ale Style
When Michael Jackson wrote the World Guide to Beer in 1977 he mentioned Scotch Ales as a term used in Belgian and France, and that Scottish heavy and light were "the Scottish counterparts of bitter and mild". He made no mention of the phrase Scottish Ale. That is not to say that Scottish brewers were not using the term Scottish Ale - but brewers who used that term then and now are using the phrase in the same way that St Austell in Cornwall uses the phrase "Cornish Ale" and Shepherd Neame in Kent uses the phrase "Kentish Ale": as a sense of regional pride, not as any indicator of style. By the early 1990s, however, Jackson can be seen using the term Scottish Ale in a chapter in his Beer Companion on Great Beer Styles of the World. The clue as why he does so is in the section on <xxyxx hrefhttp://www.nwbrewpage.com/wabpubs/GrantsBP.html>Grant’s Yakima Brewing and Malting Company: "When he started his brewery, Bert Grant began with what he called a <xxyxx hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Beer/bert-grants-scottish-style-ale/960/>Scottish Ale. Pressed on his justification for the designation he pointed out that he himself was born in Dundee, Scotland, although he admitted to having left when he was two years old."
Bert Grant opened the first modern American brewpub in 1982 and set the trend for making and offering a variety of beers. His was the first American brewery to make an IPA, a HefeWeizen and an Imperial Stout, as well as the Scottish Ale, so he had a considerable influence on American beer styles - both individual styles, and the mind-set of offering a range of styles; something that he was very keen for all breweries to do. Interestingly this first Scottish Ale was noticably hopped with American hops, though Grant did fancy the "full-bodied" use of "pale and caramel barley malts" gave the beer an "authentic Scottish flavor". The use of caramel malt is noteworthy as during the kilning process the malt is caramelised. Though happening at a different place in the brewing process, caramelising is also something that happens during the brewing of Caledonian’s beers because of the direct-fired coppers. Speculation is something I want to avoid, especially as Bert Grant is not around to clear up mistakes, but it is tempting to wonder if Caledonian’s direct-fired beers were the original inspiration for Bert Grant’s Scottish Ale.
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Douglas Ross of the Bridge of Allan brewery has recently made the first Scottish example of a Whiskey Ale for the Tullibardine Distillery.
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