My favorite book on the beers of Scotland is called Scotch Ale and it is by Greg Noonan, founder of the Vermont Pub & Brewery of Burlington on Lake Champlain which I first visited in the summer of 1990. I referred to this book in one of the few reports written here on the beers of my forefathers, the great Traquair House from Peeblesshire. I should take a moment in what promises to be a longer post than usually to mention the series in which Noonan text is published - the Classic Beer Style Series from Brewers Publications. Issued mainly for the home brew set, these guides set out the history, the main features of profile, brewing facts, ingredients and examples. They are gold for any beer nerd. Noonan's on the beers of Scotland is among the best written of the series. A bit expensive due to the limited market, beer fans really should invest in these.
Scotland's beers are largely based on one thing - the solid mass of rock which rises in the middle of Edinburgh. That is because, as Noonan explains, wells drilled deep into the rock produced a wonderful water that always arose at exactly the same temperature, a cool 51º F. That allowed for a more standardized brewing in the pre-scientific era than you would have found elsewhere. As a result, for centuries and right up until recent years the road down from the castle was the site of a number of large breweries jammed up against each other. In addition to the cool of the water was the northern climate. Barley and oats grew better than wheat and even then other strains of barley florished. Added to this was the inability to grow hops as easily as in southern England what with the colder seasons and you had a naturally slower fermentation at a lower temperature, without high hopping, without highly attenuated yeast to dry out the sweet from the beer. This left the world with a smoother maltier beer, not unlike the idea of a Marzen from Germany, but with sources of balancing bitter other than steely hops to cut the cloy. Usually this was black malt burned almost to dust but sometimes, too, it was the local fruit or herbs. These five ales are attempts to capture something of the spirit of those conditions.
- McEwan's Scotch: This is an old friend. I had a habit for this 8% ale in my undergrad years, being one of the few deviations from rapidly macro-morphing Maritime Canadian pale ale you could get in the early 1980s in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A sheeting tan lace, rim and foam sits over deep mahogany. The aroma of sweet malt with a note of smoke sits like a fog over the glass. You sip molasses with a note of apple butter which opens to a discrete seam of black malt char guarding the heat of the alcohol. Underneath is the rich smoke and cream of the yeast. It is big but not massive, a winter's blanket of an ale. It has actually been years since I had one of these and I am immediately regretting the time lost. Thankfully it is generally available at least in eastern Canada. I can renew the acquaintance. BAers approve.
- Innis & Gunn Oak Aged Ale: Jim in Scotland included this in a past review of five from the Old Country. For me, it poured a dark honey with large bored carbonation feeding white foam. At 6.6%, this strong ale is honey sweet, smokey oaked and buttery. The effect, confirmed by the yeast selection, is creamy and rich and very pleasant. As the maker's website explains, the beer takes 77 days to make, the first thirty in new American oak barrels. This provides a profound effect on the ale which makes it difficult to compare it to others, rounder and mellower while also picking up flavours such as vanilla. It is too bad as beer from the wood was a common thing not that long ago but in all these reviews only Marston Pedigree serves as another example of a beer formed in a wooden cask. This flavours assist in their way with the successful balancing the sweetness and as a result, as is appropriate for a Scots ale, there is a more subdued hop effect. A note of black malt toast is also present. All in all, the flavour profile is not unlike the liqueur Drambuie in far drier form. Very nicely done. 15% of advocatonians disagree with me.
- Smuttynose Scotch Style Ale: reddish mahogany...maybe chestnut...under a rocky tan head. This scotch has a hidden green hoppy underseam beneath the round soft malt and the stroke of dark malt - but chocolate rather than black. A bit hot, too - which is no surprise at 7.8%. The malt is mainly apple butterish but also a little dark raisiny, too. There is a bit of smoke in the rich yeast as well - which is not from the yeast itself but from 2% German hardwood rauch malt according to the brewer's notes. Really a nice take on the style of a wee heavy. Everyone loves it. Worthy.
- Middle Ages Kilt Titler: this is something of a take on the McEwan's Scotch above with tan foam and rim over rich mahogany. The nose is more subdued and in the mouth there is the heat of 9.5%, apple butter and maybe a note of licorice and even perhaps banana, coffee and cocoa. There is smoke which is more likely from smoked malt than a true Scots yeast. The water has a chalky thing without being overly soft. At the end there is hop which sits below the malt, perhaps green, maybe twiggy. The otherwise pleased BAer average is skewed by one low rater. Confirms again that Middle Ages is one of my favorite brewers.
- Belhaven Wee Heavy: Wow. The smokiest of all. Tan foam and lace leaving rim over reddish mahogany ale. This would make an excellent BBQ beer, medium-sweet and big bodied. Unlike a pure smoke beer like Rogue's Chipotle, there is also rich malt flavours of date, apple, raisin and pear - and a licorice effect as well. A very complex array and not as strong at 6.5%. There is also more hop than in the other Scots-made heavy above, the McEwan's. If this were placed before me as a light rauchbier I might believe it. BAer approved.