Belhaven Brewery

What’s The Difference Between Scottish and Scotch Ales?

Sticking to the British Isles, we’re going North to Scotland and talk a little about Scottish and Scotch Ales. Wait, what? There’s a difference between Scottish and Scotch ales? There certainly is. Mainly, Scottish ales are ales brewed in Scotland or in the Scottish style. Scotch ales are US and Belgian interpretations of the Scottish style strong dark ale.

Brewing history in Scotland followed a similar path to brewing in Ireland. The cold Scottish climate isn’t favorable to growing hops, so early beers were brewed with heather or other herbs to add bitterness in place of hops. Overall, like Ireland, brewing in Scotland wasn’t all that different from what was going on in England at the time. Some articles point to the high cost to import hops as a reason for the sweet malty character of Scottish beers, but brewing records and history point to a lot of hops usage in Scotland including a hoppy ale being brewed in Edinburgh in 1821 similar to Hodgeson’s first IPA. Sweet and malty wasn’t really an identifier of beer brewed in Scotland.

So where did the Scotch ale, that slightly smoky, peaty, sweet dark ale with a good boozy punch come from if not from Scotland? There is a lot of debate about this but there are some facts that we can point to and make an educated guess.

Gordon Scotch Ale BelgiumThere are strong, malty beers brewed in Scotland that have a slight toffee flavor from caramelized malt similar to what we call Scotch ales here in the US. In Scotland they are often just referred to as Strong Ales. When the strong ale market began to decline in the early 20th Century, an English born beverage importer in Belgium named John Martin requested a Strong Ale brewed in Scotland for his Belgian market. He called it Gordon’s Scotch Ale and is still popular there today.

In the United States, we can point to Bert Grant’s Yakima Brewing and Malting Co. in Washington, the first brew pub established in the United States since prohibition. He brewed what he called a Scottish Ale with caramel malts that he said gave the beer an “authentic Scottish flavor”. He no doubt had a big influence on establishing American beer styles. Another significant player is Samuel Adams. In Scotland, whiskey brewers dry their barley by burning peat which is what gives Scotch that smoky flavor. Beer brewers in Scotland don’t use peat smoked malts, but when Samuel Adams released their Scotch Ale, they used peated malt which gave it those slightly smoky whiskey notes and is probably still one of the most popular examples of the style. Unfortunately, they only brew it on a limited basis now but it sometimes pops up in their mixed 12 packs.

Flavor notes: A Scotch Ale or Wee Heavy will have a sweet, caramel or toffee flavor and sometimes with a touch of smoke or peatiness. A slight tea-like bitterness can sometimes be found as well. Alcohol ranges from 6-10%.

Slainte Mhor!