Served in smaller “wee” portions often in a beer snifter, Scotch Ales can range from 6.5% to 10% ABV.
“Wee” heavy refers to the higher alcohol content than a reference to Scottish frugality. A Wee Heavy should be experienced as full-bodied and robust. It’s confusing a wee-bit, as the word “heavy” in Scottish ale terms refers to any beer between 3.5% and 4.0% ABV, which describes a relatively light beer in most translations.
As someone with a ‘wee bit’ of Scottish lineage, I am drawn to the irony.
Scotch Ale is just another name for Wee Heavy. The traditional process goes through a long boil in the kettle that actually carmelizes the wort. The kettles were placed on direct flames back then. Some of the better examples of traditional Scotch Ale today are created in the same fashion and produce a deep copper colored sweet beer with roasted malt caramel flavors. Generally, as a rule, a wee heavy is dark and malty, and so much nicer to take in the aroma from a snifter. Malt is the primary fragrant note lifting the senses to a toffee and caramel tone. Maybe a bit of licorice or coffee is introduced to the palate as well. A bit of earthy and smoky also help define this style and its complexity.
The presence of hop is low played mostly because hops just did not grow in Scottland due to the climate. Hops were an expensive commodity back in the 1800s and to ship hops in from England or abroad was for some prohibitive and therefore the Scottish exercised creative resourcefulness and ingenuity in making their remarkable beer styles.
What the Scottish lacked in hops they made up for in high-quality malting barley, which from the earliest of days were malted for beer and whiskey production. Therefore, to make beer at a reasonable cost, hops were kept to a minimum and often replaced with native growing alternatives.
Did you know that whiskey is essentially distilled beer?
Beer and whiskey share the same raw materials and process before they go their separate ways. But we all know well enough these two cousins often return side by side on more social and celebratory occasions.
There is a lot of overlapping and creative experimentation that goes into the fine art of brewing. That is if the art of craft beer matters. As any artist would agree, a lot gets tossed out before becoming a master at his craft. Understanding the process and following through with the science of the art keeps the methods consistent and predictable. A master evolves his craft from the foundation up in both the art and in the science of the culmination of a finely crafted beer masterpiece.
There are Scottish folklore and some written evidence that most likely through experimentation other bittering ingredients were used instead of hops. Heather, myrtle and broom which by themselves are well-known herbs for supporting one’s health and were also used for adjuncts in the beer making process to help bitter the sweetness of the barley and grains. Some contemporary Scottish brewers have revisited these age-old components to create beer flavors by even adding pine cones, gooseberries and even seaweed with notable success.
Finding a true Scotch Ale may become a destination for some. For me, it is one of my favorite styles of beer that has such a rich history. After doing a bit of research, I found a heritage brewer in Arizona. More about that later.
This short writing is just a wee musing on the topic of Scottish Ale and what makes them so unique. The best way to learn is to do…and we do a lot!
Nothing is better than fresh Wee Heavy from a brewer priding itself in recreating passed down from generations before him his own family style Scotch beer recipes.
Now my appetite is whet for a bit of the wee heavy from the land of its origin! Ahh, Scotland has been on my bucket list for years and now that I got an authentic taste – I feel I’m halfway there.
Featured photo: A.D. Cook