Better Know Your Beer Style: Category 09- Scottish and Irish Ales

2 03 2010

The British Isles are pretty funny. For a land mass smaller than the State of California, nobody seems to like each other. The Irish don’t like the Scots. The Scots don’t like the Welsh. And nobody likes the English. That probably describes why there are so many different types of beer in such a small area.

The UK and the Republic of Ireland were handed a stroke of luck geographically speaking. These islands are exactly where the cold, arctic winds and waters mingle with the warm, tropical Atlantic Gulf Stream. Whereas their latitudinal neighbors to the East and West are arctic tundras, the British Isles are relatively temperate. They grow barley and wheat relatively well here and as a result, they are the most northernly lying area to to have their own indigenous beer styles.

The craggy Irish country-side is not the best for growing grain. But they are renown for their red wheat and barley. That is what gives soda bread and Irish ale their coppery red glow they are famous for. And they are able to grow some fine and mild hops in the more southern and western regions. The result is a mildly hopped and malt forward but still well balanced red ale that is light and breezy with a hint of sea air.

Scotland, on the other hand, is not able to grow hops very well at all. The long, frigid winters and short, wet summers are not very conducive to growing hops–which prefer long, warm summers. The Scottish tend to look at hops with a bit of distrust. Hops are, after all, something the English put in their beers. Scotch whisky is built on a backbone of rich and bold barley. And scotch whisky is little more than distilled and aged beer. So, there is no surprise that Scottish ales tend to have the same creamy, peaty, and caramel notes that a finely aged scotch whisky would have. Some Scottish breweries have even begun spicing their ales with traditional local herbs such as heather, seaweed, and elderberries.

In Scotland, much like in England, beer was priced by quality and strength. But they did not use the Bitter system discussed last week. Instead, their system was an explicit price ranking. 60/- (Shilling) was also known as “light” and often came in under 3.5% ABV. 70/- was also “heavy” and came in around 3.5 to 4%. 80/- was also called “export” and came in around 4-5.5%. And the 90/- was also known as “Wee Heavy” or simply just “Scotch Ale.” Wee Heavies are anything above 6% ABV.

Category 09- Scottish and Irish Ales:

Photo Credit: @Joefoodie Creative Commons

Subcategories: 60/- Light Scottish Ale, 70/- Heavy Scottish Ale, 80/- Export Scottish Ale, Irish Red, 90/- Wee Heavy Scotch Ales

Aroma: Low to medium roasted maltiness with some in kettle caramelization. Wee Heavies will have a deep and strong malt nose with rich caramel notes. Irish reds will have low maltiness light caramel or buttery notes. Low to no hoppiness present for any style. Scottish ales may have an earthy, smoky peat moss nose from malt or spicing. Wee Heavies may have a slight boozy front end.

Appearance: Scottish ales will be deep amber to light copper. Wee Heavies will lean darker brown with ruby highlights. Irish reds will be dark amber to deep copper with ruby red highlights. Quite clear with a low, creamy off-white head that fades quickly. Wee Heavies will have a larger, bloomy tan head that persists. Some larger versions may even have strong legs.

Flavor: Scottish ales will be malt forward but the malt will not be too strong. Some caramelized sugar from the in-kettle boil will help brighten the sweetness. Light to no hop notes. Some fruity esters and peat smoke can be present. Irish reds will have a moderate caramel front. Mid-palate will have some toffee or buttered toast quality. Some English or Irish hops can be present for bittering but generally there is no flavoring or aroma hops. Flavor should be very dry and clean. Wee Heavies are richly malted. With big caramel and some nuttiness. Hop flavors should be low to none. This is a beer definitely balanced toward malt. Some smoke, dried purple fruit (raisins and prunes) are acceptable. While sweet, it should finish clean without any cloying stickiness on the back end.

Mouthfeel: Generally medium to medium-low body. Wee Heavies will be big, chewy and viscous. Some diacytl will cause a silky, smooth, slick feeling in all of these beers. Irish reds may have a warming alcohol finish. All should be very dry on the back end.

Ingredients: Malts from UK (Scottish, English, Irish) with some specialty malts to add color and flavor. Smoke flavor often comes from yeast but sometimes comes from smoked malt or, rarely, an addition of peat moss. Irish and English hops are common. Noble and American hops rare if ever used.

Technical Notes:
Original Gravity:
Final Gravity: 1.010-1.056
SRM (Malt Color): 9-25
IBUs: 9-17
ABV: 2.5-10% (See Classification System Above) 4.0-6.0% for Irish Red Ales

Commercial Examples:
60/- Light:
Belhaven 60/-, McEwan’s 60/-, Maclay 60/- Light (all are cask-only products not exported to the US)
70/- Heavy: Caledonian 70/- (Caledonian Amber Ale in the US), Belhaven 70/-, Orkney Raven Ale, Maclay 70/-, Tennents Special, Broughton Greenmantle Ale
80/- Export:
Orkney Dark Island, Caledonian 80/- Export Ale, Belhaven 80/- (Belhaven Scottish Ale in the US), Southampton 80 Shilling, Broughton Exciseman’s 80/-, Belhaven St. Andrews Ale, McEwan’s Export (IPA), Inveralmond Lia Fail, Broughton Merlin’s Ale, Arran Dark
Irish Red: Three Floyds Brian Boru Old Irish Ale, Great Lakes Conway’s Irish Ale (a bit strong at 6.5%), Kilkenny Irish Beer, O’Hara’s Irish Red Ale, Smithwick’s Irish Ale, Beamish Red Ale, Caffrey’s Irish Ale, Goose Island Kilgubbin Red Ale, Murphy’s Irish Red (lager), Boulevard Irish Ale, Harpoon Hibernian Ale
90/- Wee Heavy Scotch Ale: Traquair House Ale, Belhaven Wee Heavy, McEwan’s Scotch Ale, Founders Dirty Bastard, MacAndrew’s Scotch Ale, AleSmith Wee Heavy, Orkney Skull Splitter, Inveralmond Black Friar, Broughton Old Jock, Gordon Highland Scotch Ale, Dragonmead Under the Kilt




3 responses

2 03 2010

This is very illuminating. I have been reflecting on my opportunities missed when I was in London (I was not a beer drinker then).

Guess I will have to go back!

3 03 2010
Hop Head

I love the history, demographics and story behind the brew, thanks. A Scotch Ale was my first home brew. It turned out pretty good for a first time homebrewer (extract). As I found out how much time and work was involved in the entire process: brewing, fermenting, bottling and clean up, I made all of my brews high gravity.

4 03 2010

Great post. I’m really loving the history of how the styles came about due to the products the brewers had on hand.

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