Burns Night is a celebration of the life and work of Robert Burns, Scotland’s most revered poet. For this year’s festivities, we’re going to guide you through some of our favourite Scottish beer styles and how they came to be. Let’s start at the beginning..
Brewing is thought to have taken place in Scotland for at least 5000 years, drawing a large influence from Pictish and Northern European tribes, who practiced farmhouse brewing techniques with foraged ingredients.
One style of brew believed to have been mastered by the Picts was Heather Ale. As it sounds, this quintessential Scottish style has been brewed for centuries with the flowering tips of purple heather plants. Heather is just one foragable that hunter-gatherers would have used in place of hops, which are a relatively modern adjunct in British brewing. Instead of hops (which were not widely cultivated in the UK until the fifteenth century), many fruits, spices and herbs were infused in British ale – to balance out the sweet, caramel flavours of the malted brew.
Heather Ale was brewed with other adjuncts, such as bog myrtle, which complimented the drink, the main ingredient however was heather. The unique fragrance imparted by the heather proved a hit and historic recipes for the brew have been passed through Scottish families ever since. Today, heather ale is considered to be one of Britain’s most ancient beer styles.
Although hops have now displaced other adjuncts in the brew due to their impressive antibacterial properties (keeping beer fresher for longer), the flame for Heather Ale is kept alight thanks to the dedicated work of a few Scottish brewers.
Williams Brothers Brewery is the chief guardian of the style, producing its’ Fraoch Ale (Leann Fraoch being Gaelic for ‘Heather Ale’) for commercial consumption since 1992. Williams Bros use an old family recipe that has been passed down ten generations or more.
You’ll be pleased to know that, in life’s cyclical fashion, craft breweries are adopting ancient techniques and recipes to bring vibrancy to their portfolios. Fresh, delicious interpretations of Heather Ale are now brewed the world over!
As can be observed, the Scots have never let a lack of hop-growing regions affect a quality brew. Scottish barley crops are celebrated worldwide for their pedigree, it is for this reason that many a Scottish brewer has pivoted to producing malt-forward beers. These robust national styles are rich in body with an amazing depth of flavour – truly luscious!
One example of an amazing, malt-forward Scottish style is the ‘Wee Heavy’. Wee Heavy is named as such because it was traditionally packaged in smaller bottles, more suitable for the enjoyment of a strong beer. As the strongest of a brewer’s batch (partigyle), Wee Heavy can range anywhere from 7% to 11% or more!
To ‘partigyle’ is the practice of brewing one large stock of wort (brewing terminology for unfermented beer), to be split down in to three or four seperate ales, the strongest receiving the most fermentable portion of wort, the weakest receiving the least.
As the first runnings of the mash (the process in which malted barley is mixed with hot brewing water), the first brew in a partigyle would contain the most fermentable sugars and would therefore finish at a strength in the ‘Wee Heavy’ range. Wee Heavy was a premium product enjoying a long boil in the kettle, caramelising the beer to give it a sweet, slick mouthfeel.
As beer is taxed on ABV, the Wee Heavy regularly featured as the most expensive beer on the bar. In a world of ’60’, ’70’ or ’80 shilling’ beers (denoting the duty invoiced to the brewer per cask), Wee Heavy would often sit in the higher 90 shilling bracket, making it the most costly for the brewer to produce.
As one of the final runnings in a partigyle brew, the 40, 50 or 60 shilling ales would have been the weakest (and cheapest) on the bar, meaning it was affordable and sessionable for any drinker. Due to the incredible consumption of these ales, the shilling system of naming beers has now outlived the denomination of currency itself!
With Shilling Ale, Heather Ale and Wee Heavy still produced and consumed to this day, it is easy to see a Scottish influence on the wider beer world.
Despite their celebration of low-hopped beer styles, Scottish brewers became a key exporter of IPA to the British Empire. These brewers capitalised on the mineral rich waters of Edinburgh, much the same as English brewers had done in Burton-on-Trent. These waters, flush with sulphates, yielded a crisp palette in pale styles, enhancing hoppy brews such as IPA. With huge demand and gargantuan exports of India Pale Ale, the Scots had proved once again that they could master any brew they set their minds to.
Here’s to Scottish beer in all its’ embodiments, a drink legendary enough to join haggis and whisky at the perfect Burns Night tabletop!
BEERS PICTURED: ‘Heather Honey’ and Wee Heavy Ale from Brewdog (Ellon, Aberdeenshire), ‘Froah’ Heather Ale from William Bros. Brewing (Alloa, Clackmannanshire)