Scotland is better known for its drams than its pints. Just try naming as many brands of Scotch whisky as you can, immediately followed by naming as many brands of Scottish beer as you can. Yeah, the former is easier than the latter. But that’s not to say Scotland doesn’t have its own unique brewing tradition. Since grains have always flourished in Scotland more than hops, malt has a heavy hand in Scottish-style beers. Of these traditional Scottish-style beers, casual drinkers can break them down into two categories based on strength. But be careful because their names sound very similar. Scottish Ales tend to be lower in ABV, usually below 5 percent, and Scotch Ales are stronger. It’s a somewhat confusing distinction, but as long as you understand that Scottish and Scotch are two different styles, you’ll be ahead of most beer drinkers.
As the strongest of the traditional Scottish-style beers, Scotch Ale – also sometimes considered the same as or included with Wee Heavy beers depending on who you talk to – tends to be the bigger and bolder of the bunch. And since all Scottish-style beers are malt forward, this distinction also can translate into darker (sporting a deep amber to dark brown color) and sweeter drinks. Scotch Ales could be considered the northern equivalent to an English Strong Ale – as in that they are big and bold, but not quite as big and bold as a Barleywine – however, most people would consider Scotch Ales to be even sweeter than an English Strong Ale. Tasting notes you’ll often hear with Scotch Ales are words like toffee, molasses, caramel, and dried fruit.
Interestingly, Scotch Ales (and Scottish beers in general) also occasionally take on a smoky or even distinctly peaty characteristic. Though these notes make sense given the country’s love of Scotch whisky, adding these flavors may be modern brewers’ attempt to give a nod to their own love of the spirit as opposed to something traditionally inherent to the style. As the Brewers Associations puts it, “Though there is little evidence suggesting that traditionally made Strong Scotch Ales exhibited peat smoke character, the current marketplace offers many examples with peat or smoke character present at low to medium levels.” But origins aside, since Scottish styles can be a bit difficult to pin down, you may find that you like the distinctly Scottish feel these flavor additions give to the beers. It certainly makes the brews feel more Scottish.
If you’re interested in trying some Scotch Ales for yourself, look no further than Belhaven – Scotland’s oldest operating brewery: Their Wee Heavy does the style proud. Meanwhile, on American shores, Colorado’s Oskar Blues churns out a fine Scotch Ale by the name of Old Chub as part of the canned brand’s regular year-round offerings. Or consider grabbing Dirty Bastard from Michigan’s Founders Brewing Company, another well regarded and easy to find American Scotch Ale that’s unafraid to play up a bit of peatiness.