I have been researching Scottish Ales since my brother and I decided to brew one during our last bottling session. I am excited about brewing one, as officially, we never have brewed a Scottish Ale before, but more so, the suggestion to brew the Scottish Ale came after my brother commented that he was thinking that he wanted to brew one, but didn't know what a Scottish Ale was. I suggested to him that he buy some examples of the style and see what he likes. I suggested that he try Laughing Lab from Bristol (Colorado Springs), and Claymore from Great Divide (Denver), but also that he try Redhook ESB (Washington State) for a contrast.
Low and behold! He actually listened to me. This is a big deal as brothers don't readily listen to each other's advice. His response: "Laughing Lab is a Scottish Ale? I love Laughing Lab." Bristol is an excellent brewery. Once a long time ago, my brother and I played hockey with one of the brewers there, and while drinking Bristol's beers remind me of that, this story isn't about that. My brother and I have been talking a lot about beer styles lately. He has had an interest in expanding his knowledge about different beer styles and the beers he has been tasting and making. Until now, he had stuck to the beers that he knows he likes, but often didn't know if he liked a beer until he tasted it....it turns out he loves Scottish Ales and also enjoyed the ESB from Redhook.
To me, beer styles help a beer drinker make good choices about the beer he chooses to drink. In my case, it helps me choose a beer that suits my mood (since I like so many different styles of beer). The first level of beer classification for most is by color. I speak about my friend who often drinks Michelob Ultra or Bud Light. He thinks he doesn't like dark beers, and mostly sticks to this as a base in his choices (for multiple reasons). Ten years ago, he would barely try anything but light beer. I attribute both of these actions to not liking Guinness (or Stout in general) or when American brewers starked doing "Dark" Lagers. I understand, I don't particularly enjoy Guinness Stout (or Darks), myself (and to a lesser extent most Irish or Dry Stouts), but admit to loving a number of Porters, Sweeter (or Milk) Stouts, Schwartzbiers (Black Beers), and other dark ales and lagers. I started him out with a refreshing Raspberry Wheat (I forget whose) and moved him into liking many of my reds and ambers. The truth is, he doesn't like sour or highly bitter or the burnt roast taste of many dark beers (Pale Ales, Bitters, American Style anything, most Belgian and French styles, are out), and who can blame him. But he might like a Northern English Brown Ales, Irish Reds, some American (or Colorado) Ambers (the starter beers), some varieties of German Lagers and Ales (Kolsch, Pils, perhaps Vienna, Oktoberfest (maybe), Bock or Helles Bock), and American or Bavarian Wheat (not Berliner). He might learn to like select Porters or Stouts (but this may take to the end of my life). He might even like a Scottish Ale.
Scottish Ale is everything I really like about beer. For the longest time, when people asked me what my favorite style of beer is, I have been saying Brown Ales, but I think that my tastes for fuller bodied, malty beers has shifted to the stronger (in ABV and flavor) Scots. The truth is, the English Brown Ale has a lot in common with its neighbors to the North. Both beers live in the beer continuum I like to call the Malty Middle. They are beers that are more tilted toward displaying the malt (malted barley) taste (bready, grainy, perhaps sweet) rather than the hops. Hops are used as a spice rather than a base ingredient in these beers, balancing the sweetness of the malt (think of the other use for malt in malted milkshakes). Scottish Ales can come in varying strengths (mostly Alcohol content, but also flavor) and were traditionally classified by the amount of tax or costs (60, 70, 80, 120 Shilling). The strongest of the Scottish Ales (perhaps 120 Shilling) are simply referred to as Scotch Ale (rather than Scottish) or Wee Heavy. Don't ask me the Etymology of the Wee Heavy moniker, I haven't gotten that far, yet (but I like it). Scottish Ales (collectively) are known for their full body, carmelization (color, taste, and smell), lower hop bitterness and almost no hop flavor or aroma. Once you say it like that, there is not much difference between a 60 or 70 Shilling and a Newcastle Brown Ale (Northern Brown), a Mild Ale (often a brown is just a bottled Mild), or an Irish Ale. All these styles I have (somewhat unsuccessfully, I might add) been chasing in my brewery. Scottish Ale may often have a slightly smoky or peat smoked flavor, but most are made without peated or smoked malt. Peated malt is often used for Scotch Whiskey, but different types of barley grown and made in different regions of Scotland so that it is not likely used in traditional recipes. Ironically, hops do not grow well in Scotland, so had to be imported from England or elsewhere (not traditionally were the Scots and the English friendly back in the day) and used sparingly. Traditional Scottish brewing methods called for an extremely high mashing temperature (155 to 158F), which quickly converts starches to sugars that are more complex (dextrinous) and not as easily converted to alcohol, lending a fuller body (more viscous) and sweeter taste (this is the mouth feel that people often talk about). Lastly, although an ale, the temperatures of fermentation are on the lower range and the attenuation (how much sugar is consumed by yeast) is in the medium range for an ale yeast.
So, my recipe wanting to be somewhat true to style, will have plenty of color, for which I will opt to use crystal malt rather than carmelization via boiling kettle (reduction of a portion of wort until the sugars carmelize.), a traditional Irish or Scottish ale yeast, and a high temperature mash and a lower temperature fermentation. The questions remain whether to use a smoked or peat smoked malt and what relative strength. I have never used any peated or smoked malt. I understand it can be easily overdone (and many people hate that), but I am inclined to use a little (I am tending toward peat smoked for no other reason than wanting the earthiness) to try it for a little differentiation. I am leaning toward a mid to full strength (70 or 80 shilling) rather than a full on Wee Heavy. We can call it a nearly almost Wee Heavy. Laughing Lab is 5.3% ABV, while Claymore (Wee Heavy) clocks in at 7%. I am leaning in the 5% range for two reasons. First, it is warming up, but spring time is a good time for a full body beer with a little kick. Secondly, ironically, my Holiday beer is more like a Scottish Wee Heavy with Oak flavor, aging, and a 7% ABV. So, my Wee Heavy will someday base off that recipe (someday, perhaps fall when my Holiday runs out)
Another thing my brother recently said: "The more I drink our Holiday beer, the more I like it". I agree, I have been craving it. He didn't know he already has a Wee Heavy in his private reserve. Brewing is next weekend, if we can find a time that works for us.