Of Sparging and Clarity

In my own journey through the beer world, the 80 Shilling (historic cost per barrel) Scottish Ale became one of the first on my (now very long) list of favorite kinds of beers.

Scotch Ale, also known as Wee Heavy, 160 Shillings, and Edinburgh Ale, has a depth of history that rivals its depth of flavor. Part of the fervor of the 19th century saw the development of beers we know and love today. In the 1840s, beers such as the Oktoberfest Märzen, Vienna Lager, and Pilsner debuted, and the India Pale Ale was in its infancy. While the Wee Heavy was perhaps better refined in the 19th century, especially following the introduction of the thermometer and hydrometer to brewing methods towards the end of the 1700s, its fame had already been well established for centuries. Then I discovered the 160 Shilling Wee Heavy. It is beautifully red in color; it has a surpassingly rich caramel character; it is sweet and malty but also clean and complex.

In 1848, as stated by W.H. Roberts in The Scottish Ale-Brewer and Practical Maltster (p. 41), “the Scotch ales have justly acquired celebrity for their delicacy of colour.” Scottish brewer-maltsters were renowned for producing strong, malty ales prized for their crystalline clarity. Lacking today’s filtration methods, Scottish brewers achieved such translucence through sparging techniques, careful testing and monitoring of mash temperatures, as well as meticulous yeast management and fermentation procedures. Like in Bavaria, Scottish brewers preferred to brew in the cold season to maintain a longer and cooler ferment. Supported by many years of systematic testing and refining of brewing techniques, Scottish brewers firmly imprinted Scotch Ale upon the longue durée of beer history.

Of Thistles and Toads

The lovely Wee Heavy is more than just a pretty face. Scotch Ales have an intense depth of caramel, malty sweetness originating in caramel malts, obviously, but also from an intense kettle boil that further caramelizes the sugars extracted during the mash. Scotch Ales are not known for their hoppy characteristics, but there are enough hops slightly to counterbalance the full malt profile. Wee Heavy’s caramel sweetness is also balanced by a faint heat derived from ethanol and propanol alcohols that hit the nose more subtly than, and reminiscent of, Scotch whisky. The final product is wholly complex, malty, and warming.

All of this means that Scotch Ales stand up really nicely to desserts and to rich, stick-to-your-gut feasts. What can more beautifully pair with a big, bold, caramel-rich beer, than something rich, sweet, and full of apples? An apple pie, perhaps? Maybe, even, just an apple itself. And yet, the Wee Heavy is an occasion of itself, and therefore needs no pairing.

All the same, if you are curious about what foods might not get trumped by Scotch Ale’s intensity, try some classic British favorites or favourites, even. They are often full of rich and meaty flavors, tend to have a bready element, and frequently, they also have a subtly sweet component, which makes them perfect pairing candidates. For example, Toad-in-the-hole – a dish in which sausages (try a Surry or Banger) bathe in a Yorkshire pudding pillow – is a stellar option to enjoy with a Wee Heavy. The pork and herbs in the sausage are savory compliments to the complexity and depth in the Scotch Ale, and a caramelized onion gravy and Yorkshire pudding base – created with the sausage drippings – bridges the gap between sweet and savory. Try either (or both!) Delia Smith and Jamie Oliver’s excellent Toad-in-the-Hole recipes.

Keep an open mind for Haggis too. The oat-filled, iron-rich offerings of this deconstructed-sausage-like dish compliment the malty sweetness of Scotch Ale and temper it with spices and a slight metallic tang. With a lamb and mint dish, the strong and unique flavors of a fat-rich chunk of lamb play with the malty complexity of the Wee Heavy, while the bitter, cooling, and pepper-like attributes of a mint-based pesto balance both the sweet and heavy qualities of the lamb and beer. While Scotch Ale might overpower the usual poultry options, it would pair excellently with the dark, succulent meat of a roasted goose. In other words, find something with a lot of oomph, flavor, fat, salt, and a hint of sweetness to play with the caramel, malty, full-bodied and warm characteristics of a Wee Heavy, and you’ll be well satisfied.

Or just pair it with a thistle-shaped glass.


Katie Cooper


This blog entry refers to the following sources:

Beer Judge Certification Program, Inc. “Category 9 – Scottish and Irish Ales.” 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines. Beer Judge Certification Program, Inc. website, <http://www.bjcp.org/2008styles/style09.php#1e>. 2014.

Noonan, Greg. Scotch Ale. Classic Beer Style (Book 8). Brewers Publications, Boulder, 1998.

Roberts, W.H. The Scottish Ale-Brewer and Practical Maltster. A. and C. Black, Whittaker & Co., London, 1848.