While on the phone for a Podcast with the Commander last week, he noted that there really weren’t a lot of good Scotch Ales on the market these days. I immediately armed for verbal battle before thinking better of it for two reasons:
1. Arguments between the Commander and myself are utterly pointless. It’s the classic case of an ignorant object versus an imbecilic force. No one wins. Everyone loses. We’re all dumber for having participated.
2. I actually kind of agree with him.
Let me start by saying that I thoroughly enjoy Scotch Ales…in theory.*
*In theory, Communism works. In “theory”.
But in reality, I don’t tend to stock my fridge with too many representations of the style because I simply don’t like most of them. The Aleheads mixed review of Magnus’s namesake beer, the Orkney Skullsplitter, is a perfect example. One of the most heralded Scotch Ales on Earth…and most of us were indifferent to it.
Scotch Ales were, you’ll be shocked to find out, developed in Scotland. They fall squarely into the “malty” side of the malt/hop spectrum and they generally have full bodies and sweet (and sometimes smoky) flavors with minimal hop profiles. The distinct caramel aroma and flavor of Scotch Ales are due mostly to the boiling process. They go through a long boil which creates a low attenuated beer (ie: higher levels of unfermented sugars). More unfermented sugars means more sweetness and caramel on your tastebuds…just like Old Ales and Barleywines. But don’t worry about Scotch Ales being low-octane…like those other styles, there are still PLENTY of fermentable sugars available for the yeast to consume.
In fact, what Americans refer to as Scotch Ales are some of the stronger brews in the beer world. In the 19th century, Scotland developed a “shilling system” where stronger, “better” beers cost more money. Light beer (under 3.5% abv) cost 60 shillings. Heavy beer (between 3.5-4%) cost 70 shillings. Export (between 4-6%) cost 80 shillings. And Wee Heavies/Scotch Ales (over 6%) cost 90 shillings.
Today, those categories are obsolete and we generally think of Scottish beer as falling into two categories: Scottish Ales and Scotch Ales (still referred to as Wee Heavies by many). While both have similar flavor profiles, Scotch Ales are bigger and stronger than their easier-drinking little brother, the Scottish Ale (think Imperial IPAs versus IPAs). While there’s no definitive dividing line, I tend to think of Scotch Ales as being 7% ABV or stronger. Anything below that I consider a Scottish Ale.
As I set about to develop a Top Ten American Scotch Ales list, I was at a bit of a loss. Besides the fact that there aren’t a lot of great Scotch Ales on the market…I’m also limiting myself to American versions of a style made famous elsewhere. It’s like trying to come up with a Top Ten list of American versions of Finnish Sahti. There just aren’t that many.*
*Just one, actually…Dogfish Head’s Sah’tea. It sucks donkey balls.
Well, that’s not really fair. There are plenty of American Scotch Ales. But of all the beer styles we’ve written Top Ten lists for, this is definitely the one that is most hampered by the Aleheads’ American jingoism. Whatever…it’s too late to change the rules now, so I’m just rolling with it. Doc will tackle a Top Ten American Scottish Ales list in the near future, but for now, I welcome you to…
BROTHER BARLEY’S TOP TEN AMERICAN SCOTCH ALES
10. Smuttynose Scotch Style Ale: I was going to start this list with a Terrapin brew (either the 90 Shelling or last year’s delicious Reunion 2010…a Belgo-Scotch Ale). But I’ve been pimping Terrapin a little too hard lately and both of those offerings were one-offs. So instead I’m returning to my New England roots with a rock-solid offering from Smuttynose. Their Scotch Ale, part of their “Big Beer” series is a classic example of the style. It’s not particular complex nor does it really separate itself from the pack. But if you’re looking for a sweet, malty, drinkable brew with enough booze to keep you warm in the cold, winter months, Smutty’s version of a Wee Heavy is perfect.
9. Great Divide Claymore: Great Divide tends to nail every style and the Claymore is no exception. It’s certainly not the best brew from the good folks in Denver, but it’s a serviceable beer that does the style proud.*
*Now you can see why the Commander complained about a lack of great Scotch Ales on the market. We’re two beers into a Top Ten list and neither brew is a world-beater.
8. Moylan’s Kilt-Lifter: Same basic complaints about the Kilt-Lifter as I had with the Claymore and Smutty Scotch Ale. It’s tasty, but not that notable. I give the Moylan’s brew a nod over the other two because it’s silky smooth and highly drinkable. A definite session brew and a nice counter-point to the face-melting Moylan’s Hopsickle.
7. Duck-Rabbit Wee Heavy: Now we’re getting into the good stuff. Duck-Rabbit calls themselves the “dark beer specialists” and their Wee Heavy doesn’t put a dent in that description. It’s much more complex and interesting than #8-10 and it’s one of those beers that gets better and better as it warms in the glass. A definite lack of smoke and peat keeps this brew in the bottom half of the list, but it’s still one of the best Scotch Ales out there. If you find yourself in or around North Carolina, grab a few of these brews. You won’t regret it.
6. Sprecher Piper’s Scotch-Style Ale: Finally a brew with a little bit of smoke. The Sprecher Piper’s has a nice, rich, full mouthfeel and a lovely wash of peatiness throughout the sip. If you don’t know Sprecher, their brews are worth exploring. They’re probably most famous for their root beer…but Aleheads have learned to enjoy their alcoholic offerings as well. Sprecher was founded in 1985 by a former Pabst brewer named Randal Sprecher who, presumably, got tired of making horsepiss-flavored beer for hipsters. With just $40K, he got his tiny brewery off the ground with used and antiquated equipment. Today, Sprecher is one of the more popular breweries in the Milwaukee area and their Piper’s Scotch-Style Ale and Black Bavarian Schwarzbier are two of the best representations of their respective styles in the American craft beer market.
5. Oskar Blues Old Chub: Despite my predilection for the Gordon and Ten FIDY, the Old Chub was actually the first Oskar Blues brew I ever sunk my teeth into. It’s as drinkable and smooth as the Kilt-Lifter, but thanks to a generous helping of beechwood-smoked malt, it has that crucial peatiness that most Scotch Ale-lovers look for. Also, it comes in a can which you can smash on your forehead when you’re finished (which is what I assume a Scotsman would do with it).
4. Hoppin’ Frog Outta Kilter: I’m violating all of the earlier rules I just discussed with this one since it has no smoke, very little complexity, and is lighter on the palate than most Scotch Ales. So why is it #5? Because it’s just a delicious beer. That’s the problem with one-man Top Ten lists. When they’re based on personal tastes rather than how well they achieve the style, you’re going to have some outliers. I’m not sure the Outta Kilter would win any awards in a Scotch Ale tasting category…but in the McHops Monastery, it’s a blue-ribbon winner. It’s also Wifey’s favorite brew on this list.
3. AleSmith Wee Heavy: When I made my list of Top Ten Breweries a few months back, AleSmith was on the bubble and didn’t make the cut. Since then, I’ve tried to sample as many of their offerings as I could get my hands on. If I was writing that list today, AleSmith would be in my Top Five…and they might even knock Russian River out of the #3 spot. That’s how good all of their beers are. I haven’t tasted a single beer they’ve made that didn’t bowl me over. Their Wee Heavy is about as good as it gets…it hits all of the right notes in perfect balance and despite the high ABV it’s incredibly smooth with an easy finish.
2. Highland Tasgall: Another North Carolina brewery, Highland has been churning out quality beverages since 1994. They’ve become one of my favorite Southern breweries and, like Duck-Rabbit, they seem to take special care in crafting their dark beers. Their Oatmeal Porter, Cold Mountain Winter Ale, and Black Mocha Stout are all exquisite and their Tasgall is one of the best Scotch Ales available. Like the Outta Kilter, it’s just a damn tasty beverage but unlike the Hoppin’ Frog brew, the Tasgall has a definite hint of peat and just enough bitterness to keep it well-balanced and dangerously drinkable.
1. Founders Dirty Bastard: I mentioned that AleSmith has quickly become one of my favorite American ale factories, but it’s still a notch or two below Founders in my book. Founders has had a few versions of their renowned Scotch Ale including the bourbon-aged Backwoods Bastard and maple-infused Slappy Sappy Bastard. While I love the former (haven’t had the latter…a one-off at the brewery), the standard Dirty Bastard is just about the best Scotch Ale you’ll ever drink. Uber-complex, sweet, smoky, fruity, and spicy…the Dirty Bastard effortlessly combines various elements into one flawless whole. If you don’t think you like Scotch ales, grab a bottle of the Bastard and prepare to have your mind changed forever.
So stoke the fire, grab a Scotch Ale, sit back, and let the malty, smoky sweetness wash over you. In the words of Magnus, “Lang may yer lum reek.”