Craft beer consumers still go gung-ho over IPAs. According to Untappd’s 2023 Year in Beer review, hop-forward beers had more than twenty-three million check-ins above the second most checked-in style, stout. Despite the desire for hoppy beers, malty styles still deserve to be in the conversation, including those we’ve covered like imperial stouts and pastry stouts. Another more traditional malt-forward beer worth exploring is the Scotch ale, a version of the English-style barley wine sometimes referred to as a wee heavy ale.
While not a sexy style in the U.S., some major breweries include them in their lineups. We chatted with Central Waters Brewing, Revolution Brewing, and Founders Brewing to explain why this old-world brew still has appeal.
(Above photography courtesy of @foundersbrewing)
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How Do the Experts Define Scotch Ale?
Founders Brewmaster Jeremy Kosmicki says Scotch ale is one hundred percent about the malt.
“It leans so heavily into those malt characters, which sets it apart from most other beer styles,” says Kosmicki, who notes the brewery’s Scotch ale Dirty Bastard used to be its flagship.
Because it veers more sweet than bitter, many craft beer drinkers would have a Scotch ale like Dirty Bastard as their first, Kosmicki says.
“It’s the gateway to craft beer to many people,” he says.
Central Waters Head Brewer Mitch Spoerl takes it a step further than Kosmicki.
“My ideal version of a Scotch ale is a beer that showcases quality malt,” Spoerl says. “I look for a nice balance between fruity and roasty in my Scotch ales with a fair amount of heat coming from it.”
He adds, “It should have a deep amber hue to it and not be too heavy on the tongue so that having more than one isn’t out of the question for most beer drinkers.”
Revolution Brewing Head Brewer Jim Cibak admits that Scotch ale is “really not traditionally a sexy style of beer.” “It’s a shame because they are beautiful, well-balanced beers with malt character.”
Cibak notes that the traditional ways of making a Scotch ale weren’t all that elaborate with the grain bill, opting to do lengthy boils for caramelization and increasing the gravity of the wort. Brewers went away from that but have since revisited older methods.
“Nowadays, people are going back to go to traditional-produced styles of beers,” Cibak says. “It’s pure and awesome. It’s just materials and process.”
How Strong Is the Scotch Ale Market?
Cibak and Revolution Barrel Program Manager Marty Scott concede that the style might be fading, but they will try like hell to keep it kicking.
Scott points out that if Revolution did a non-barrel-aged Scotch ale tomorrow, somewhere from thirty percent to sixty percent of the people who try it would have the style for the first time.
“We’ve got an obligation to keep some of these styles alive. If we don’t do it, it will die,” Scott says. “We can’t make a lot of it, but we enjoy making a little bit; a little bit of everything will sell if it’s good and solid.”
He adds, “It’s a style that deserves to be continued to be made.”
Cibak says that the market has shifted away from malt-heavy styles like Scotch ale to the hoppier stuff. That said, there is still a demand.
“There are always true enthusiasts that will drink this,” Cibak says. “If we don’t brew this, styles like this fall further out of favor.”
Cibak’s hope: “If I can live to see Revolution pouring a Scotch ale at Wrigley Field, that would be great. … I don’t think I’ll live to see that.”
Kosmicki says that if you’re a brewery that has been around a long time and making Scotch ale for a while, you can continue to make it, and it will sell.
“I haven’t seen any new ones come to market. It’s hard to get any traction in the market if it’s not an IPA,” Kosmicki says.
Kosmicki has a similar hope for Scotch ales as Cibak.
“I would love to see things go full circle and see old styles come back,” he says. “Off the bat, it can be that gateway beer—the sweetness. I think what people like in modern IPAs and hazies is that residual sweetness. [Scotch ale] is just not very sexy. … How do you market it?”
Central Waters used to do a regular Scotch ale every winter along with a yearly release of a barrel-aged version, but now they only do the barrel-aged version biennially.
“The people that love it, LOVE IT,” Spoerl says. “But the trick, for us, is to properly gauge that demand several years ahead of time. So, in that regard, I suggest managing your expectations for your sales numbers.”
He adds, “Start small, and if there is demand for it, then increase your production in incremental amounts before you stomp on the gas.”
What Are the Top Considerations for Scotch Ale?
“Scotch ale is one of those quintessential malt-showcase beers,” Spoerl says. “Malt is the key. I would say it is the first priority when considering how to make a quality Scotch ale.”
Kosmicki agrees that the key is the malts, specifically getting a hold of good U.K.-made crystal malts.
“They are fantastic crystal malts. They almost have a candy sweetness,” Kosmicki says. “Then go big on your gravity, and with all that caramel malt, it lends itself to pleasant sweetness.”
He notes that the beer, especially in American craft beer circles, can withstand a heavy hopload because of the ample malt sweetness.
“I don’t think people from Scotland would find it all that authentic, though,” he says.
Spoerl says it’s also essential to be true to you as a brewer, but don’t abandon traditional style guidelines. Remember, you are catering to a niche consumer.
“Consistent Scotch ale drinkers are a rare breed, and they can be very particular when it comes to their beverage of choice,” he says. “I feel this style is more about appeasing the old guard of the craft beer scene rather than trying to appeal to newer or fringe craft drinkers.”
While the data doesn’t show younger drinkers interested in Scotch ale, Spoerl notes that the newer generation of craft beer lovers could appreciate the style.
And something like barrel-aging could help make Scotch ales more relevant, bridging the gap to a lesser-known style with a popular technique.
Cibak says that when Revolution creates a Scotch ale, the brewery intends to put the beer in barrels. He points to using some smoked malt for complexity, caramel, Victory, and crystal malts, and then some roasted malts for color.
“And when you put a beer like that in a barrel when it comes out, it’s a beautiful thing,” Cibak says.
Cibak notes that bitterness is something to consider when making a Scotch ale, and you should hold this characteristic in check.
“Hop character shouldn’t be too high. Nowadays, people want to incorporate American hops, but it would bum me out,” he says. “Be traditional on the hop and showcase the malt.”
To achieve that, Cibak says to boil the heck out of the wort to caramelize the sugars and intensify the flavors.
What Is a Typical Grist Bill for a Scotch Ale?
“It should be primarily two-row, obviously, followed by a large addition of heavily roasted caramel and kilned malts, and then topped off with some chocolate or roasted malt,” Spoerl says. “And then optionally, you can give it a kiss of smoke to enhance the drinking experience.”
Spoerl says Central Waters takes that grist and does a single-infusion mash at slightly low temperatures for the style, resting at 152 degrees Fahrenheit.
Revolution goes with a single-infusion mash of 156 degrees Fahrenheit, which Cibak says gives the beer a nice balance of dextrin in the finished product to create a full-bodied beer while still hitting its desired ABV.
“We use pale ale malt as the base and layer in small portions of Cara Munich and dark crystal malt along with ten percent beechwood smoked malt,” Cibak says. “We also like to use a combination of roasted barley and chocolate malt to help bring up the color and add malt complexity.”
That, plus the three-hour boil, helps get Revolution where they want with the beer.
“Hitting a sweet spot of maltiness without overdoing it for a Scotch ale can be a bit tricky,” Cibak says. “You don’t want the beer to be cloyingly sweet, but you also don’t want it to lack depth of malt complexity and body.”
Kosmicki says that Founders puts twenty percent crystal malts in the Scotch ale grist.
“That seems ridiculous to put that much in a beer,” he says. “But using a dark, medium, and light split gives you a nice spectrum.”
They finish the grist with about eight percent aromatic malt, then two-row, and target twenty Plato.
“We mash at higher temperatures, around 154 degrees Fahrenheit,” he says. “Modern malts and modifications do a good job of fermenting down. I lean on higher to retain sweetness.”
Are Peat Aroma and Flavor Worth it in Scotch Ale?
Where would you lean if that smoky or peaty element is not imperative and up to the brewer? For Spoerl, he likes it.
“I would almost argue it’s essential for the style,” he says. “However, use a restrained approach when it comes to smoked malts. The smoky character should be in the background and almost undetectable until the second or third sip. This is by no means a smoked beer.”
Cibak, as referenced above, says Revolution uses beechwood smoked malt—either Weyermann or Best.
“This lends a very subtle underlying smoke character that adds to the overall malt complexity of the beer,” he says. “We are not big fans of peat-smoked malt.”
Kosmicki says it can add a fun dimension if it is subtle and done well, but he prefers without.
“When I took out the peaty flavor, I liked the beer better,” he says. “A little goes a long way. I prefer it without.”
Hops Aren’t That Big of a Deal in Scotch Ales, Right?
“We are definitely using hops sparingly in this particular beer style,” Cibak says.
Revolution adds hops for ninety minutes at the tail end of the three-hour boil, using Magnum for bittering.
“Then, in the whirlpool, we like to use Crystal,” Cibak says. “We are targeting twenty-eight to thirty IBUs in this beer prior to going into the barrel for one to two years. With time and oxygen introduced through the barrel, we see the IBU level drop down to fifteen to twenty IBUs.”
Cibak points out that one thing to remember is that your hop utilization in high gravity wort is about fifty percent of what you calculate on paper.
Kosmicki says they do a bittering strike with Nugget for about two-thirds to three-quarters of the IBUs.
“Then a thirty-minute charge for some IBUs, some flavor, and minor aromatics,” Kosmicki says. “But aromatics are not what you’re looking for.”
Spoerl says they do pretty standard hop additions.
“A majority of our bitterness comes from the first hop addition right at the start of the boil, and then that’s followed with some English hop additions halfway through the boil, and then right at flame out,” he says. “Nothing in the whirlpool or the fermenter. You want to keep the hop profile pretty subdued.”
Three Examples of a Great Scotch Ale
Spoerl notes that Central Waters has only made one Scotch ale, the only difference being whether they barrel age it. The Brewer’s Reserve Bourbon Barrel Scotch Ale is among the highest-rated in the style on Untappd. It is 12% ABV with twenty-nine IBUs.
“The success of that particular beer is entirely due to the malt,” Spoerl says. “We use one-hundred percent Briess Malt, and the results speak for themselves.”
Revolution makes Gravedigger Billy and does barrel-aged releases of the beer each year.
“V.S.O. Gravedigger is the Scotch ale we brewed that I’m the most proud of,” Cibak says. “The malt complexity is extremely high, and the time and care given to this beer both in the cellar pre- and post-barrel make the difference here.”
V.S.O. Gravedigger is 14.9% ABV and comes from Eagle Rare, Elijah Craig, and WhistlePig Rye barrels.
Kosmicki highlights Dirty Bastard as an excellent Scotch ale from Founders. The beer clocks in at 8.5% ABV with about fifty IBUs.
“I like the balance of Dirty. Having that hop load in there that isn’t noticeable but balances it makes it pleasant,” Kosmicki says. “I don’t go for it often, but every time I have it, it’s a really fun beer.”