Scottish Export: The pale ale of Scotland

Our understanding of Scottish ales seems to be skewed. There is a definite Scottish national beer character, but many people seem to over-exaggerate its qualities. Unless you live in Scotland, you may not be getting the freshest examples, so you might think that age effects are part of the style profile. There are strong Scotch ales that are only distantly related to Scottish ales, yet often get lumped together when discussing styles. And then there is the whole peat-smoked malt misconception — don’t get me started about that one. Combine all of these factors, and you have some pretty shaky ground upon which to base your knowledge about these beers.

Scottish ales are often referred to by their old shilling names, based on their old currency standard. Scottish export is an 80/- (pronounced, “eighty shilling”) beer, a designation that is often still used. The shilling names should be considered historical and not related to modern pricing. The only real use of these names today is to differentiate products from the same brewery by strength.

Scottish export is style 14C in the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Style Guidelines, along with its brethren, Scottish light (or 60/-) and Scottish heavy (or 70/-). Together, these constitute the Scottish Ale style category (Category 14). The flavor profiles of these three styles are similar, but as with English bitters, they are differentiated by alcohol strength. The smallest of the three, Scottish light, is also a bit darker than the others.

Scottish Export History

Scotland is a country in the northern British Isles with a long, proud, and often violent history. Originally inhabited by the Picts, it successfully resisted the advance of the Roman Empire nearly two thousand years ago. With Gaelic and Viking influence, it struggled against English encroachment for centuries (the events of the movie Braveheart take place during this time period). Scotland and England formed Great Britain in 1707 through the Acts of Union and Scotland is currently part of the United Kingdom, although with some degree of autonomy.

So Scots are Scottish, not English, but both are British. The people of Scotland and England have a different background and origin, so it is best not to combine stories about them too closely despite residing on the same island. However, the political union of the two countries did lead to similarities in brewing methods and styles until at least in the late 1800s when brewing was deregulated through the Free Mash Tun Act of 1880. This led to more freedom in choosing ingredients and methods for brewing, while setting taxation based on gravity of the wort.

The shilling ales were unaged beer that were known by their shilling designations when bottled, or as mild ale when on draft.

Geographically, Scotland is divided into the sparsely-populated, mountainous Highlands, and the flatter, more industrial Lowlands. If you draw a 45 degree diagonal through Scotland from Southwest to Northeast, the Highlands are generally the Northwestern half of the country. Historically, much of the brewing industry was located in the Lowlands, with Edinburgh and Alloa being major brewing centers that had major export business. They produced a wide range of beer styles, including IPAs, stouts, strong ales, and shilling ales.

The shilling ales were unaged beers that were known by their shilling designations when bottled, or as mild ale when on draft. This is the old style use of mild that is different from today’s understanding of English dark mild and was to distinguish it from stock or aged products. With increased taxation and other limits imposed by World War I, gravities dropped and products became increasingly hard to distinguish from each other in the market. The shilling ales disappeared but the names were later reused when the modern version of the styles took shape after World War II.

In current form, the Scottish light fills a similar role as dark mild in the English market, although at the lower end of the gravity range. Scottish heavy is similar to an ordinary bitter, while Scottish export is similar to a best bitter or strong bitter. The beers all have a Scottish character to them, which I will explore in the next section as I discuss their sensory profiles. Scottish ales are unrelated to strong Scotch ale (also known as wee heavy), which descended from the strong historical Edinburgh ales, a style more closely related to the Burton ales of England than anything else — another factor influencing the understanding of its flavor profile.

Sensory Profile

There are four main points I’d like to make before we discuss the specifics of this style. First, a Scottish ale is not a baby Scotch ale. Do not expect the same richness, sweetness, body, and depth, especially the strength of caramel flavors. Second, Scottish export is more like a best bitter than you probably expect, particularly in terms of bitterness. Third, imports often show some oxidation, which can exaggerate caramel flavors and mute bitterness. And finally, Scottish beers in general are darker, have more body, have more residual sweetness, and are less hoppy than their English cousins.

A Scottish export can have a fairly wide alcohol range, from 3.9 to 6.0% ABV, but many Scottish examples are in the 4.0 to 4.2% range. Many craft examples produced outside Scotland tend to have higher alcohol content, a phenomenon also seen particularly in U.S. craft versions of other Irish and English styles. The beer is often copper-colored and clear, with an average-sized, off-white head.

The beer is malty, mostly with a caramel and toast flavor, but a range of nutty, toasted bread, and caramelized sugar flavors are possible. A very light roasty or burnt dryness is usually present in the finish, which can be misperceived by some as smoky. This flavor isn’t smoke; it’s a very light level of dark roasted malt or grain.

A light fruitiness is often present, as is a light hop flavor and aroma. These characteristics often fade when the examples are not very fresh, but do enhance the overall impression. The fruitiness is usually apple or pear, and the hops quality is English (floral, earthy, orange, spicy).

The malt and hop qualities are apparent in both the flavor and aroma and the beer itself has moderate to moderately-low bitterness. Examples in Scotland seem to have more apparent bitterness than many non-Scottish craft examples. The balance ranges from somewhat malty to nearly even malt and bitterness. The fermentation character is fairly clean and neutral other than the light fruitiness from esters already mentioned.

The body found in Scottish ales tend to be medium, a fuller mouthfeel than the equivalent English beers of the same strength. Carbonation is restrained, moderate to moderately-low. There may be a slightly dextrinous, chewy quality on the palate, but this impression doesn’t last into the finish. The light roast quality helps dry the finish, and leads to a lightly malty aftertaste.

Brewing Ingredients and Methods

I’ve seen several people try to explain “the” way Scottish ales are made. Good luck; there is a lot of variation between breweries. So, even if some writers offer evidence, check to see if they are using data from only one or two breweries — you can usually find counter-examples quite easily. And that’s fine, as long as you understand the essentials and the points of variation.

At the simplest level, Scottish ales contain mostly pale ale malt, and usually a small percentage of something dark. They may contain a wide range of other ingredients, but this seems very brewery-dependent. The pale malt is usually something British, but not typically the biscuity heirloom Maris Otter variety. Golden Promise, an heirloom Scottish variety, is sometimes used, but most often it is a generic 2-row pale ale malt. Malt varieties change over time as growers and maltsters look for better yield and disease resistance. When I started brewing, you could find varieties like Pipkin, Halcyon, and Optic, but these have largely been supplanted. Pale ale malt is typically 85–92% of the grist.

The “something dark” is black malt, roasted barley, or sometimes chocolate malt, typically between 1 and 3% of the grist. It is primarily for color, but does add a little roasty dryness to the finish. It should not be a dominant flavor. Crystal malts, sugars, and caramel coloring can also affect the color of the finished product. Peat-smoked malt is used in Scotland by distillers, not brewers, so is not found in traditional recipes.

Many examples use crystal malts for some caramel and toffee flavors, but the percentage is often quite low. I’ve seen it used between 2 and 10% of the grist, often in the 3–5% range. Medium to dark crystals are most commonly used, I would suspect between 40 and 90 °Lovibond. Other, lesser-used recipe ingredients include invert sugar (darker colored), maize, and wheat (flaked or torrified). So, adjuncts are clearly fair game in the mix, although remember that pale ale malt does make up the bulk of the recipe so these additional ingredients are generally less than 10% of the recipe. Some historical recipes are simply pale malt, corn, sugar, and caramel coloring.

Scottish brewers tend to use single infusion mashes, often with multiple sparges. Commercial brewers often parti-gyle their beers, producing multiple beers from the same mash. But homebrewers can safely produce beers with a single infusion, often with a higher mash temperature (say, around 152–158 °F or 67–70 °C) to produce a more dextrinous mash.

While I’ve used long boils and kettle caramelization to enhance the malty flavors and colors, these are not traditional methods. Traquair House talks about using a long (three-hour) boil, but this is not a common method used in other breweries. I like the flavors from kettle caramelization in a Scotch ale, but I don’t think it adds much to a Scottish ale. Besides, it sometimes produces buttery flavors mistaken for diacetyl.

I’ve seen several people try to explain ‘the’ way Scottish ales are made. Good luck; there is a lot of variation between breweries.

The hopping level for Scottish export can vary quite a bit, with bitterness in the 22 to 35 range, with many closing in on 30. In a beer with a little over 4% alcohol, this may seem like a lot. It is, but also remember that Scottish ales tend to be less attenuated so have some residual sweetness to balance that bitterness. 30 IBUs won’t seem the same in a Scottish export as they do in a best bitter. English varieties are most commonly used, Golding and Fuggle often for late hopping, and any variety for bittering. I think many U.S. brewers shoot for a lower bitterness level or increase the maltiness and caramel flavors to affect the balance.

Scottish ale yeast is cool-fermenting, albeit not cold like lagers. It’s more like the alt and Kölsch temperatures, around 59 °F or 15 °C. Scottish ale yeast strains are available from multiple suppliers. They are fairly clean, work well at cooler temperatures, clear well, and tend to leave some residual sweetness. If you select a different strain, these are the desirable characteristics to seek. Scottish brewing water is fairly soft, so I would avoid minerally profiles.

Scottish ales are styles where homebrewers love to experiment and build flavor profiles often with non-traditional methods and ingredients. I think that’s a lot of fun and helps when you can’t get the right ingredients, but don’t be fooled into thinking that just because you hit your desired flavor profile that Scottish brewers must also be using these methods and ingredients.

Homebrew Example

I have selected a lower-strength version of this style, very much typical for Scotland, at 4.1% ABV. The bitterness level is 22 IBUs, which is also average, although many American palates may prefer cutting that back to 15 IBUs — I leave that to the brewer as an option.

I love Golden Promise malt, and it makes a very good base malt for all beers Scottish. It has a lightly bready and toasty flavor without being excessively biscuity. Torrified wheat at around 5% of the grist adds some body as well as a flavor like toasted whole wheat bread. I know this can be hard to find, so you could also use flaked wheat or flaked oats as a substitute. A little flavor is OK, but it’s mostly about the body.

Some dark crystal malt (also around 5%) for color and a little bit of caramel and fruit flavors, but not so much as to dominate. A crystal in the 60 to 80 °Lovibond range is fine for this purpose, preferably something British. Finally, adjusting the color using roasted barley, which also gives it a little dryness in the finish. The beer should not taste roasty or porter-like. Black malts could also be used. Note the technique of adding these color grains during the recirculation.

I’m mashing the beer on the high side to encourage dextrin formation and body, so this is mostly about mouthfeel. It also tends to make the beer a little less fermentable, which is also an important part of the flavor profile of Scottish beer.

Fresh Scottish ales often have a moderate, supportive hop flavor, and I like how the floral Golding hops work in this mix. The same hops are used for bitterness as a convenience, but anything British would work.

I have always used Wyeast 1728 (Scottish Ale) in my Scottish recipes, and am happy with it. Fermenting it cool is traditional, and the yeast does work well at this temperature. The recipe lists some possible substitutes, but stick with yeast that are clean and can handle lower temperature fermentations.

This recipe can easily be scaled down to make a Scottish heavy, say at 3.5% ABV, or scaled up to a stronger but still export strength 5.2% beer. Pick the alcohol level you want, and let your recipe software do the work for you to scale it. It’s warm out now, so I prefer to have a few more sessionable options on tap.

Scottish Export by the numbers:

OG: 1.040–1.060
FG: 1.010–1.016
SRM: 12–20
IBU: 15–30
ABV: 3.9–6.0%

Scottish Export

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.042 FG = 1.011
IBU = 22 SRM = 16 ABV = 4.1%

7.75 lbs. (3.5 kg) Golden Promise pale ale malt
8 oz. (227 g) torrified wheat
8 oz. (227 g) dark crystal malt (60–80 °L)
3 oz. (85 g) roasted barley
5 AAU British Golding hops (60 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 5% alpha acids)
0.5 oz. (14 g) British Golding hops (10 min.)
Wyeast 1728 (Scottish Ale), White Labs WLP028 (Edinburgh Scottish Ale), or SafAle S-04 English Ale yeast
2⁄3 cup corn sugar (for priming)

Step by Step
This recipe uses reverse osmosis (RO) water. Adjust all brewing water to a pH of 5.5 using phosphoric acid. Add 1 tsp. of calcium chloride to the mash.

This recipe uses an infusion mash. Use enough water to have a moderately thick mash (1.5 qts./lb. or 3.1 L/kg). Mash in the pale malt and torrified wheat at 158 °F (70 °C) and hold at this temperature for 60 minutes. Add the crystal malt and roasted barley to the mash then stir them in. Begin recirculating the wort and raise the mash temperature to 169 °F (76 °C) either by infusing with boiling water or via recirculating mash system. Recirculate for 15 minutes total. Sparge slowly and collect 6.5 gallons (24.5 L) of wort in the kettle.

Boil the wort for 90 minutes, adding hops at the times indicated in the recipe. After the boil is complete, chill the wort to 59 °F (15 °C), pitch a healthy amount of yeast, aerate well if using a liquid yeast strain, and ferment at this temperature until fermentation is complete. Condition for about one week.

Rack the beer, prime, and bottle condition, or keg and force carbonate to 2.3 volumes of CO2.

Scottish Export

(5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.042 FG = 1.011
IBU = 22 SRM = 16 ABV = 4.1%

5.4 lbs. (2.5 kg) pale liquid malt extract
8 oz. (227 g) dark crystal malt (60–80 °L)
3 oz. (85 g) roasted barley
5 AAU British Golding hops (60 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 5% alpha acids)
0.5 oz. (14 g) British Golding hops (10 min.)
Wyeast 1728 (Scottish Ale), White Labs WLP028 (Edinburgh Scottish Ale), or SafAle S-04 English Ale yeast
2⁄3 cup corn sugar (for priming)

Step by Step
Starting with 6.5 gallons (24.5 L) of brewing water in the kettle; heat to 158 °F (70 °C). Turn off the heat. Add the crystal malt and roasted barley in a mesh bag and steep for 30 minutes. Remove and rinse grains gently by dunking the grains back into the water.

Do not turn on the heat yet. Add the malt extract and stir thoroughly to dissolve completely. Once fully dissolved, turn the heat back on and bring wort to a boil. Boil for a total of 60 minutes, adding hops at the times indicated.

After the boil is complete, chill the wort to 59 °F (15 °C), pitch the yeast, aerate well if using a liquid yeast strain, and ferment at this temperature until complete. Condition the beer for about one week.

Rack the beer, prime and bottle condition, or keg and force carbonate to 2.3 volumes of CO2.

Issue: September 2021