Warming Up With Scottish Ales

A cozy pub on a cold, bitter winter’s night.  Inside, the warm glow of a healthy fire crackling in the fireplace is providing just enough light, and a comfortable spot at the bar is waiting.  Some friendly conversation among the other patrons supplies casual, light background noise, and it all makes for a perfect, safe haven against the bitter temperatures and the swirling winds outside.  Taking a spot at the bar, it’s time for a pint of beer.  So what’ll it be?

Few things in life bring the sweet and simple joy as warming up after coming in from the cold.   Universally understood and thankfully simple, actions such as sitting next to a warm fire, or coming home to a hot, home cooked meal would probably be tops on most peoples’ lists.  But on a particularly blustery recent night, as I could hear the wind swirling around outside the house, picking up dry leaves and slapping them against the window, I thought of the image of the cozy pub, and that glass of beer.  And while the perfect cozy pub complete with crackling fire and warm ambient light might be a tough setting to find, enjoying the beer just might just transport your mind to such a place, even if you’re only sitting at home.  But that still leaves the question, what beer?  Picture our pub again.  I tend to think that cold winter nights often make one think of a darker beer.  You could jump directly to a stout, and their deeply roasted malt character, but what other options are there?  Something with a lighter, toasted malt character and just a little girth to seem perfect for warming the soul against the winds outside.  This is where a good Scottish Ale fits perfectly in to the equation, and helps complete the feel of that cozy pub, even if it’s only being enjoyed from home.

While the traditional method of naming these ales in Scotland – linked to the amount of tax levied on the malt, or malted grain, used to make them, and in turn to the price of a cask of it (60, 70, and 80 Shilling Ales) – is now outdated, the malt used in these beers is still the most valuable part of the beer.  To put it simply, Scottish Ales are all about the malt. From the type and amount of malted grain used to particular brewing techniques employed in the making of these beers, it all showcases the slightly sweet, caramel like flavors which malt provide beer.  The techniques used include a longer than usual boil time for the mixture of the grain and water early in the brewing process called the “wort”, causing a caramelization of the ingredients, which in turn helps to produce the sweet, caramel like flavors in the end product, and also their copper like color.  Brewers also manipulate the temperatures during this process, which cause a greater amount of unfermentable sugars to end up in the beer, again affecting the style’s sweet character.  Low hop levels only round out the focus on the grain.  And although that traditional naming method may have seen its time come and go, today, these beers are still often classified similarly, depending primarily on their alcohol level, into “Light”, “Heavy” and “Export”.  Stronger versions of the style are called a Scotch Ale, or Wee Heavy.  One of the most interesting tasting notes about these ales is that often there is a vague smokiness to them, something that arguably may have come from the chemical make-up of the water once used to make these beers.  One of my personal favorites, Devils Backbone’s Ale of Fergus, seems to have a faint smokiness to it, which only adds another layer of flavor to the beer’s light, malty sweetness.

On that recent chilly winter’s night, I happened to have a Scottish Ale in my glass.  I thought of the perfect little pub in some distant, chilly countryside town, windows glowing from a fire within, and realized I felt just as cozy where I was as I would’ve probably felt there.  I’m sure it was mostly the sweet process of simply warming up after being outside that made me feel that way, but as I took another sip, I instantly knew it was also the perfect match of the beer to the moment.  Certainly, the style is a delicious one to go with year round, but tonight, seemed to be a good fit.  The tiny bubbles rising from the bottom were quietly forming a tight swirling pattern on the surface of the beer, and as I settled down, relaxing and happy that I was inside on such a night, I let my mind believe those bubbles were mimicking, and maybe even mocking, those swirling and chilly winds outside.

Additional info, and examples: Scottish and Scotch (Wee Heavy) Ales might be perfect for chilly nights, again, these beers are great year round.  However, some of the “Winter Warmer” beers that show up on the shelves this time of year are often Scottish Ales.  Here are some examples of American brewed, craft versions of these beers:  Brooklyn Brewery’s Winter Ale, Long Trail’s Hibernator Ale, St. George Brewing’s Scottish Style Ale, Bell Brewing’s Christmas Ale, Duck Rabbit’s Wee Heavy Scotch Ale, Oskar Blues’ Old Chub, Great Divide Brewing’s Claymore, and Stone Brewing’s Highway 78.

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~ by thebeerroad on January 13, 2012.

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