Scottish ales

Reprinted from the days of the syndicated Beer Guy column

A Tale of Scottish Ales

In honor of Scottish poet Robert Burns, whose birthday is today, I thought we’d chat for a moment about broken china.


Scottish ales, also. The two have become inextricably linked after a recent incident.


I had one of those “gang aft a-gley” moments Burns wrote about in “To a Mouse.” The poem reflects upon a mouse who becomes homeless after his warm, cozy, well-appointed nest is reamed accidentally by a farmer’s plow. The little critter’s future, all his mousy prospects — collecting kernels of grain, raising a nice family, becoming a day trader — were dashed forever.


“The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft a-gley,” Burns wrote. You might’ve heard it as “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray.”


We are indebted to Burns for many such nuggets — the nostalgic “Auld Lang Syne,” the romantic “My love is like a red, red rose”  and the epic on malt beverages, “John Barleycorn.”


I was having an epic malt encounter of my own with a batch of Scottish ale when my well-laid plans went astray. After an extended hiatus from homebrewing, I was excited to be back in the kitchen, swathed in the heady fumes and bubbling chatter of the brew kettle, trying to explain to daughter Cassie the nature of treacle.


The recipe called for treacle, and it’s a curious thing to put in beer. It looks like a substance well suited for patching driveways. “Brewmaster’s Bible,” a book by Stephen Snyder, assures that treacle is “a heavy, sweet British-style mixture of molasses, invert sugar and corn syrup.”


The Scots have been putting curious things in beer since pelts served as kilts, and believe me, they have been brewing that long. “Archaeological evidence from circa 6500 B.C. indicates that the Picts were producing some sort of fermented beverage on the Isle of Rhum way back then,” writes Gregory J. Noonan in “Scotch Ale.”


Before you ask what’s the difference between Scotch ale and Scottish ale, a word more about the Picts. These ancient tribesmen made their mark in brewing lore with heather ale, which used heather flowers in a recipe passed from generation to generation and guarded with secrecy. A poem by Robert Louis Stevenson tells of the last surviving Pict, who suffered his son to be drowned and himself killed rather than reveal the mysteries of heather ale.


Today, Fraoch Heather Ale has revived the tradition, just as Alba perpetuates brewing with spruce shoots in its pine ale, Grozet memorializes mixing gooseberries and bog myrtle in its wheat ale, and Ebulum pays homage to using elderberries in its black ale.


These Scottish brews (learn more at are esoteric branches of a brewing nation whose styles have found fertile ground in this country. Some native classics come from MacAndrew’s, McEwan’s, Caledonian, Orkney, Broughton, Belhaven and Traquair. America has seen more versions than you can shake a thistle at, from Bert Grant’s Scottish Ale in Washington to Road Dog Ale from Flying Dog in Colorado. Virginia boasts, among others, Old Rag Mountain Ale from Shenandoah in Alexandria, Satan’s Pony from South Street in Charlottesville, and Legend and Richbrau seasonals in Richmond.


What do they have in common? Scottish ales are burnished copper or darker in color, malty, full-bodied and sweet, sometimes with a caramel character. Scotch ales are richer, darker, sweeter, smokier, more roasted and stronger, often bordering on barley wines (witness Skullsplitter from Orkney). Some folks use the terms Scottish and Scotch interchangeably, but there is no mistaking the thick, warming malty embrace of a “wee heavy” Scotch ale.


Malt smoked with peat is often used in Scottish ales, including the batch that was boiling away merrily on the stove a couple of weeks ago. This brewing bliss was shattered, however, by a horrible crash. I dashed into the dining room to see what was the matter.


A shelf in our antique china cabinet had collapsed, and stacks of Marggie’s china, beautiful jade-colored pieces passed down from her mother, had tumbled to the floor. I was heartsick. Marggie was out shopping, and I was tempted to leave the shambles undisturbed until her return. But we couldn’t risk having Hershey cut his paws on the pieces, so Cassie and I scrambled to pick up.


The great china crash occurred during a critical point in my brew. I tried to monitor the batch while picking up plates, but the wort boiled over onto the stove. Nothing quite matches the smell of scorched barley soup, which left a tarry goo coating the stovetop. It belonged on the driveway.


Well, there’s no use crying over burnt beer or broken china. So we salvaged what dishes we could and we’re getting the cabinet repaired, plus I’ve got ingredients for a new batch of Scottish ale.


I’m hoping that on all accounts I’ll soon be quoting Shakespeare, not Burns, with “All’s well that ends well.”


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