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The History of Scottish Ales

Scotland has one of the richest brewing histories in the world, and like many breweries, here at Stewart Brewing we are quite keen on a traditional brew. During our 15 years of brewing award-winning beer we have experimented with a number of classic recipes – some of which are still on our regular roster – so we decided to delve into the history of some traditional Scottish beer styles.


With some of the finest water on Earth, which is used to make whiskies that are famous the world over, Scotland’s booze history actually started way before whisky was around. There is evidence that the Picts were fermenting drinks and preserving them with heather (a precursor to hops) as early as 6500BC, in a style which has been revived in recent years, most famously by Williams Bros with their Fraoch Heather Ale.


Medieval monasteries around the areas of Glasgow and Edinburgh (the latter of which was nicknamed the Charmed Circle due to the region’s much-revered underground springs of soft water), were at the centre of the brewing revolution in Scotland. The beer coming from these regions was rich and malty, and contemporary recipes for classic Scottish ales maintain that traditional taste and body. For instance, ‘Shilling’ beer.


‘Shilling’ beer is denoted by the /- symbol preceded by a number, usually 60, 70, 80 or 90. The higher the number, the higher the ABV, and therefore the higher the tax historically levied on the beers post-1880. A popular example of a Shilling cask ale is our 80/- classic heavy, which is well-loved in a lot of independent pubs, such as at the Athletic Arms pub (Diggers 80/-) and at Cloisters Bar (it’s their Holy Grale!).


In the 20th Century, the shilling system petered out and was replaced by the terms ‘Light’, ‘Heavy’ and ‘Export’. The 90/- is commonly known as the ‘Wee Heavy’, since it tends to be stronger in ABV, taste, colour and body, and tends to be what people associate with the term ‘Scotch Ale’. Speaking of which, our Scotch ale St Giles is one of our most-loved brews – it’s a traditional recipe to which we have added new-world hops for our own modern twist on the classic beer.


Surprisingly, the popularity of the Wee Heavy/Scotch Ale has declined in Scotland, but it remains a very popular style of strong beer in other countries, most notably America. We have met plenty of Americans in our taprooms – tourists and residents alike – who have a fondness for our St Giles since it reminds them of the brews they drink at home, made by many including the big names such as Founders, Sierra Nevada, Cigar City, The Bruery, and Oskar Blues.


What are your favourite traditional beers? Any suggestions of styles you’d like us to brew?

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