How Scotch beer prospered under the Union – and still can

How Scotch beer prospered under the Union – and still can

by Jonathan Stanley
article from Monday 22, February, 2021

FROM THE ISLE OF MAN to Edinburgh to Brussels and back I've been getting the hang of brewing strong balanced malty ales. Having worked in Brussels I had the full choice of Belgium's beer to sample when work was not too pressing. I'd been homebrewing for years but Belgium made me realise I had to really up my game to produce the kind of beers on offer there, at very good prices. 

Brewing beer is one of the most rewarding past times. It's a blend of art, science, love and imagination. It has kept my sanity at a manageable level throughout lockdown because it teaches one about patience, precision, planning and failure. More than anything it teaches you about failing over and over again because until that beer is perfect, it just doesn't come close. 

It forces you to read systematically about your craft and its history. Provenance in beer is undersold but we have some incredible heritage here in Scotland. We've been drinking beer in the modern form for about 500 years, though in Scotland it was not a popular beverage until after the Act of Union.

Beer of any quality is really a social drink. It finds home in taverns and pubs on turnpikes and towns. It's the goldilocks when it comes to alcohol, strong enough to bring cheap cheer but enjoyed in company, at a mutually agreed pace. It acts almost like a tea ritual but let's face it, it's much more fun. 

Hogarth and others have painted countless times on our affair with booze. Wine is polite, taken with food and in small company. Beer is social, a workhorse to power a pub through the night. Absinthe is for wistful spinsters in a Paris cafe and vodka charts an oik's progress. Whisky is here and there everywhere but rarely in volume. It's a treat at dinner, a chaser on a swift evening, and headstomping ruination in excess. It elbows its way in where it can. 

Beer became increasingly common in Scotland after Union. First England's towns and colonies gave us incredible markets exclusively. Then as we industrialised and grew we took on more of England's habits for pubs and bars. Scotch ales as strong beers, were exported far and wide, weaker ales like heavy were drunk much closer to home.

There is a lot of mystery in Scottish beer that's debunked well by historians like Ron Pattinson, who has written wonderful books on the subject full of history... and recipes!

There is much myth about Scottish beer in general, with some mythical image of highlands, smoky flavours and rich lingering caramel colour. It's all rubbish. When you look at our history of where beer was brewed remember the phrase, "Mine's a pint". 

Brewing beer (ale is beer, where the yeast that ferments it floats on top) needs three things in bulk:

Clean water, barley and coal. Lots of coal. Coal malts the barley, kilns it, heats the water to turn malt into sugar and to boil the sugary water with hops to bitter it, and then to clean everything afterwards. The best breweries were next to mines, surrounded by fertile land, on top of a well, near a road. The vast majority of Scottish beer was brewed in Edinburgh. Far and away Edinburgh, and then some in Alloa, again near the coalfields. Barley from Lothians and Fife and well water did the rest. Hops were imported, from England and from Europe and America, as was some barley as our population grew so rapidly.  

Edinburgh had deep artesian well water and water from the Pentland's too. So it had both hard and soft water. This is was crucial because it meant Reekie could turn its hand to any beer the market wanted. Reekie of course named for all the smoke from the breweries. We exported at one point a third of all the beer the UK exported. Porter was sent to London and India. It was a cheap drink, like Guinness today but better, and so its history is a little vague. It was officers and gentleman who could afford finer ales like bitter and pale ale. This is why India Pale Ale is much better known, even though we exported more porter than IPA. 

So there is the pattern for Scottish ales. We imported materials from all over the world, and exported them through our UK trade links using our real and natural advantages. 

We were doing well until World War I. As we've seen in lockdown this past year, nothing wrecks beer like war and socialism. Either war or socialism is bad but both are terrible. War means you have less grain to use, and so the government waters down your beer. WWI killed Mild as a decent beer, WWII did much of the same damage to bitter. By the 70s imported high quality lager were eclipsing neglected British beers. 

High taxes on pubs didn't help. We’ve lost thousands over the years. But it was not gloom during WWI. While the UK suffered shortages, Belgium was completely destroyed. After the war Belgium's economy rebounded, and so did their thirst for beer. They liked strong beers, rich and malty, and Scotland filled the market. It was Scotland that dominated Belgium's beer scene, and today the malty Scotch style remains there. It was so popular one brewer came to Scotland to search for the secret.

He found it searching for yeasts in the Highlands. His family name was Moortgat, the yeast he found he took to Belgium to brew a Victory ale to celebrate the end of the war. That beer became Duvel. The most popular Belgian ale is in fact their version of a lightly coloured Scotch ale, what we would call a No.1, with a new Scottish yeast. 

Now Belgium dominates our small market for strong ales, but the provenance is our own. New breweries in Scotland today sound all the rage and appear revolutionary but their story is the same as Scotland's always has been. Innovation, importing the best ingredients from across the world and funnelling the liquor through the highways and byways of the UK and beyond.

Brexit Britain offers a springboard for new breweries here to export again to the USA in much bigger volumes. Maybe it’s because its history is so linked to the UK that Scotch ale doesn't enjoy the respect and admiration of our whisky? Maybe it's time we changed that.

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Dr Jonathan Stanley has worked in a variety of frontline NHS positions in the UK since qualifying as a surgeon twelve years ago. @JonMarcStanley

Photo of Gordon’s Scotch Ale – brewed in Belgium! 

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