Warped and Wee Heavy: Scotch Ales

What to know about these sweet, malty brews
October 9, 2020 Updated: October 9, 2020

I’ve been a Star Trek fan since I was a child watching reruns in the 70s with my father. So years ago when I first noticed Warped Speed beer at the liquor store, I simply had to buy it. I came for the name and stayed for the brew, a wonderful malty beer with subdued hops and hints of chocolate. It’s been a mainstay in my fridge ever since. 

Warped Speed is a Scotch ale first brewed by Tom Porter (actual beery name), founder of Lake Louie Brewing in Arena, Wisconsin. Originally a storage shed out in the woods near the pond on his uncle’s land, where they used to go skinny-dipping, the brewery recently moved to bigger digs when the brand was purchased by Porter’s friends at nearby Wisconsin Brewing Co. 

When Porter first brewed it, he shared samples at his local tavern and “people got up off their bar stools with wobbling knees,” said Tim Wauters, current brewer of Warped Speed and longtime employee of Porter. After dialing back the recipe to its current 6.9 percent ABV, the ale went on to make a name for the brewery. 

What’s Scottish About It?

Scotch ales are brewed with a pale malt combined with darker malts, giving them a sweet, malty flavor with caramel and toffee notes, but coming up shy of the roasted flavor and darkness that you’d find in a stout. Colors range from light copper to dark brown.

Hop production was limited in Scotland and importing more would have been expensive; this likely played a part in the brew’s lighter hop presence. Without a lot of hops in the beer, the sweeter malt steps forward. Unlike hoppier beers with shorter shelf lives, these hold their quality for six months, or more with higher alcohol content. 

Historically, Scottish brewers used the parti-gyle method of brewing, getting multiple worts, and thus beers, out of a single mash. They would pack the mash tun with grain, drain off the first, stronger run of wort from that mash, and then drain off a second, weaker wort. Brewed in separate kettles, these resulted in beers of different strengths—and some confusing style names. 

It may come as a surprise to some that many ales in Scotland really aren’t strong alcohol-wise. Something like Tennent’s Special Ale, brewed in Glasgow, has only 3.5 percent ABV. Even a beer designated “strong” or “export” in Scotland is likely to be 3.9 to 5 percent. These lower-ABV brews are considered Scottish ales.

Scotch ales, on the other hand, often referred to as wee heavy, are always stronger, with ABV in the 6 to 8.5 percent range. The trend in craft brewing also leans toward the stronger side. Lake Louie once made a lighter 4.4-percent Impulse Drive, technically a strong Scottish ale, but the market interest remained on its more potent Warped Drive or even its special release 8-percent Louie’s Reserve. 

Craft beer names sometimes come with a shilling amount attached (60, 80, 90, etc.), which is often believed to represent the strength of the ale. Historically, it related to tax amounts on the beer, which would vary, but craft brewers have made the modern myth reality in their own beer names. Odell Brewing’s flagship 90 Shilling ale is 5.3 percent ABV, for instance, while the Scottish ale Caledonian 80/- contains 4.1 percent. In 2018, Summit Brewing brewed a special 120 Shilling Export Scotch Ale that clocked in at 9.5 percent. 

What to Drink

From Scotland

Scotland has had its own craft beer renaissance, with BrewDog being one of the more familiar names throughout the world. But the craft brewers tend to brew all sorts of styles. Sticking to the original style of Scotch ales we’re looking at here, popular imports to the States are McEwans, originally out of Edinburgh but now owned by Heineken, and Tennent’s. 

Also available in the US market are beers from Traquair House, brewed in a Scottish royal hunting lodge that dates back to 1107. Members of the same family have occupied it since 1491, and their house brewery served its strong ale to Mary Queen of Scots back in 1566. In the 19th century, the brewery closed, but in 1965, Peter Maxwell Stuart, the 20th Laird (Lord) of Traquair, brought it back to life.

The brewery’s history and 1738 copper brew kettle are notable enough, but the modern brew works also has an unusual claim: it’s the only Scottish brewery to do all of their beer fermentation in oak vessels.

Their dark reddish-brown House Ale (7.2 percent ABV) is drier than the typical American Scottish-style ale, and carries an earthy flavor and oaky notes with it. Their Jacobite Ale adds coriander to the recipe, and has a bit more alcohol (8 percent). Both are thick-bodied and worth sipping slowly from a snifter. 

Epoch Times Photo
Traquair House Brewery’s House Ale. (Courtesy of Merchant du Vin)
Epoch Times Photo
Traquair House Brewery’s House Ale and Jacobite Ale. (Courtesy of Merchant du Vin)

From the States

One of Michigan’s largest craft brewers, Founders Brewing Co. gives us Dirty Bastard, dark red almost like cola with 8.5 percent ABV and brewed with seven imported malts. The brew bears a hint of smokiness, and a touch more hops than some of the other Scotch ales, while still remaining a malt-forward beer. 

Old Chub is Oskar Blues Brewery’s Scottish Strong Ale, perfect for pairing with spicy meals or creamy desserts. One of the seven varieties in what they call a “bodacious” amount of malt is beechwood-smoked, to give it just a touch of smoke to go with the hints of candied figs and raisin off the other malts. The 8 percent ABV beer pours dark copper with a tawny head. 

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Oskar Blues Brewery’s Old Chub Scottish Strong Ale. (Courtesy of Oskar Blues Brewery)

Brewed by the bold Sun King out of Indianapolis, Indiana, Wee Mac is a local favorite, with a moderate caramel sweetness and hints of cocoa and hazelnut from the malts. It’s heavenly stuff and highly drinkable, at a moderate ABV of 5.3 percent.

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Sun King Brewing Company’s Wee Mac Scottish-style Ale. (Courtesy of Sun King Brewing Company)

Barrel-aged Ales

Much like dark stout beers, Scotch ales do very well aging in previously used barrels. 

Founders puts their Scotch ale into bourbon barrels for a year to create the highly sought after Backwoods Bastard. A couple other breweries worth mentioning in that regard are Central Waters Brewing and AleSmith, which also regularly offer excellent bourbon barrel-aged Scotch ales. 

Watch for Sun King’s Reserve versions of their Scottish-style ales: Wee Mac aged in whisky, cinnamon whiskey, and mead barrels, named Diddy Muckle, Gran Muckle, and Magpie Muckle, respectively. They’re a bit boozier, in the 9 to 11 percent range.

Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey,” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com