Scots Wha Hae

Some very fine beer is being brewed north of the border. Raise a glass of it to Robert Burns.

January 25th is the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns, and the haggis would have been piped in and addressed at Burns suppers throughout Scotland and around the world during the weekend. Naturally the toast would have been made with a dram of whisky, and rightly too because Scotch is one of the world's finest alcoholic beverages. I'm willing to bet though that in some households a few glasses of Scottish beer were being lifted instead. Scotland has a rich history of beer going as far back as any other beer producing country, and let's face it, whisky starts off as beer (kind of) so this seems like as good a time as any to look at Scottish beers and ales, and to dispel a few myths.

Just as in so many other European countries before hops became an ingredient, early Scottish ales would have been flavoured and bittered with herbs, and one archaeologist whose husband just happens to be a brewer has put forward some compelling evidence for the Viking influence on early Scottish brewing (pdf). The Orkney and Shetland Islands to the north of Scotland have stronger cultural influences with (and in some instances are closer to) Scandinavia than they do with London or Edinburgh, even though they're part of the UK. Placenames such as Haroldswick, Hamnavoe, Kjurkhul and Grimista are very Nordic, as is the annual Up Helly Aa festival, and just to get in on the act there's a brewery in the Orkneys which makes a beer called Skullsplitter, named after a Viking earl (sorry to shatter your illusions but Vikings didn't wear helmets with horns), and the most northerly brewery in the UK is Valhalla Brewing on the island of Unst in the Shetlands.

When hops eventually made it across the English Channel from Europe Scotland held out a little longer with a taste for drinks such heather ale, spruce beer and gruit, and this might be one of the reasons that have helped to perpetuate the idea (now discredited by beer historians) that Scottish beers are less hoppy than those from England. It's certainly true that the climate in Scotland makes growing hops more difficult than in southern England or any of the other traditional European hop-growing regions, and it's also true that some Scottish beer styles are characteristically sweet, but Scottish breweries imported plenty of hops and made world class beers with them including some very fine IPAs. In fact Edinburgh, which became one the UK's premier centres of brewing, has excellent water for brewing hoppy pale ales.

Most of my schoolfriends went to university in England, but one or two went north of the border to Scotland, and they came back during the holidays speaking of beers such as heavy, export or sixty shilling instead of the light ale, bitter and best bitter that I was familiar with. Those unusual names were mostly reserved for the Scottish equivalents of bitters and pale ales, and Scottish brewers also make stouts, brown ales and porters that are as good as any you'll find.

Some romantic revisionism has developed around the shilling categories for Scottish beer. The names of the various shilling beers were based on how much a hogshead of each beer cost (I've read that Scottish hogsheads were 63 gallons as opposed to the 54 gallon English version), and since this was tied to the strength of the beer through taxation of the malt and the hops a higher number would usually mean a stronger ale. There weren't strict rules as to exactly what strength each of the numbers meant – I've seen records ranging from 50/- to 160/- and there may be others even higher (probably not lower, but you never know). The brews didn't necessarily get darker as the numbers increased, although some did. This label just says 90 shilling whereas this 120 shilling beer was labelled a pale ale, and here's a 90 shilling IPA. Nor were they all just one kind of beer; there were shilling categories for pale ales, brown ales, stouts and mild.

Not content with everyday, boring old shillings, one or two brewers used guineas to classify their beers. A guinea was one pound and one shilling (that's 21 shillings, from the pre-decimal days when there were 20 shillings to the pound, now one pound and five pence) and it had a little more cachet than the plain old pound sterling; racehorses, Savile Row suits and expensive furniture were usually priced in guineas rather than pounds (some still are). A four guinea ale for instance would be roughly equivalent to an 80 shilling (21/- x 4 = 84/-).

Strong, sweetish ales were just as popular north of the border as were the barley wines and Burton ales down south, and obviously those would have been labelled with the highest numbers in the shilling/guinea system, but just like the English ales they could have been called almost anything from simply strong ale, to 160 shilling, to Edinburgh ale, to ten or twelve guinea, and sometimes just Scotch ale, but the name we often hear today for a strong Scottish style beer – wee heavy – may be a neologism. The jury is still out on this one, but it could be that strong ales, some of which were called heavy, once came in small 'nip' bottles – one third of a pint. The Scottish word for small is 'wee', so it's possible that the two words were been combined by Scottish drinkers who asked for 'a wee bottle of heavy', eventually shortened to 'a wee heavy', which somehow became attached to the wee heavy beer style that so many American breweries make today. I think more research is needed here.

During the 20th century the Scottish beer industry mirrored the English and American in that breweries amalgamated or were bought up to form bigger and bigger conglomerates, and the quality of the beer declined, although one or two smaller breweries remained independent and kept the faith. Two of the biggest – Youngers and McEwans, both of Edinburgh – merged in the 1930s, and then combined in 1960 with the makers of Newcastle Brown Ale to form Scottish and Newcastle who, after a few more acquisitions became the UK's largest brewer, at least for a while.

What of Scottish brewing today? Well, I'm sure the name BrewDog can't have escaped your notice and needs no description here, but although they're definitely the most headline-grabbing of all the Scottish breweries there are others who have quietly got on with their business, some of them for a good deal longer than the boys from Fraserburgh.

Belhaven, a brewery well known on this side of the pond, has been in business since 1719, possibly longer, at Dunbar, about 25 miles east of Edinburgh, and they do indeed make a wee heavy and an eighty shilling ale, as well as a stout and an IPA. No longer the independent family-owned company they were for almost 200 years, Belhaven was bought by Greene King in 2005.

Hugh and Robert Tennent began brewing beer in 1740 on the site of an older brewery in Glasgow, and the company stayed in the hands of the Tennent family until its acquisition in the 1960s by Charrington, eventually coming under the ownership of Anheuser Busch InBev who themselves sold it a few years ago. Tennents have a history of innovation in British brewing. Their most well known beer is Tennents Lager, first brewed in 1885 at a time when lager was hardly a popular choice in the UK, and it was one of the first beers in the world to be canned in 1935, which brings us to the, umm, Lager Lovelies. These were women whose pictures appeared on the cans from the 1960s, through the 1980s, and were finally retired in 1991 by which time their poses were a little more risqué and their ages a little younger.

Innis and Gunn is one of the new crop of Scottish breweries, being founded only ten years ago, but they've carved out a niche for themselves by oak-ageing all their beer. The story is that they were originally making beer for a distillery (which also owned a slice of the brewery) who wanted to age some of its Scotch in barrels which had previously held beer to make an ale-finished whisky, which is exactly the opposite of what most of us are used to these days – a whisky barrel-aged beer. It turned out that the beer, which was being tossed out at the distillery until the workers there found out how good it was and started drinking it, was very tasty. Innis and Gunn now produces beer aged in barrels that previously held Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, chips from barrels that contained spiced rum, as well as the original new-barrel beer that kicked everything off.

If you travel 25 miles south of Innis and Gunn's brewery in Edinburgh you'll come to Traquair House which is reputedly the oldest continuously inhabited house in Scotland, with strong links to Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebellion. As so many estates belonging to the landed gentry did, Traquair had its own brewhouse making beer for the laird and his workers. At some point it ceased to be used and gathered dust for a century or more until the 20th laird, Peter Maxwell Stuart, cleaned away the cobwebs and fired up the boiler in 1965. The brewery is still relatively small – less than 1,000 barrels a year – but some of their bottles make it to the US, imported by the same people who bring us Sam Smith's beers.

Another Scottish brewery whose beers I'd love to try (they are imported but have yet to make it to Texas, alas) is Harviestoun. They've entered into an arrangement to take used whisky barrels from the Highland Park distillery which they use to produce a range of barrel-aged beers called Ola Dubh (Gaelic for black oil). Full disclosure: Highland Park is one of my favourite whiskies so there may well be some bias here. At the time of writing there are five Ola Dubh variants: 12, 16, 18, 30 and 40, the numbers referring to the age of the whisky that was previously in the barrels, so each one will have different characteristics. I believe Ola Dubh is based on Harviestoun's Old Engine Oil porter and has a very handsome label (now that's a tasting I really want to take part in). Considering the number of distilleries in Scotland and the deserved renown of their whisky, I would imagine there's an untapped resource, a gold mine, of empty barrels just aching to be filled with good Scottish beer.

If you want to host your own Burns Supper next January there are plenty of tutorials online and videos on YouTube to instruct you, but don't expect to be able to prepare a fully authentic haggis, or even bring one into the US. Some of the ingredients (sheeps' pluck – that's the liver, heart and lungs) are frowned upon by the FDA.