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What is Scotch Ale?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 17, 2024

Scotch ale is a member of the pale ale family, which is known for its high alcohol content and rich, malty flavor. In addition to being produced in Scotland, it is also brewed by a number of overseas brewing companies, and this beer is especially popular in Germany and the United States. Many pubs carry a Scotch ale on tap, and it can also be found for sale in bottled form at markets and liquor stores.

The distinctive profile of Scotch ale is a reflection of the environment where it was developed. Scotland's climate is not very conducive to growing hops, and, as a result, traditional ales from this region tend to lack a strong hoppy flavor, because hops would have been scarce historically. Instead, the beer has a very rich, smoky flavor from the smoked barley that is commonly included in the brewing process, It also has a strong malted tone, which can cause the ale to have a slightly sweet, peaty flavor that many people describe as “earthy.”

People have been making beer in Scotland for centuries, but the modern form of this ale appears to have emerged in the 1800s. By tradition, it is very strong, ensuring that it will hold up through transport and storage, and the color can range from a light amber to a dark brown, depending on the ingredients included in the brewing process. The alcohol content varies, with many Scotch ales clocking in at well over 7% alcohol by volume (ABV), and rarely dipping below 5.5% ABV; the higher ABV explains the alternate name, “wee heavy.”

Typically, Scotch ale is cellared in a cool environment, and it may be stored for an extended period of time, thanks to the high alcohol content, which keeps it from going off. A good ale is very smooth, with a full body that can make it a rather filling beer, and a complex assortment of flavors that develop slowly as the beer is drunk.

The richness of Scotch ale usually prevents people from consuming too much, but consumers should be careful about drinking beer with a high ABV, especially in the case of lighter ales. It is possible to become quite intoxicated without fully realizing it, and this can be quite dangerous. People should drink this beer slowly, to give themselves time to appreciate it.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By geekish — On Aug 19, 2011

@saraq90 - I have not ventured into the home brew beer just yet as I too have had friends go into it and the way they do it, it seems to be much more work than it is worth - but they seem to enjoy it.

I had one scotch ale and fell in love with it. It was called "Old Chub" (yes it was hard to pass up with that name). So I have looked at a few recipes to give to my friends that enjoy brewing beer and I did see that some people give the tip to use dark extract in the brew after the actually cooking and other work is finished. Sounded yummy.

By Saraq90 — On Aug 19, 2011

Some of my friends have just taken up trying to home brew beer and most recently they tried to make a porter with chocolate flavors. I have not tried this porter they made yet because it must sit and ferment the way that they make their beer. They made the beer in July and are going to open it around December.

They are always looking to make new and interesting beers so I will have to tell them to look for some scotch ale recipes. Does anyone have any go to tips when they are trying to brew scotch ale?

By drtroubles — On Aug 18, 2011

Whenever I think of Scotch ale an image of an old, dark, smokey pub always pops into my mind. For those that are curious, Scotch ale is also fairly easy to brew at home.

My friends and I started out by brewing some simple Scotch ale with instructions we found online through a beer fan site and really like the results we got. While our first batch didn't have the richness of the pub beers we had tried we think that by spending more time on our wort we will be able to get a really nice color and flavor the next time around.

By wander — On Aug 18, 2011

One of my good friends was a fan of Scotch ale and always kept a few bottles stocked in his home bar. You would be surprised at how seriously he took his beers, even going so far as only carrying the best reviewed Scotch ale that he could find.

Apparently there are websites dedicated to reviewing various beers and people spend a lot of time deciphering the various flavors. I remember him showing me a few websites that reviewed Scotch ale and finding it strange that everyone was talking about different parts of the aroma and flavor. It was almost like reading reviews of fine wines.

By angelBraids — On Aug 17, 2011

We usually get a few bottles of strong scotch ale every major holiday, as some relatives are keen on it.

Because it's strong it's important to serve some kind of substantial snack or light meal with the beer! I find that meat of any kind is popular, or a bread based recipe.

I try to avoid serving food with it's own distinctive taste, such as cheese. Otherwise you'll have complaints about the clash between the drink and the dish.

By Potterspop — On Aug 17, 2011

When I went to the Edinburgh fringe festival I made friends with a local who introduced me to Scotch ale beer.

It took a while to get used to it, as it's much heavier and darker than anything I would normally drink back home. At first it wasn't too pleasant, but after a few days (and a few beers) I began to appreciate it, and noticed a distinct caramel undertone.

To be honest I've not looked for it in the store since I returned. Maybe it's one of those things that is best enjoyed in context?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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