Beer in Scotland: Old Traditions, New Players

In March, I was lucky enough to get married and honeymoon in Scotland.  Here are some of my observations about the different types of beer I drank there, and the status of craft beer in Scotland.  

They take this seriously.

They take this seriously.

Real Ale: The Real Deal?

I feel it best to begin with a discussion of real ale.  Just how prevalent is real ale in Scotland?  I’ve read plenty about real ale (or cask ale) in books, but I was curious to see how big it was.  I think during my entire visit in Scotland, every pub I went in had at least one cask ale on tap (the exception being BrewDog).  Some had as many as 5 or 6.  Unbeknowest to me before the trip, there is a non profit organization called Cask Marque (Right), who twice a year make unannounced visits to pubs, to ensure the cask pint they are served has the proper taste, temprature, aroma, and apperance.  Kind of like a cask Secret Shopper.  I think the system must be effective, because all of the cask ale I had on the trip was of high quality.

The cask ale on the left features Elderflower, a plant that is native to Scotland, and used in a lot of beers as a flavoring agent.  Subtle, and tasty.

The cask ale on the left features Elderflower, a plant that is native to Scotland, and used in a lot of beers as a flavoring agent. Subtle, and tasty.

I’ve often heard Americans refer to cask ale, served at “cellar temperature,” as warm.  I don’t really think that’s accurate.  Granted, I was there when the temperature was around freezing everyday, but I would say the beer is served at a fairly ideal temperature.  Cold enough to be refreshing, but warm enough so you don’t have your palate dulled by the first few sips.  You can actually taste the more nuanced flavors right off the bat.

One question I wondered about before having real ale in person was how the ale was dispensed.  Obviously, a traditional faucet is out of the question.  You can see in the picture to the left, a beer engine is used, which essentially is a suction handpump going down to the cellar where the casks are stored.  It takes longer to pour, and often takes quite a few pumps to get a full pint of ale for the customer, but customers appreciate the experience.

An Imperial Pint(nearly 20 oz., about 20% larger than a US pint) of cask ale.

An Imperial Pint(nearly 20 oz., about 20% larger than a US pint) of cask ale.

My verdict on cask ale is this:  I can see why Scots are really into it.  It’s a unique beer experience:  a smooth, silky mouthfeel, similar to a nitrogenated beer.  No two casks are going to be exactly the same.  And although some of the breweries making cask ale have since been taken over my larger macro brewery parent companies, the casks still maintain a certain level of quality that is fairly amazing.  Edinburgh’s Caledonia Brewery, has been active since 1869, but in 2008, was fully taken over by Heineken, yet the majority of the beer they make is still cask ale.  I would guess some readers of this blog will have had cask ale in America at craft bars that are lucky enough to have a cask, but I don’t really think it’s the same as experiencing it in the UK.

This tradition has a great purpose, but what about craft beer in Scotland?  How active is the craft beer market in comparison to the United States?

 

BrewDog's guest bottle list was heavily dominated by California breweries.  If you ever had any doubt California is the beer capital of the universe, seeing something like this internationally will put it to rest.

BrewDog’s guest bottle list was heavily dominated by California breweries. If you ever had any doubt California is the beer capital of the universe, seeing something like this internationally will put it to rest.

BrewDog:  Scottish Rebels 

On the other side of the discussion is BrewDog.  BrewDog does not make cask ale, they keg or bottle all of their beers. I think one of the biggest lessons I learned while in Scotland, is that as Americans, we take an awful lot for granted with regards to the wealth of amazing craft beer we are able to find.  Outside of cask ale in Scotland, the mainstream beer scene is very dominated by similar macro lagers that your typical American beer drinker consumes.  I’ll put it simply:  a cheap product sells, no matter what country you are in.  But for some drinkers, the first time you have that craft beer that costs a dollar or pound more, you fall in love.  This is where BrewDog comes in.  Though they have only been around for 5 1/2 years, they have a fairly dedicated fan base  that has allowed them to experience amazing growth.

A "schooner pint".

A “schooner pint”.

BrewDog is kind of like Stone Brewing Company’s international twin, a company with an in your face personality, on a mission to spread the gospel of craft beer.  BrewDog has helped change the landscape of craft beer in Scotland.  Although there are some other enjoyable craft breweries I sampled while in Scotland (William Brothers was actually pretty great), BrewDog is definitely the biggest and the loudest.

Founded by James Watt and Martin Dickie in 2007, the brewery has aggressively expanded to the point of now having 13 brew pubs.  They have been named as Scotland’s largest independent brewery, have increased their production 35 times over, and went from 2 employees to 135 employees in the course of 5 years.  Pretty impressive growth during a recession.  The company has done tons of marketing campaigns seen as gimmicks by many, such as The End of History, a beer that clocked in at 55% alcohol and was dubbed the most expensive beer of all time.  Also of interesting note is that BrewDog helped change the law in Scotland, to allow “schooner,” or 2/3rds pints to be  available.  It plays perfectly into BrewDog’s mission of crafting higher alcohol beer than Scotland is used to, mostly modeled after the American craft brewing movement.  It’s also kind of a foil to the cask ale movement. Hardly any of BrewDog’s beers are served as imperial pints, because the high alcohol content facilitates smaller serving sizes.


 

BrewDog explaining their brewing process.

BrewDog explaining their brewing process.

In the end, I think both cask ale and craft beer have their place in Scotland and deserve respect.  It’s interesting to see new entrepreneurs and beer lovers changing the landscape of the scene, but I don’t see the historical love for cask ales dying anytime soon.  As a beer lover, I was happy to experience both!

 

About Keith Ely

Keith Ely lives in Los Angeles, but grew up on the east coast and has lived quite a few different places, always in search of the unique things (and beers) that make each place its own. He currently works at Angel City Brewery. Keith loves good beer, because it has such a rich story, and a great history of bringing people together.

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