Thursday, 29 September 2011

Peat in Scottish brewing

You know the story. Brewers in the exotic Highlands of Scotland using peat to kiln their malt. I've never believed a word of it. People mixing up whisky and beer. Fun in a glass, annoying on the page.

It wasn't just for your amusement and delight that I compiled that map of Scottish breweries in 1837. I wanted to get a feel for where Scottish breweries were locates and concentrated. It worked even better than I had anticipated. The picture is unmistakable.

Guess where this is going? I quickly searched the web for two companion maps. One showing the distribution of peat in Scotland, the other showing the coalfields. Looking at the three maps together is very revealing

Do you see what I mean? The vast majority of breweries are in areas where there's little or no peat. But slap on top of Scotland's coal fields.

Why the hell would they drag bulky, soggy, stinky peat into central Scotland when there was all that coal?


Rob Sterowski said...

*scratch scratch* " ... traditionally it would have tasted of coal due to the " *scratch scratch*

The Big Dog said...

Interesting graphics. There may be something to your conjecture, but a couple things come to mind:

1) They would have had to mine for the coal. I don't know the history of the area enough to know if the active mining periods corresponds with the brewery growth.

2) Wouldn't the coal from those areas be predominantly made from peat? The top layers of coal would be 'younger' coal and could still have enough of the character of the base material to impart that peaty flavor. They may have later intentionally added peat to increase that character.

Just some thoughts. Keep up the good work. I'm learning tons from you!

Martyn Cornell said...

Big Dog, your comments might have validity if there were any evidence at all that commercial Scottish beers ever tasted of peat. There isn't. They didn't.

Wouldn't the coal from those areas be predominantly made from peat? ALL coal begins as peat.

And in any case, malt isn't dried with coal, because of the poisonous volatiles coal gives off, so even if coal retained any peat characteristics (which it doesn't), they wouldn't get near any malt.

FrFintonStack said...

Spot on, Martyn. Big Dog's explanation might have validity if there was any evidence that Scottish beer ever tasted peaty. I can only assume that it's based on tasting Scotch Ale, which is, despite the name, a style completely unknown in Scotland until the import of American craft beers with the last two or three years.

Secondly, coal isn't used for kilning malt directly, but a secondary product of coal, coke, which is highly-purified and will retain no characteristics of the biomass from which it derived.

But even that's not that relevant. We only need any explanation of why Scottish beer tastes peaty if indeed it tastes peaty. But it doesn't, and there's no evidence it ever did.

The Big Dog said...

Just for the record, I have no opinion on Scottish beer being peaty or not. I really have no evidence one way or the other.

I was really being more Devil's Advocate and pointing out that coal comes from peat, and bituminous coal would have some of the typical Scotch peat character.

I do have this question: If they didn't use coal to kiln the malt, and wood wasn't really an option either, and coke wasn't used until 1642 and beyond, what DID they use pre-1642??

Beer Wrangler said...

I never thought peat was used for commercial brewing either, but is there any evidence for peat use on a small local level, perhaps pre 1800s?

Ron Pattinson said...

Big Dog, I imagine they did what maltsters did in England: used the cheapest local fuel. In England this was was mostly wood or straw.

I'll be clear: I'm talking about 1700 onwards.

The Big Dog said...


1700 onward? That certainly makes coke sound a lot more likely. By then, coke was pretty routine. Plus after 1700 the Scott's had a well established trade business which I would think increases the chances that they imported malts as well.

I was thinking a lot earlier than that. Of course, we probably have to get more speculative the further back we try to look, since there's less evidence.

Gary Gillman said...

I do accept, generally speaking, this conclusion in relation to Scots brewing. It is consistent with reading I've done which suggests a peaty or smoky taste wasn't wanted in British ale. Stopes, in his book and malt and malting, (1885) states that. Many earlier writers on malting or husbandry do as well.

This is also consistent with e.g., applications for patents in the 1800's which claimed you could use peat or other smoky fuel in a malt kiln without the smoke reaching the malt: clearly the intent was to avoid again an empyreumatic taste.

And yet. I have the evidence of my own palate that Belhaven's St. Andrews Ale was peaty/smoky- tasting circa-2003-2004 at least (I haven't had it lately). It didn't use peat, but a similar taste was there. Search the brand in Beer Advocate and other taste forums and you will find numerous comments, including from people who knew the beer years before that as a cask ale, that the beer was "peaty", "earthy", "musty", "pongy", and "sulphury". All words connoting a peaty-like taste.

Also: James Robertson in The Great American Beer Book, 1978 edition, wrote of MacEwan's Edinburgh Ale: "...beautiful roast bacon flavor with a smoky aftertaste...". He reviewed different iterations of MacEwan's and I find it interesting that he mentioned roast bacon only in connection with its "Edinburgh Ale". This term was used to denote in the 1800's the classic form of Scotch Ale.

And so, I believe some Scotch Ales did continue a taste, achieved finally without recourse to peat, which originally was artisan and reflected turf used to dry the malt. The pale and mild ales of Scotland would likely have avoided the taste, but that isn't the original strong Burton-like ale of Scotland.

It may be there are no extant examples today, but this strain of Scots brewing existed IMO based on these two fairly recent examples (relatively speaking) alone - a taste I never encountered in any English pale or other ale.


Leigh said...

Interesting....I like TBD's ideas about coal and peat being linked. Surely must be the best explanation?

Ron Pattinson said...

Gary, I've tasted any smoke in any Scottish beer. There's not a shred of evidence they ever did have any smoky of peaty flavour

The power of suggestion, perhaps, that prompts some to detect it?

Graham Wheeler said...

I would suggest that just about everything that has been claimed about Scottish beer was probably true at some point in time. The problem is in nailing that point in time. People look at a beer of the 1850s and assume that it is the same as a beer of the same name from the 1750s or even earlier.

I find it worrying that a lack of evidence is interpreted as absolute proof. It is so unscientific.

Although there may be little evidence to support drying of malt over peat, there is plenty of evidence that farmer's grain-drying ovens, all over Scotland, were fired by peat.

Grain drying ovens are particularly plentiful in Scotland, a cereal farmer could not survive without one, partly because of the wetter climate, but mostly because oats are a major crop, and oats need to be dried before storage otherwise the oils within them go rancid. Such drying kilns are plentiful in Wales and Ireland too. These are other areas where arguments arise as to whether or not malt was peated.

I think you can rest assured that at some time it was. Certainly in the days when malting was in the hands of farmers, I cannot see a farmer changing the fuel in his drying oven just because he is drying malt rather than barley or oats.

The coal in Scotland would have been unsuitable unless it is what we today call anthracite, and the source of that at the time was Pembrokeshire. Coke was not produced on a commercial scale until well after Abraham Darby’s blast furnaces appeared in the early 1700s.

Many of these ideas about what old Scottish ales were like are assumptions about the remoteness of Scotland and the fact that hops will not grow there.

Nevertheless, transport costs must have been a serious issue for the Scots. It must also have been difficult to be competitive when trying to sell their beer into London or any other area of England.

You can see the importance of transport by the way that the breweries are clustered along the coast or close to the navigable rivers, inlets and lochs just north of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Ron Pattinson said...

Graham, as I've already said, I'm only concerned with 1750 onwards.

Scottish breweries mostly made their own malt. And most of the barley they malted wasn't Scottish. And none of them were close to peat resources.

Yes, I'm sure some farmer will have made their own malt using peat as fuel. But their beers weren't the ones that made Scottish beer famous. Those beers were brewed in Edinburgh, Alloa and Prestonpans.

Coke - which is what the maltings would have used, not coal - is a by-product of the production of town gas. I've been looking at Ordnance Survey maps of Scotland from the 1860's, looking for brewery locations. Several breweries are virtually next door to gasworks.

Before railways, brewers in Alloa and Edinburgh were much better placed for transporting their beer than those in Burton. Especially to London. I know that William Younger sent boats with beer to London which brought back Kent hops. By 1820 10,000 to 15,000 barrels a year of Scottish beer were being exported to England.

Gary Gillman said...

Ron, it's not the power of suggestion I think when Jim Robertson, whose first writings pre-date the craft revolution in America, writes about bacony beer. I don't think he had any idea about peat in whisky by the way but even if he did, his notes on other MacEwan beers (e.g. Tartan Ale) in that book omit reference to smoke and bacon.

The adjectices about peat, earth, sulphur, that I mentioned are not just from a recent discussion about that beer, but from a 2003-2004 online discussion about St. Andrews Ale in which some of the people were Brits who would not I believe have been thinking about American innovations with peated Scots Ale.

I myself remember St. Andrews having a pronounced "cured" taste in that period. (Not sure about today again). Ditto for the MacEwan's or some of them bottled by S&N some decades back.

I have to ask too, when it is said there is no evidence that peat was used in 1800's brewing, is there direct evidence it wasn't? We have Stopes statement and other indirect evidence, e.g. what you have inferred from the line-up of the maps, but how do we really know either way? And if we don't, these taste notes by people, especially Robertson back in 1978, seem to me to be some direct evidence that some of the traditional-style beer coming from S&N and Belhaven in recent decades tasted smoky-peaty.

I believe it was a sub-set of Scottish brewing, very small, but surviving here and there until recently.


Ron Pattinson said...

Gary, I've drunk plenty of beer from both of those breweries and never detected any of those flavours.

Vaughn said...

The discussion of these flavors attributed to peated malt could just as easily come from yeast autolysis or similar amine degradation, as well as phenolics naturally created by the yeast. Bacon/meat/smoke all smack of age and phenols, which can be delivered by yeast strains. Additionally, at least a portion of the "English character" so many Americans consider important to these imported beers that traverse the Atlantic can be pinned down to shipment and storage in less than perfect conditions.

It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, and a very clever marketing ploy to cover up the disadvantages inherent in shipping beer long distances.

Gary Gillman said...

Just to clarify, I wasn't attributing the flavours I detected to peat smoke. They may have been produced in a number of ways but I believe were not induced by overage of the products, due both to how I buy beers - sedulous reading of date codes - but also the fact that both were pasteurized and were fairly sturdy especially the MacEwan's with its high ABV.

I am speculating though that such flavours may have evolved to continue what originally was an artisan flavour from peat. Flavours sometimes continue in an altered form, as e.g., using black patent malt to impart the taste formerly achieved by 100% brown malt. Using food grade acid to impart a lactic edge to modern stout is another example.

The process could have been unconscious or almost. If you asked the people who made those products at the time, "why do they have that roasty/bacon-like taste", then (assuming they agreed with that assessment) they probably would have said, "I don't know, this particular beer always tasted like that or since I was on-board anyway".

In the end detailed maltings records may be the only way really to know.


Cal Frye said...

The peat/coal derivation might be valid but for geologic time. Coal is what you get from peat after millions of years. Coal smoke isn't peaty.