Thursday, 16 April 2009

Scotch Ale - lightly hopped?

I've become very wary of stories without any hard facts to back them up. Too many have been demonstrated to be just that: stories. I'm addressing one today. That Scotch Ale was lightly hopped because hops don't grow in Scotland.

I've doubted this tale for some time, but hadn't come across any conclusive evidence. I won't get your hopes up. I still haven't. But I have found a couple of quotes that at least cast doubt upon the theory.

Hop-growing has been concentrated in a few regions of the British Isles for centuries. They weren't grown to any noticeable extent in the North of England, Scotland, Wales, the Southwest of England or Ireland. Though plenty of brewing went on in all those regions. Guinness is a good example of a brewery than brewed beers using plenty of hops, while situated far from the nearest hop field.

Consider this: hops aren't exactly a heavy cargo compared to, say, barley or barrels of beer. And there was already a large export trade in beer in the 18th century. Initially mostly Porter issuing from London. But by 1800, Edinburgh brewers were sending beer in the opposite direction:

"As we should expect, these architectural additions had their counterpart in the growth of his [William Younger II] sales. These had been making such phenomenal progress that even in London, where competition was fierce, he was well-established by 1830, thanks not only to his own excellent product but to the fleet of fast Leith smacks, which, in half the time taken by his father's old brig the William were conveying his hogsheads south and bringing back in return hops from Robert Tooth of Cranbrook and other Kent growers."
"The Younger Centuries" by David Keir, 1951, page 39.

It seems only logical that, as Scottish brewers had a liking for Kent hops, that these were carried on the return journey back to Scotland.

On to my second piece of evidence. Quite agood one, as it talks specifically about the flavour and hopping of Edinburgh Ale:

"From this pernicious though ingenious manufactory [distilling] willingly turn to one of a more advantageous nature, which for the welfare of the community, it were much to be wished could supersede the former; that is to say, the trade of brewing ale, which has of late years been carried to great perfection in Edinburgh. Formerly a brewer, who had established his works in the southern district at the Pleasance, Mr Bell, was more celebrated than any other in Scotland for the preparation of malt liquor ; but his ale had the fault of being extremely intoxicating. Mr Giles of Leith afterwards acquired great reputation for preparing ale of uncommon beauty, capable of being preserved for a long period. It is understood, however, to be chiefly acceptable to persons of a peculiar taste, on account of its bitterness, arising it is supposed from the large quantity and strong boiling of the hops used in its preparation. But the ale which has acquired the highest reputation, and is now bought up with great avidity in London and other distant markets, is that prepared by two brothers who carry on business separately, Messrs Younger. When properly managed, this ale is as transparent as Sherry, without froth or sediment, and of such a moderate degree of astringency or bitterness as to be universally acceptable. It were well that, in consequence of its growing celebrity and popularity, it could find its way into general use among the lower class of people to the exclusion of ardent spirits."
"The Beauties of Scotland Vol I", by Robert Forsyth, 1805, pages 159-160.

This passage describes two very different types of Edinburgh Ale. One, brewed by Mr Giles of Leith, was extremely bitter. The other, brewed by the Younger brothers, was more mellow and less bitter.

Looks like the reality was a good deal more complicated than the tale. But isn't that always the case?


Matt said...

I think the opposite is true: the reality is simpler than the tale. Rather than there being a separate system of Scottish ales, they actually fit into the mild/bitter/old ale categories. I think there may be some Scottish nationalism at work here: 'we don't drink the same beer as England, we've got our own styles'.
I've also never seen the problem with transporting hops to Scotland, especially in the nineteenth century when shipping and rail links were established. In Manchester we have some very bitter beers but we're not exactly in the midst of the Lancashire hop gardens.

half_man_half_pint said...

"Formerly a brewer, who had established his works in the southern district at the Pleasance, Mr Bell, was more celebrated than any other in Scotland for the preparation of malt liquor ; but his ale had the fault of being extremely intoxicating."

Bell's Brewery is now Edinburgh University sports centre.

It became Edinburgh United Breweries in 1889, which was Scotland's 3rd largerst brewer after Wm Youngers and McEwans.
It was caught in a Customs and Exise sting operation on Christmas Eve 1933 (or maybe 32) when it was found to be making beer without paying excise duty. It closed in 1934. Lots of the brewery buildings are still there.

Lew Bryson said...

I feel a lot better about the debunking when your sources are brewing notebooks, Ron. I read these excerpts, and they sound good for your argument, but there are no amounts of hops mentioned in the first one (nor proportions; I don't believe anyone's ever said Scottish ales used no hops). The second one brings to mind the plethora of popular writing about formaldehyde in Singha; it's stated as fact, even though there's no formaldehyde in the beer, according to public statements from the brewery. It also makes me wonder if the average citizen of the 19th century is any better at correctly identifying a 'bitter' taste in beer than those of the 21st century, where I've been told beers like bock, märzen, and Bud Light are 'bitter.'

Not saying it's wrong, just that I do trust the brewing notebooks a lot more.

Ron Pattinson said...

Matt, I agree with you with regard to 60/-, 70/- and 80/-. They always seemed pretty much the same as Mild, Bitter and Best Bitter.

half_man_half_pint, thank you for that snippet of information.

Lew, that's why I didn't say that I had conclusive proof. But . . . I've another post queued up with information of real brews in the early 1800's. In fact, I've gone a bit Scotch Ale crazy. I've several more posts on the topic written and waiting to go.

half_man_half_pint said...

Most old brewery mirrors in pubs here
(Edinburgh) advertise Mild and Pale Ales, just like in England.
They don't tend to mention shillings, except for strong ale (90/-).

As far as bitterness goes, Scottish beers do tend to be maltier which can disguise the amount of hops used. e.g. Belhaven 80/- used to be 30 EBU (when it was decent beer 20 years ago)

Gary Gillman said...

I always assumed that the colder climate made hops less necessary, as ditto Northern England. Guinness of course was an imported style of beer so its use of hops seems an exception in this regard. Some beers of course though would have been well-hopped to last a year or two, the season-brewed type. But for running beers, I'd have thought on average they used less hops. But only direct comparisons between brewing notes will tell the tale, indeed.


Matt said...

Gary, the usual claim by beer writers is that the bitters and brown ales of Northern England are hoppier than their maltier Southern counterparts. Newcastle and Manns Brown Ales are usually counterposed like that (although Ron has disproved the idea of historically separate Northern and Southern styles). I always think of my usual pint here in Manchester - Holts Bitter - as a classic Northern bitter and their Mild is pretty well-hopped as well.

Gary Gillman said...

That's true about Holt's, Matt, a beer I have sampled in Manchester myself. However - and I am mindful about exceptions eating up the rule - bitter beer, as IPA in Scotland, is a kind of importation to the area.

I would have thought the traditional ales of the north were more akin to what Newcastle Brown or indeed Double Maxim - not that bitter really - is today, or say Old Peculier. In the old poetry they spoke of "nut-brown" draughts in the country, sweetish and surely less hopped than pale ales and the AK line of bitter beers that preceded and post-dated them.

Ale was from the country, beere from the citie...


Lew Bryson said...

"I've gone a bit Scotch Ale crazy."What a way to go.

BTW, I finally located the notes I took on that porter of yours Tim Webb drunkenly shared (and I mean that in the best of ways) with Beaumont and I after we just missed you at Zythos last year (found it when I was doing taxes). Much to my surprise, I took lengthy notes. I apparently really did like it, and wasn't just blowing smoke up your ass. I'm probably going to blog it in a bit.

Anonymous said...

Hops were certainly grown in Scotland, and Wales, in the 19th century, and they were grown in the southern half of Ireland in the 20th.

Gary - I've always been worried about "nut-brown ale" - was that chestnut, hazelnut or walnut? What we want is a Pantone number for nut-brown ...

Ron Pattinson said...

Gary, Edinburgh was, along with Burton, one of the main centre of IPA brewing in the 19th century. Around a half of all British beer exports came from Scotland.

You have to be very careful when you start talking about "traditional ales". And remember that Pale Ale, in the form we know it today, isn't really an Ale. The Ales of the 19th century were all pale.

Ale from the the country, Beer from London only really applies to the 18th century. And they don't mean Pale Ale.

Ron Pattinson said...

Lew, I'll look forward to reading your blog about the 1914 Porter.

Ron Pattinson said...

Zythophile, yes hops were grown, but in tiny quantities. There were some hops grown in most counties. But everything I've read about Scotch Ale brewing always specifies Kent hops. I suppose because it was an expensive beer, they used the best hops.

Gary Gillman said...

"Nut brown" ale always evoked for me the colour of roasted chestnuts. I readily admit these associations are subjective, partly anyway, but they have a, shall we say, poetic validity. :)