Thursday, 1 October 2009

Scotland vs England

I've been quiet about Scottish beer for a while. There's a reason. And it's not laziness. Or running out of ideas. Quite the contrary.

Much of what's been written about Scottish beer seems dubious. Or based on supposition rather than real evidence. So I've set myself this aim: to see if I can identify any quantifiable difference between Scottish and English beers. Simple enough.

Though the idea is simple, making such a comparison is trickier. The couple of little tables comparing the odd Scottish beer with a few English beers I've posted really don't do the job. A much broader comparison is needed. Hundreds of beers. That's what I should compare. From multiple breweries. Over a period of 100 years.

It just so happens that I have the necessary information. Just not in a usable form. So I've taken on another ridiculously ambitious project. Harvesting the details from thousands of brewing records and putting them into a spreadsheet. OG, FG, hopping rate, pitching temperature and boil time. It's a lot of work. Far more than any sane person would take on. But who said I was sane?

It's going to take a while. I don't want to start making half-arsed claims before I have the facts. So you'll have to be patient. But it'll be worth the wait. Finally the truth about Scottish beer.


Gary Gillman said...

Ron, I think that would be most valuable, over any period, but in particular from 1800 (or as early as you can go) to 1850 or so. What you have posted and what I have read in numerous sources suggests that after that date, pale ale was increasingly the staple beer of Scots brewers. The differences from English beers would be fewer in the latter half of the 1800's not to mention the 1900's.

By the 1970's, Michael Jackson wrote of Scotch ale (the original heavy-bodied, high ABV type, the same one George Saintsbury described in 1920) as almost a lost category in Scotland itself, something to be found only in odd corners of the world such as Belgium or northern France.

Through identification of malt and hop varieties and (hopefully) some period recreations, it will be possible to get a sense too of the palate in the period when Scotch ale was truly something apart. So many writers have written that the strong ales of England and Scotland all differed in taste, that no one could mistake Burton for Scotch ale or strong London ale, for example.

How any beer tasted in a given period is a historical conundrum I find particularly fascinating and one that can't easily be gleaned from any historical record (verbal or technical). We have to get closer to the palate and I believe your efforts ongoing with Kristen are vital to this aspect of brewing history. Nor do I believe as some may suggest that such recreations are futile due to changing malts and hops. I don't believe that at all, I believe our materials today if carefully chosen can approximate to those of the past.

I always will remember the story from a member of the Durden Beer Circle who offered a circa-1914 London Porter to an elderly lady who had been "in service" during WW I. Not thinking (why would he?) she had any preconceptions or knowledge about beer technics, he casually said to her, "Try this, it's like Guinness". She tasted it and rejoined, "No it's not it's London Porter". I love that story and it tells me a lot about how we can determine what beers tasted like in a past time.


Adrian said...

I'm very much looking forward to reading the results of this research. Perhaps it will prove/disprove the notions that roasted barley, kettle carmelization, peat smoke, and low hopping are what define a Scottish Ale.

The latest arguments I've heard FOR these notions are:

1) There's so much talk about these methods that it must be true.
2) At some point peat was used as a fuel so therefore it could have been used to dry malt.
3) Can you prove it (peat) wasn't used? (Negative proof?!)

Gary Gillman said...

Here is direct evidence from the 1860's, from some reportage by Charles Dickens, that Scotch ale tasted smoky (and sweet) (see pg. 295):

"Above all things, avoid the before-mentioned ale, whether it be called Philadelphian or Scotch. Under the first name it is sour; under the second disagreeably sweet and smoky".

Kristen England said...

Roasted barley is in very few logs I've ever seen. I can't actually think of one of them in the 1800's that contains it.

Funny you should mention peat. I have never ever seen it in any log nor anywhere else. Not specific peat malt and I would guess that it was only really used pre-1800.

What I did find when I was in Scotland last that a very small handful of breweries that are near peatbogs use their water. Just like some Scotches, these beers end up with peat from the actual water that is used rather than any peat malt being added.

Caol Isla 8yr 'unpeated' is a wonderful cask strength whiskey that shows how much peat in water can do. Here is an except from the Royal Mile Beer Menu.

The Influences of Location
'The water used in the production of Single Malts is usually not treated. Water that rises from granite has its own softness. If it rises up through or flows over peat it will pick up the characteristics of the peat. The age of the peat deposits, and their degree of grass-root or heather character, will have its own influence on flavor.'

Ron Pattinson said...

Gary, it remains to be seen how different the "original" Scotch Ale was from English Ales of similar strength. I'll hold judgement until I have more facts.

Recreations can give a general idea of how old beers would have tasted. They are never going to be exact clones, but should still retain the main characteristics.

Ron Pattinson said...

Adrian, roast barley was illegal before 1880 so I don't expect to find that in older logs. William Younger used no coloured malts at all, except in their Stouts. Looks to me like they did any colouring using caramel or other dark sugars.

The stuff about peat makes a couple of big assumptions:

- Firstly, that malt was made in areas where peat was used as fuel. William Younger (largest Scottish brewery, largest Scottish exporter) made their own malt in Edinburgh. It's highly unlikely they shipped in peat from the Highlands to kiln it.

- Secondly, that Scottish brewers always used Scottish malt.

Gary Gillman said...

Smoky notes are noted by the way in Scotch ale (strong export versions) into the 1970's, U.S. beer writer Jim Robertson described Younger's Edinburgh Ale in that era as tasting of "roast bacon flavor with a smoky aftertaste"... How the smoke notes may have been imparted may have varied over time but this has been a characteristic of some Scotch ale at any rate over a long period.

In fact the Caledonians-brewed St. Andrews SCottish Ale we used to get until quite recently in Ontario also has a marked smoky note (different than any English beer has today). Again, I do not know how they achieved that.