Friday, 30 September 2011

Coal in Alloa

Alloa was, as we know, one of the great centres of Scottish brewing. Did they have coal there? This quote answers the question:

"Alloa is a sea-port, and much known for its many whisky-distilleries, ale-breweries, collieries, and glasshouses."
"Caledonian sketches" by Sir John Carr, 1809, page 246.

That's pretty clear. And note the early date: 1809.

Would they have used peat in malting with collieries on their doorstep? Of course they bloody wouldn't.

Just wait until I get started on malting in Scotland.


Anonymous said...

Fact is that if you have a port on hand everything is easily available, local or not,which can be brought by sea.This simple fact is so often overlooked or ignored.So hops might actually have been cheaper in Alloa than in many parts of England where they had to travel by road.As for peat, a given weight of coal or coke gives much more heat when burned.

Alistair Reece said...

Would I be right in assuming that maltsters had different processes for making whisky malt and brewing malt? Or would they have specialised in one or the other?

Kristen England said...


Touring the remaining whiskey malters its the same. Some distilleries prefer distillers grade barley. other, Glenmorangie specifically, use Golden Promise for their whiskeys...or at least used to when I was there.

I worked in a distidllery and basically the only difference in the type of barley is that the distillers has a higher protein content. here is one example:

Alistair Reece said...


it would be interesting then to get hold of the supply chain details for Scottish breweries - to find out where they were purchasing their raw ingredients from, and how much of them.

The Beer Wrangler said...

Thanks Ron.
Your site dispels many a myth with hard researched evidence. Here in North America people are led to believe that all beer brewed in Scotland was totally different to anything brewed in England and Wales, whereas I like maintaining that it was all part of the same broad brewing tradition.
The whole peat myth as well as the convenient omission of Scottish brewers brewing Pale ale and IPAs continues to frustrate me when discussing beer here.

I think many (particularly in the USA) like neat pigeon holes which can have very firm borders when discussing beer styles. I always like to refer to styles as broad permeable guidelines, more to help a customer than to force a brewer to brew within a certain 'style' with much overlapping, crossover and evolution through the centuries.
Scottish beer may have more inaccurate information trotted out than any other (few hops, peaty flavour, sweet malt profile etc) Although many beers throughout Britain might have this profile,(except peatiness) I am fed up explaining that many types of beer were brewed in Scotland. I now tend to refer people to your site as well as Martyn Cornell's.

sorry for the rant but, it is a 'well done keep up the good work' in too many words!

Ron Pattinson said...

Al, you can see where the ingredients came from that William Younger used. They're specified in the logs.

Hops: Kent, Bohemia and Bavaria.

Malt: England, Scotland, USA, North Africa.

Gary Gillman said...

The current Caledonian 80/-, according to the brewery website, uses numerous malts including both amber and black malt. These malts contribute more than colour based on Beer Advocate reviews which mention words like smokiness, pronounced peatiness, scorched earth, and similar expressions.

The taste of Belhaven St. Andrews as I recalled it was similar but bigger, and ditto even more so for McEwan's Scotch Ale of the past and maybe even of today. (I thought Caledonian's makes McEwan's, if so probably it's for export only, and it may be a higher gravity version of the type of beer Cally's 80 is).

But anyway I ask myself: did Lorimer's original beers have this character? If so, I believe them again to be a continuation of a taste from a time when Scots maltsters used peat to dry their malt. (They did, Alexander Morrice said so in his 1827 book on the different sorts of malt liquors according to a footnote in Donnachie's 1979 study of Scottish brewing history).

If all Lorimer's first beers (i.e., circa-1870's) tasted clean as a whistle, I'd concede that these changes occurred much later presumably, at least in its case.

But somehow I think it's an old taste, since the late Jim Robertson noticed it in MacEwan's Edinburgh Ale in 1978, so it makes sense to me that Lorimer's brewery then was still doing something similar.

I hope this shows my feeling, not necessarily that peat was used in mid-1800's Scots commercial brewing - I accept and always did that this was not likely - but that something was done to some of the Scots beers, through mixing different malts, yeast selection or whatever, to continue the old taste because people knew and still liked it.

It might have been just the strong line of some breweries that had it and perhaps some did not or abandoned it (Younger's?). But I think the old taste did survive here and there of a fashion and even to today.


Ron Pattinson said...

Gary, I drank Lorimer's Best Scotch plenty of times. Not a trace of smoke. Actually, it was indistiguishable from an English ordinary Bitter.

Barm said...

What colour was Best Scotch?

Ron Pattinson said...

Barm, like Bitter, as far as I can recall.

Gary Gillman said...

Well, that's interesting Ron. But assuming its equivalent in the late 1800's tasted like that, still the ("English") taste wouldn't have had to characterize all the Scots ales, of all the breweries, since the mid-1800's. Most of them did become English in character I think (or were from inception, probably most of the Younger's beers you mentioned recently) And you've shown the trend in other ways, e.g., pitching temperature alignment.

But I believe there were exceptions, ones which maintained an older taste throughout, of which Cally's 80 is an example, whatever its specific history.

I've offered the support for it I think is there, it is a theory, more I can't say.


Gary Gillman said...

Ron, on the point of peat-fired kilns, this is the footnote in Donnachie's book I mentioned:

It is only partially viewable to me here, but I interpreted footnote 13 on pg. 115 to say that Alexander Morrice, in his 1827 Practical Treatise on Brewing Various Sorts of Malt Liquors, stated that Scots malt-kilns used peat as fuel.

If Morrice didn't actually say that - his book is not viewable even partially on Google Books at least on this side of the Atlantic - then clearly Donnachie is saying it, as the snippet of his book on page 102 also implies.

Some malt-kilns were designed to shield the malt from the smoke. But in the snippet on page 102, Donnachie refers to a perforated base of tile or cast iron. I doubt therefore the resultant malt was peat-free when that fuel was used, or free from wood-smoke when wood was used, etc.

But on an industrial scale, even for smaller breweries, probably peat died away as a fuel to dry malt by the mid-Victorian era. Indeed the same thing happened to whisky. In Ireland, whiskey made in the country by artisans, moonshine essentially, would have been often flavoured with peat. The legal, industrial concerns by the mid-1800's didn't use it though and the peat-reek became dissociated from the palate of Irish pure pot still whisky. In Scotland, it is similar in that grain whisky (the base for blended Scotch) and a lot of single malt became unpeated.

But some Highlands malt whisky and famously most of the Islay ones never abandoned it, as is well known.


Ron Pattinson said...

Gary, here's the passage immediately following the footnoted sentence:

"Many Edinburgh maltsters and brewers (and probably their fellows throughout Fife and the Lothians) used coked sea coals until the end of the 18th century."

The quote doesn't say that peat was used, it's only in the footnote and no reference is given for the source.

Donnachie confirms the use of coal (in coke form) in the important brewing regions of Scotland. Fife - Alloa; the Lothians: Edinburgh and Prestonpans.

Gary Gillman said...

I'd like to check Morrice though, since I read the footnote, perhaps wrongly, as crediting Morrice with the statement. If Morrice didn't state it, I would still take Donnachie's opinion seriously given the kind of book he wrote...

Also, the fact of coked coal being used in the 1700's does not mean peat wasn't used before or contemporaneously. Clearly it was still being used in 1800 because e.g. of circa-1800 ads or patent applications for malt-kilns stating one could use peat (amongst other fuels) without communicating the smell to the beer. This suggests peat was still being used with the problem, for some at any rate, of lending an objectionable flavour to beer.

Coked coal use in the 1700's shows malt kilning was modernizing quite early. It cannot mean IMO though that peat wasn't used in Scottish brewing before or contemporaneously in some cases. By the way when you look at your aligned maps, the breweries are in many cases near small deposits of peat (which on the ground still looked pretty large I'm sure). In other words, save on the coast on the east perhaps I'm sure peat was easily obtainable for most of those who wanted it: Scotland is (comparatively) full of the stuff. It would I think usually have been cheaper than coke, too, so there may have been different qualities of beer offered.

All this said, we are not really in disagreement. I accept that in all likelihood, even from the 1700's onward, peat use in Scots brewing, which originally was artisan, declined rapidly.

All I am saying - but I am saying that much - is that I believe the old taste for a smoky/roasty beer, derived from a time peat was in common use to kiln malt, survived in Scotland as a minority taste amongst the ales, to this day. The way to achieve that taste changed, but the taste endured IMO, just as the taste of porter endured for centuries despite changing malting technologies.


Gary Gillman said...

Ron, this shows clearly (circa-1750) that for ale brewing in Scotland, peat was commonly used to dry the malt. It's a paper Sir Robert Murray delivered to the Royal Society on malting practices in Scotland.

Murray writes at pg. 631, "The best fuel is peat, the next charcoal, made of pit-coal or cinders...".

Ale is specifically mentioned as the object of the malting (or one of them), since it is stated if the grains are not well dried the "Ale" will show certain defects.

This is exactly at the tipping point I suspect when peat started to go out, when the artisan era was ending and the industrial one commencing. But it shows the kind of history to which Donnachie was alluding IMO.


Gary Gillman said...

Ron, correction: the report to the Royal Society I mentioned could not have been delivered in the 1750's despite that the volume containing it was published then. Sir Robert Murray, also known as Robert Moray, only lived 1608-1673.

Indeed, later this morning, I found an earlier version of the report, textually identical, but using older spelling, e.g. fewl for fuel. So that confirms it.

You can see by reference to the "impression of taste" wording in the part just after what I quoted earlier, that they wanted the peat taste in the beer - then. But it doesn't matter in my view that peat use in malting was common 100 years earlier than I thought. It may have continued well into the 1700's anyway, I think it had to in certain areas.

And in truth, 350 years is not very long for an ancestral taste to endure. There are many illustrations in the world of food and drink including in the beer world (lambic, etc.).


Ron Pattinson said...


I've got an 1802 edition of Morrice's book. The quote about fuels used in malt kilns looks the same. There is no mention made of peat.

Gary Gillman said...

Then it must be Donnachie's opinion. But it has a basis. Sir Robert Moray/Murray's report in the Royal Society publications I referred to stated peat was used to kiln ale malt in Scotland and even that the flavour was prized. Murray was Scottish incidentally.

In a similar discussion here 2 years ago, I mentioned a comment in Dickens's magazine (1870's I believe) which characterized Scotch ale bought in New York as "smoky". Sweetness was mentioned too. It just seems to me there is a thread linking all these peaty/smoky/bacony/scorched earth beers...