Everyone knows the most iconic images in Scotland: golf, the Loch Ness monster, haggis, tartans and Scotch whiskey. Nearly all representations of Scots in American media revolve around these themes. But in day-to-day life, none of these (with the possible exception of scotch) are as important in Scotland as beer and ale. Take a peek into any pub in Edinburgh, Glasgow or Aberdeen and you will see Scots partaking in a pint of their favorite brew.
Scottish beers, and particularly ales, are relatively hard to come by in the United States. Despite recent incorporations into some of the world’s largest brewing companies, Scotland’s offerings tend to be sold mostly in the United Kingdom.
The overwhelming majority of beer available in the States is just that: beer. Scotland has a long tradition of ales that simply are not exported in large quantities. That is quite a shame because Scottish ales are some of the most enjoyable and easy to drink brews anywhere in the world. The smooth and milky style leaves the drinker with a satisfied palate and often with a bit of a cream mustache as well.
Scotland boasts three major brewers who produce the most famous, recognizable and often best beers and ales in the country:
Scottish Courage brews Scotland’s most iconic ale, McEwan’s. McEwan’s has been brewing ales in Edinburgh since 1856 and retains nineteenth century nomenclature on their ales sold within Scotland. McEwan’s 60/-, 70/- and 80/- are varying degrees of strength that correspond with what their cost used to be. The shilling representation though is not mentioned and one refers to the ales as “McEwan’s 70,” etc. McEwan’s also makes a lager, though that is a far more recent development. McEwan’s is by far the best ale in Scotland and is also the best selling.
J&R Tennents opened its doors in Glasgow as early as 1740 and has been brewing Scotland’s most popular lager, Tennents Lager, since 1885. Tennents was the first lager in the UK, and they were the first to produce a draught lager, a canned lager and a keg lager. With as high as a 60% market share in Scotland, it is clearly the people’s lager. It is, of course, nothing like ale as its golden color and crisp taste make it an easy beer to drink. Tennents also makes a particularly fantastic beer called Tennents Velvet, which falls somewhere in between a lager and an ale with a darker color and smoother finish. When I lived in Scotland, it was my beer of choice in many pubs across Edinburgh.
Caldeonian Brewing is the third of the most important brewers in Scotland. Caley, as it is locally known, makes the standard bearer of Scottish Heavies, or 80/- brews. This dark, strong ale is a favorite of Edinburgh residents in particular. Caley’s Deuchars IPA was recently the first Scottish beer to be crowned Champion Beer of Britain and is certainly one of the finest India Pale Ale’s in the country.
There are, of course, other beers and ales available in Scotland. Belhaven, a brewery based in Dunbar, just east of Edinburgh, puts out wonderful beers including their St. Andrew’s Ale. This ale can actually be found in the US and is probably the best exported beer Scotland provides. Instead of changing the recipe or reducing the quality for exports (as, for example, is practiced by the Irish giant Guiness), Belhaven keeps the top quality of their brews in the exported varieties. Also excellent from Belhaven is their Scottish Ale, though this is a much stronger drink in terms of alcohol content (8%).
Unlike the classic and biggest selling American beers, brews from Scotland are of top quality. The experience of visiting Scotland is greatly enhanced by grabbing a table, or preferably a seat at the bar, and asking for a pint. It will not be a disappointment and it will cost the same or less than it would for a wee dram of scotch.