Scots may have whisky in their veins but they still know how to enjoy a glass of beer and, no matter what part of the country they live, have a fine array of local ales to choose from. As with the rest of the UK, new, innovative breweries are springing up at a rapid rate, whether they’re jostling for attention among the pub-packed streets of Glasgow and Edinburgh or distracting whisky-seekers throughout the many island distilleries.
Much of the credit for the UK’s craft ale boom can be put down to brewing agitators BrewDog, who started out in 2007 as a two-man team in Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire, before going on to conquer the world. Some of the impressive new Scottish breweries aiming to follow in their footsteps, besides those mentioned in this list, include Drygate, Fallen, Fierce and Six Degrees North, with many more launches to follow.
Both whisky and beer start out on the same journey with the fermentation of malted barley. We suggest you put your whisky tumbler to one side, rinse out your best beer glass and enjoy the ten best Scottish boozes that stop short of the distillation stage.
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1. Swannay, Old Norway, 8%: £3 for 330ml, Eebria
You can guess it gets cold on Orkney if you look at the range of strong ales produced up by the island’s Swannay brewery, each one a welcome dose of winter booze-fuel. Barley wines aren’t to everyone’s tastes, but not everyone has tried them as good as this. It’s packed with sweet malt flavours, thick and vinous like a dessert wine, while American hops give it a burst of orange and provide a resinous pine finish that rounds off an exceptional sipping experience.
2. Fyne Ales, Jarl, 3.8%: £2.60 for 500ml, Eebria
Loch Fyne means ‘Loch of the vine’ and is famous for its oyster farms, but it’s the local beer we’re most interested in. Fyne Ales makes use of the plentiful Scottish rain to brew superb real ales at sensible alcohol strengths, and Jarl is its most celebrated creation. It’s a light beer, hopped with citra, and comes packed with refreshing citrus flavours and a dry, grassy bitterness, all of which gradually build throughout drinking. Time to ditch the chardonnay and enjoy beer with your shellfish instead.
3. Windswept, Wolf, 6%: £3.20 for 500ml, Eebria
This strong, dark Scottish ale is a thick, heady brew, loaded with sweet, toasted malts and a muted bitterness. The rich, dried fruit flavours and straight-to-head booziness make it a perfect winter warmer, but if you’re looking for extra heat check out the seasonal Werewolf: it’s a Wolf with the added bite of habanero chillis.
4. Caledonian Deuchars IPA, 4.4%: £1.80 for 500ml, Sainsbury’s
Many years ago, before ‘craft ale’ became an overused, confusing term, Deuchars IPA was the type of drink new breweries were keen to emulate, and it’s a beer that still stands up today. It has a distinctive husky, bready malt flavour and an honest bitterness – the kind that isn’t embellished with high tropical notes but pleasingly drifts along with the malt, offering a light, floral flourish. Classic British brewing.
5. BrewDog, Elvis Juice, 6.5%: £1.65 for 330ml, Morrisons
Which beer from BrewDog’s vast portfolio should we parade in this list? How about Elvis Juice – an American IPA that has been at the forefront of the current trend for grapefruit-infused booze and is now widely available in supermarkets at a decent price. Built on a solid malt base, bitter grapefruit peel accentuates the citrus notes of an American hop quintet and sprays the senses with a full zesty assault. If you’re looking for a way into contemporary fruit-infused beers, you won’t go far wrong with this.
6. Harviestoun, Ola Dubh 12, 8%: £12 for 3 x 330ml, Harviestoun
Whisky meets beer in this luxurious Scottish booze mash-up. Harviestoun has brewed extra batches of its delicious dark ale, Old Engine Oil, and allowed them to mature in the oak sherry casks that previously contained Highland Park 12-year-old single malt. The result is a thick black liquid with toasty chocolate flavours and some restrained whisky notes of oak, smoke and leather.
7. Islay Ales, Dun Hogs Head, 4.4%: £2.95 for 500ml, The Scottish Real Ale Shop
Islay Ales have been brewing traditional beers in their Hebridean Island home since 2004, serving the local community and anyone lucky enough to find an ale that has crossed the sea to a mainland bar or beer festival. Dun Hogs Head is an easy-drinking, bottle-conditioned stout, satisfyingly dry and full of the flavours of well-roasted malts, with a fruity bitterness provided by Bramling Cross hops.
8. Tempest Brewing Co, Elemental, 5.1%: £1.85 for 330ml, Tempest Brewing Co
Although a fairly new brewery, Tempest will soon be running out of polish to shine its rapidly expanding trophy collection, with the Scottish Beer Awards ‘Brewery of the Year’ accolade the latest to land on its Galashiels reception desk. We’ve picked out Elemental Dark Ale as one to try: it’s a classic porter with smooth roasted malts playing to their chocolate and coffee strengths while the hops provide some fruity depth and add a pinch of spice to the clean, dry finish. A well-rounded porter you’ll want to polish off.
9. Williams Bros, Fraoch Heather Ale, 5%: £1.99 for 500ml, Beers of Europe
Based on a 4,000-year-old recipe, heather ale doesn’t exactly follow modern beer fashion, but Williams Bros are expert craftsmen and this beer is well worth investigating. It has a soft feel and is full of caramel-tinted malt flavours, with a floral perfume and some herby notes that lead out a dry finish. Don’t expect big hoppy hits from this one – instead, you’re getting a true a taste of Scottish beer history.
10. Stewart Brewing, Ka Pai, 5.2%: £2.70 for 500ml, Eebria
Stewart Brewing has hauled a heap of New Zealand hops to East Scotland and channeled their fruity flavours into a very pale, straw-coloured ale. Each mouthful evokes a meadow of fresh grass with pockets of citrus and mango before a dense, spruce-tinged bitterness coats the palette. It’s as if a landscape of wild New Zealand hops has been cultivated in a glass.
This is just the tip of the Scottish beer iceberg, with loads more fantastic drinks waiting to be discovered. We conducted tasting sessions as the weather turned cold, and nothing warmed our cockles more than Swannay’s barley wine – a beer every bit as good as some of the country’s great whiskies.
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