If you live in Florida, SoCal or somewhere else that stays relatively warm year round, just stop reading here. Go read about Pilsner or something. Go play frisbee, or go slack-lining, or just drive around with the windows down.
Pick this article up when you visit some distant relatives in Wisconsin. Pick it up when you decide you’re going to follow your friends and move to Portland. Pick it up when you’ve found yourself somewhere that is both frigidly cold and sopping wet, when you start to get a sense of what they call inverse-humidity.
Scotch ale is a cold weather beer. It’s the beer that allows you to be man (or woman) enough to wear a damn skirt in the bitter winds and spirit-crushing grayness of places like the Pacific Northwest and the Scottish Highlands.
The Maillard (pronounce it “my-yard” like a french person with a super-soft almost non-existant D) reaction is basically what makes all of the stuff you like taste good. Like caramelization, it is a form of non-enzymatic browning that gives everything from bread crust, to seared steak, to toasted marshmallows that amazing umami flavor. In beer, maillard reactions are produced during the kilning of certain malts but also with a good lengthy boil, which is why many brewers will boil their scotch ales for 120 minutes or longer. The best scotch ales also include a dose of more highly roasted or even smoked malts to balance the sweet caramel notes with a bit of a burnt edge, like bread-pudding with a slightly scorched crust.
Malty gets thrown around like a pejorative when it comes to beers like this. Your mind immediately goes to those stale import beers people drank in the ‘90s, before American craft was everywhere.
Sweet. Decidedly English. Flabby.
But lo, the great monster that is global capitalism has brought within reach not only good and fresh Scots-produced scotch ale, but delicious American iterations of the style as well.
Well there goes the whole diatribe about cold weather beer. Wouldn’t you know that one of the best scotch ales in the country comes out of the town with the nicest weather in the universe. AleSmith excels at making malt-driven beer right in the beating heart of hop-head county, USA. Despite having the highest ABV of any beer on this list, AleSmith Wee Heavy just might be the best balance of the more refined true scotch ales of Scotland and the bigger, badder, American equivalents.
Most of the time when you get these delicious molasses notes in a beer, it’s accompanied by high viscosity. Alesmith’s Wee Heavy stays light both in body and perceived alcohol, allowing your palate to parse the many layers of malt tones this beer has to offer.
Middle West - Dark Horse Scotty Karate | 104 Style+
If you’ve experienced winter in Detroit or Chicago then you know about the wind. You can’t experience the northern wind and not feel that it’s a bit… malevolent. While laughing at your puny human attempts to dress against it, it gleefully snatches each new warm, wet, exhalation from your nose and sticks it frozen to your mustache.
Scotty Karate is precisely the beer you call in to deal with such weather. Dark and roasty as a porter, but with the sweet smokiness of an Islay single malt, Scotty Karate ain’t fuckin’ around. This is the kind of beer that when you drink it, you hear the wind’s distant laughter across the lake, and you laugh back.
East Coast Middle West #2 - Founder’s Dirty Bastard | 103 Style+
Okay, I’m cheating on my categories here. If you’re reading this and you’re from the East Coast (or anywhere) and you think I’ve overlooked some kickass scotch ale, please feel free to send it my way. Otherwise, Founders is pretty widely available on the East Coast, so I’m shoehorning it in.
Dirty Bastard is another great Michigan beer with all the classic features of a good scotch ale and the added bonus of 50 IBU. The enhanced bitterness will probably make this beer more drinkable for malto-phobes, but isn’t so high that it feels out of place. S
everal vintages of this beer’s hillbilly cousin, the barrel-aged Backwoods Bastard, occupy a handful of the top slots on the BeerGraphs Scotch Ale leaderboard, and with good reason. Backwoods is one of the best examples of a beer that takes your tongue to the precipice of “oh that’s too much,” and then breaks and rolls back to “damn, that’s smooth.”
International - Traquair House Ale | 102 Style+
The thing about American... anything, is that we’re always so over-the-top. Whether it’s cab, bourbon, or barleywine, it’s like the volume has to be constantly dialed up to 11. It’s reactionary and honestly, sometimes it feels a little sophomoric. Because we’ve only been in the fine wine game since the ‘70s and the craft beer game since the ‘80s, it’s like we have this need to define ourselves in the loudest way possible, in order to get some attention.
I can’t knock the approach too much, after all it’s yielded some fantastic results: Pliny, KBS, and Sucaba are all incredible in their extremity. But as American craft brewing continues to push louder and louder beers into the market-- and as the market saturation leads brewers to reach for more and more aggressive marketing -- it’s worth remembering that there is virtue in refinement.
Traquair House Ale is a good place to start mining the past. This beer is like plum jam on whole grain toast. It manages to feel boozy without the heat, it’s got heft without too much body, it’s sweet and rich, and yet, impressively dry.
One To Hunt Down - Grand Teton Brewing Co. Sheep Eater | Unranked
I drank this beer once and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s the sort of thing that leads you to question the very nature of memory. Could it really have been that good?
A friend brings you back a growler from his trip to Yellowstone and pours you a glass. You’ve never heard of it, it’s not at the top of any leaderboard, and you’ve never seen anyone hyping it on ISO:FT. You give it a whiff and you’re surprised that it smells almost exactly like a bag of crystal malt. You take a sip, the sweetness is there but it fades almost immediately into a big hearty body of something like the brothy-creaminess of green tea or… lamb stew… what’s going on here? But before you’re even able to form the question your mind, there it is, the big smoky finish. Your spine shudders.
This is a one-of-a-kind beer.
Colin has worked in the beer and wine industry from coast to coast. He is currently a brewer and director of sales for Springfield Brewing Company. He and his wife co-own Bread In The Wild, a small sourdough bakery that they run from their farm in the Ozark Mountains, where they also raise goats, among other things