Scotland is a little too far north to be ideal for growing hops. So Scottish beers are generally more lightly hopped, and hence maltier, than their English cousins. They come in various distinctions depending on their alcohol content, the strongest being called a Scotch Ale or Wee Heavy. In his book “Tasting Beer” Randy Mosher describes this rich, malty style of beer as a sort of dark barleywine.
I’m always a little bit leary of heavy malty beers because if not done well they can be a sweet, cloying mess. Nonetheless, I have learned to appreciate some maltcentric beer styles for the rich palate of flavors they bring to the table. Founders makes great beers so I thought their Scotch Ales, Dirty Bastard and its bourbon barrel aged derivative Backwoods Bastard, would be an ideal introduction to the style. I’m posting the reviews of these two beers together to highlight the effects of barrel aging on beer.
- Brewery: Founders (Grand Rapids, MI)
- Style: Scotch Ale
- ABV: 8.5%
- IBUs: 50
- Price: $9.99 for a 6-pack
- Rating: 7
A deep dark mahogany brown color that lets some ruby highlights through when you hold it in front of a light. Not too much head to speak of, but there is a half-centimeter or so of mocha brown foam on top of the beer. The nose is rich caramel and toffee with a hint of alcohol. Given the gorgeous nose on this beer I was a little let down when I finally got to the taste. The caramel that is so prevalent in the nose is still there, particularly at the beginning of each sip, but as the beer gets to the back of your tongue the hops emerge and compete for top billing. During the transition from caramel malts to bitter hops you briefly get a sort of cola taste, before the hops gain the upper hand and leave you with a lingering bitterness. It is worth noting that Dirty Bastard registers with a 50 international bitterness units (IBUs), while a typical Scotch Ale would be closer to 20-30 IBUs. The mouthfeel is substantial but not as thick and chewy as you would like for an end of the night sipper.
I enjoyed Dirty Bastard, it certainly wasn’t cloying as I feared it might be, but I wouldn’t say it made me regret avoiding Scotch Ales for all of these years. The smell and the first half of each drink were tantalizing, but the finish and the aftertaste didn’t deliver on the promise. Still if Scotch Ales are a style that you dig, I think you’ll be happy with this beer, which won a Silver Medal at the 2011 World Beer Championships.
- Brewery: Founders (Grand Rapids, MI)
- Style: Scotch Ale (10.2% ABV)
- ABV: 10.2%
- Price: $4 for a 12 oz bottle
- Rating: 8
In the vital statistics we see that Backwoods Bastard has a higher alcohol content and is a little more pricey, both expected outcomes of barrels aging. To the eye it is pretty similar to Dirty Bastard. The nose is an enticing mix of caramel, bourbon and vanilla. Coming to the taste you are initially greeted by a wave of smooth caramel, with some vanilla highlights from the oak barrels. The bourbon flavor emerges mid-palate and leaves a lingering bourbon burn on the finish. The hops have been relegated to the background, where I think they belong for this style of beer. The mouthfeel is much more luxurious than Dirty Bastard, rich and silky smooth. Overall there is a nice balance between the caramel, vanilla and bourbon.
I’m glad I tried Dirty Bastard, but I don’t see myself going back to it very often. It’s a different story for Backwoods Bastard. Here the bourbon barrel aging does wonders for the beer. It brings out the rich caramel flavors that Dirty Bastard teases you with, and the mouthfeel is to die for. I’m not generally a big fan of bourbon, but I can appreciate the quality of Backwoods Bastard. If you are a bourbon lover you owe it to yourself to give this beer a try. It flies off the shelves pretty fast so it may be hard to find any at this point in the year. Founders releases this special beer in November of each year. So start looking for this indulgent treat as soon as next Halloween passes.
Editors Note: For more on Scotch Ales head over to Round 8 of the Ohio vs. Michigan beer challenge where I compare and contrast Backwoods Bastard with Wulver by Thirsty Dog. Wulver has even more caramel and less bourbon than Backwoods Bastard. It is Scotch Ale perfected.
Rating scale: 10 = perfection, 9 = excellent, one of the top beers in the world, 8 = very good, one of the top beers in its style category, 7 = good, a solid beer I’m happy to be drinking, 6 = average, not bad but not something I’m likely to buy again, 5 = below average, 3-4 = poor, should be avoided, 1-2 drainpour.