Scotland’s contributions to the world far exceed any reasonable expectation for a country with half the population of Ohio. The world would be a duller place without the likes of whisky, golf, curling, kilts, bagpipes, and the catchy 80’s pop hit “In a Big Country”. We can thank Scotland for the steam engine (James Watt), modern economics (Adam Smith), penicillin (Alexander Flemming), and the television (John Logie Baird). Given these exceptional contributions I’m willing to give the Scots a pass on things like thistles, Presbyterianism, and Sheena Easton.
Scotland doesn’t immediately spring to mind as a dream beer destination, but Scottish beer has an identity that is distinct from their neighbors to the south. While sharing the same aesthetic for low abv session ales, Scottish brewers tend to favor low hopping levels and a clean fermentation profile, leaving the malts to do all the heavy lifting. By dialing back on the most flavorful ingredients in a brewer’s arsenal, the Scottish brewer is left with the challenging task of creating flavorful malt-forward session beers.
Most Scottish beer doesn’t travel well, so while I’ve had a few Scottish beers back in the states (Bellhaven, Innis and Gunn, and of course BrewDog) I have relatively little first-hand experience with Scottish ale. All the more reason to get off the train in Edinburgh on the way home from a work visit to St. Andrews University and spend Friday afternoon sampling Scottish beers in the capital city.
I’d spent the morning walking a trail that meandered through the birthplace of golf, the Old Course at St. Andrews. In my youth I was a pretty decent golfer, and the Open Championship was always my favorite tournament, so it was a real treat to see the Swilcan Bridge, walk along the road hole, and marvel at the scarcity of level ground on the undulating fairways of the world’s oldest golf course. I have to say that as far as colors go, Britain does green exceedingly well. I suppose you can chalk it up to daily rain showers and a millennia of domesticated farm animals shitting all over the countryside. When the sun comes out from behind the clouds the manicured fairways and enormous greens of a links golf course are a great place to experience the lush greenness that is one of Britain’s most endearing features.
The train journey from St. Andrews south to Edinburgh features more scenic views along the east coast of the Scottish lowlands. It culminates with a ride across the majestic Firth of Forth on the world’s second largest cantilever bridge. I detrain at Waverly Station pleased to find the city bathed in autumnal sunshine. After getting my bearings, I make my way up the Royal Mile toward the castle. It’s a beautiful street, but the high concentration of tourist-oriented shops (and tourists) detracts a little from its charm. Although my wardrobe is sorely lacking in woolen garments, I refuse to be distracted from my core mission—to find as much distinctively Scottish beer as my five-hour layover will allow.
I’m particularly keen to find a Heather Ale, a beer that is thought to have been brewed by the ancient Celtic tribes of Scotland a thousand of years before hops were introduced to Britain. Robert Louis Stevenson even wrote a poem about Heather Ale, which tells the story of the Scots conquering the Picts and the subsequent dismay of the king when he learns that his side has killed almost all who know the secret of making heather ale. He then goes on a mission to find a surviving Pict who can brew Heather Ale. It’s a long poem with a lot of death and an unhappy ending for everyone, so I‘ll just give you a snippet here:
Summer came in the country,
Red was the heather bell;
But the manner of the brewing
Was none alive to tell.
In graves that were like children’s
On many a mountain head,
The brewsters of the heather
Lay numbered with the dead.
Stevenson’s version of events is undoubtedly a romanticized, fanciful tale. Among other liberties, he likens Picts to dwarves, a claim with scant archeological support, but Heather Ale is a real thing. From what I can gather it was brewed up until the 19th century and then became extinct. Williams Brothers Brewing revived the style with Fraoch, a 21st century version of Heather Ale some years ago. In addition to the allure of tracking down a once extinct beer of Pictish origin, my one previous experience with a beer made from heather, Galloway Tale by Seventh Son in Columbus, is a fond memory. It seems like as good a quest as any for the afternoon.
The Bow Bar
My first destination is an old school, one room boozer called the Bow Bar. When the sun is shining on the colorfully painted store fronts that make up the arc of Victoria and West Bow Streets, the view here is gorgeous. The bar, which occupies a modest space on the south side of the street, follows a simple layout—a single room with a modest bar and a handful of tables around the periphery. Everything is made from well-worn dark wood, and the shelves behind the bar contain an impressive collection of whisky. Beer-wise they are pouring eight cask ales and one keg beer, nearly all of them from smaller independent breweries, mostly based in Scotland, but alas no heather ales. The bartender steers me toward a half pint of a hoppy blond ale called New World Odyssey from Fallen Brewery in Stirlingshire. My last meal was a traditional Scottish breakfast and if I’m honest it was a bit heavy on things made from the inner organs and blood of farm animals. A good hoppy beer is just what the doctor ordered to get the taste of blood pudding out of my mouth, and this beer does not disappoint. The hops, a mix of Saaz, Citra and Mosaic, are bright and citrusy, and the mouthfeel surprisingly substantial for a 4.1% beer. They may not grow hops in Scotland, but Scottish craft brewers are not hesitant to use them liberally.
While they may not be pouring the elusive heather ale, the Bow Bar does have an 80 schilling Scottish Ale on offer from nearby Stewart Brewing. It’s hard to believe, but until 1971 the British monetary system was not based on units of ten. Instead there were 12 pence to a schilling, and 20 schillings to a pound, meaning that a pound was worth 240 pence. Perhaps good system if you are in the practice of cutting your money up into small pieces as a form of payment, but a nightmare for foreign tourists and British bookkeepers. The strongest Scottish ales (excluding Wee Heavies) were apparently sold for 80 schillings per hogshead, which in case you’re a little rusty on unit conversions is 54 imperial gallons. Coincidentally, that’s not too far from the 72 schillings (£3.60 in modern currency) that the Bow Bar charges for a mere pint of 80 schilling ale today. Talk about inflation!
Perhaps because the schilling system of naming has no relation to modern prices, the BJCP style guidelines classify 80 schilling beer as Scottish Export Ale. The version from Stewart Brewing is a deep amber color with lovely ruby highlights, and excellent clarity. The taste is full of rich caramelly malt flavor with subtle chocolate accents. It leans a little toward the sweet side, but stops well short of cloying, maintaining a high degree of drinkability. The web says that they use no less than five types of malt (Maris Otter, Crystal, Chocolate, Wheat, and CaraPils) in this beer. Hops must be an important part of the recipe to keep the sweetness of the malts in check, but to my palate they are completely overshadowed by the malts. This may be the strongest of the Scottish Ales, but it still only hits 4.4% abv. I’m deeply impressed that you can make a beer with such expressively flavorful malt character, that remains sessionable in terms of both flavor and alcohol content. Beers like this are few and far between in the USA, but if you are looking for a good facsimile head down to Barley’s Ale House and order a pint of MacLenny’s Scottish Ale. Brewmaster Angelo Signorino has been brewing his kettle caramelized version of a Scottish Ale for a decade longer than Stewart Brewing has been in existence.
Innis and Gunn Beer Kitchen
My next destination is the Innis and Gunn Beer Kitchen. I make my way around the Castle, that towers over the city courtesy of its perch atop an extinct volcano. My path takes me down Grassmarket Street, perhaps best known as the site where public hangings took place, many during the religious strife that beset Scotland during the reformation. Of course, finding a square or street corner in Edinburgh where someone was hung, or beheaded, or burned at the stake is not much harder than finding a Starbucks in Seattle.
The Innis and Gunn Beer Kitchen is located on Lothian Road near the Usher Concert Hall. I’d seen I & G beers in the US, and was aware that their schtick is barrel aged beer. I didn’t realize until I started writing this story that they have an unusual origin story. Their flagship beer was initially brewed to condition used bourbon barrels that were destined for later use aging whisky. The initial plan was to dump the beer down the drain once it had done its job. I know that sounds crazy, but in 2002 bourbon barrel aged beers were in their infancy in the US and probably unheard of abroad. Fortunately, the brewer, Dougal Gunn Sharp, being a good Scotsman couldn’t let perfectly good beer go to waste, and realizing he had stumbled onto a pretty good thing the rest is history. Until recently Innis and Gunn contract brewed the beer that went into their barrels, somewhat like a Belgian Lambic blender might procure wort from another brewery. In 2016 they purchased their own brewery, using a public investment scheme similar to the one employed by BrewDog.
The Innis and Gunn Beer Kitchen in Edinburgh is a modern shiny place, part bar part gastropub. It looks like it could easily hold a couple hundred people, but when I arrive at 3 pm the place is completely empty, save an older couple sitting at one of the booths in the back corner. The staff are busy getting ready for what I assume will be a busy evening. The vibe is like showing up to a party three hours too early. There are fifteen beers on tap, split equally between Innis and Gunn beers and guest taps, including a rare sighting of an American craft beer, Founder’s All Day IPA. The taplist is dominated by keg beers here, only 2 of the 15 are served on cask. The Maple and Thistle Rye Pale Ale sounds interesting. Thistles grow exceedingly well in my flower gardens back in Columbus, with absolutely no effort on my part I might add. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could put them to good use? Unfortunately, this beer is not a solution to the world’s thistle surplus. The flavor is predominantly caramel flavored malts, it’s reasonably well balanced I concede, but lacking in rye spiciness, discernable maple flavor or anything I can identify as thistle. Not offensive by any means, but a little disappointing for the most expensive beer on the list (£4.85 for 2/3 pint).
Before ordering another beer, it seems wise to put a little food in my stomach. An order of beer battered haggis bon bons, served with whisky and chive mayo, would be the adventurous thing to do, but I suspect that dish might be aimed at unsuspecting tourists gullable enough to order a thistle beer. Just an order of onion rings for me. For an accompanying beverage I order a glass of the original Innis and Gunn oak aged beer (£3.30 for 2/3 pint). This is more like it. It’s full of rich malty flavors of caramel and toffee, but the oak aging adds a touch of vanilla, subtle flavors from the wood, and a dryness that balances out the malts. I’m guessing they use each barrel many times over because there’s no bourbon flavor to be found, and while bourbon barrel aged beer in the US could easily be double digit abv, this one is a restrained 6.6%.
Slowly the bar is starting to attract a few customers. A white-haired gentleman walks up next to me and orders a beer. Upon receiving his change he holds up a £10 note and stares at it for a long minute. He questions the wisdom of a government that prints its money on plastic (the UK has recently switched to high tech bills made from a special polymer). I may have found one of the few people in the UK that pines for the bygone days of the schilling. We strike up a conversation that involves the Fringe Festival, an orchestra of African musicians, tales from a life spent at sea, and his friendship with an American professor who bears a strong resemblance to Jerry Garcia.
The Hanging Bat
Upon leaving Innis and Gunn I walk a block south on Lothian Road and stumble across The Hanging Bat. This craft beer bar has the highest rating of any place in Edinburgh on the RateBeer site, so I’m curious to investigate what a modern craft beer bar looks like in Scotland. It turns out that it looks a lot like a craft beer bar in New York City, San Francisco, or Tokyo. The tap list is written on a wall mounted chalk board that sports 14 keg beers and 6 cask ales from all over the UK. These are the kind of craft beers that beer geeks seek out, plus a couple German imports, and one house brewed beer. It’s a multilevel place, most of which sits below street level. The walls are either rough cut stone or covered in reclaimed wood, and each table has a candle on it. Toward the back, behind two glass doors sits a very small brewing system, a half-barrel system by the looks of it, where the house brewed beers are made. The urinals in the men’s room are made from repurposed kegs. You can have a look around for yourself at The Hanging Bat website, although the description of the urinals is a Pat’s Pints exclusive.
Although it’s already moderately busy there are a few open seats at the bar. The bartender asks me what I would like, but it’s hard to narrow it down when you haven’t tried any beer on the list and are unfamiliar with many of the breweries. Despite what my eyes are telling me I ask hopefully about a heather ale. No luck, but sensing my affinity for beer with unusual ingredients she steers me to a Gooseberry Saison. It’s a collaboration between Cloudwater Brewing in Manchester, one of the darlings of the UK craft beer scene (think Treehouse, Trillium, Hoof Hearted), and Duration Brewing in Norfolk. As you might expect for a beer from a place known for hazy DIPAs it’s not much of a looker, amber and hazy to the point of being opaque. I have no idea what a gooseberry is supposed to taste like, but it works very well with the saison yeast profile. The beer is fruity, spicy, and finishes dry, in a word tasty.
I can see why The Hanging Bat is a destination for beer geeks. It’s a cozy place with a fair bit of character and an awesome tap list, but it doesn’t exude much sense of place. You could take this bar and drop it into any modern city and I’m not sure I could tell the difference. Not that it’s a bad thing. In fact, it would probably be a godsend if I had to subsist on a diet of smoked salmon, cock-a-leekie soup and perpetually malty beer, but it’s not what I’m looking for today, so I take my leave after one beer and head off to my next destination.
Hailing from Central Ohio as I do, I can hardly come to Scotland without investigating BrewDog in their homeland. While the main production facility in Ellon is many hours north of here, BrewDog pubs are all over the UK. The Edinburgh location is on Cowgate Street a block south of the Royal Mile. In spite of the glorious late afternoon sun, Cowgate is considerably lower in elevation than the High Street (aka the Royal Mile) that follows an elevated ridge from the castle down to Holyrood Palace. Consequently, everything is bathed in shadows down here. The BrewDog bar has their patented industrial vibe going on—a cement floor, an exposed ceiling, and a concrete slab for a bar, and a small permanently shaded “beer garden” wedged between the outside of the building and Cowgate Street.
Though it’s only moderately busy it takes a few minutes before one of the hipster bartenders takes notice of me, even then he seems to be mildly annoyed that people keep coming up to the bar and ordering beer. I’m not expecting anything traditional here, and the tap list confirms my expectations. I really enjoy BrewDog’s Jet Black Heart when served on nitro, and their grapefruit IPA Elvis Juice just took a bronze medal in the Fruit Beer category at the Great American Beer Festival, but I decide to go for something even less traditional and order a glass of India Pale Weizen. As my journey takes me from traditional ales to craft beer, both the abv and the price keep moving up. This beer is 7.5% abv and sells for £5.40 for 2/3 pint. Even the sessionable Dead Pony Club (3.8% abv) is a pound more expensive than the 80 schilling beer I had back at the Bow Bar.
Given the ambivalence of the bar staff I take my German-American fusion beer and head out to the beer garden. The atmosphere is urban, noisy, and devoid of any plant life. It looks like it might be June before the sun reaches an angle where direct sunlight might reach the garden. It’s like they were trying to recreate a slice of the old East Germany in Edinburgh, but at least I’m drinking a beer rather than being stuck in traffic like the people on Cowgate Street that are slowly crawling past me.
Hefeweizens are pretty low on the list of beer styles likely to benefit from a hoppy makeover. Yet somehow this works. Hazy in appearance, with big fruity notes of mango and overripe bananas, a smooth mouthfeel, and very little bitterness. It strikes me that IPWs might be the next NE IPAs. If that happens remember where you heard it first.
Salt Horse Beer Shop and Bar
I have time for one more stop before resuming my journey back to Durham. On a tip from the bartender at the Bow Bar I head for an establishment called the Salt Horse Beer Shop and Bar. Fortunately, it’s just off of Cowgate Street only a five minute walk from BrewDog. The Salt Horse is divided into two halves, a small but impressive bottle shop on one side and a bar on the other. Not knowing which side is which I initially enter the shop, before being directed to the bar by a helpful clerk.
I immediately like the bar side upon entering, it’s cozy, homey, inviting. There are no cask ales here, and who but a beer geek would seek out a place like this, but it somehow manages to maintain the casual, friendly vibe of a pub. Friendly staff are a big part of the equation, here the bartender seems genuinely helpful and welcoming. The out of the way location might also help, I get the feeling most of the folks here are locals.
The draft list features a dozen wonderfully curated beers. Styles on offer include a triple IPA (Cloudwater), a session IPA (Beavertown), a saison (Fantôme), a helles lager (Thornbridge), a sour pale ale (Redchurch), a märzen (Ayinger), and a chocolate stout (Fierce). There in slot number 3 is the object of my desires, a heather honey saison! This is not the Williams Brothers heather ale, but rather a collaboration between 6° North (Scotland) and Beerbliotek (Sweden). Though my expectations are high, probably unreasonably high, the heather ale is everything I could have hoped for. The aroma is floral in a way that’s hard to describe, vaguely reminiscent of lavender. The taste is very Belgian, melding the delicate floral notes of the heather with spicy black-pepper phenolics from the yeast, all supported by a nice pilsner-like malt base. It finishes dry as a bone with a pleasant lingering spiciness. This is a beer to savor.
Satisfied and slightly buzzed at this point in the day, I want to squeeze as much out of my short visit here as I can. Naturally that means ordering another beer. My next choice is a barrel aged white stout, also a collaboration, this one between 3 Floyds and an English brewery called Burning Sky. I’m not sure how to classify this beer, but a barrel aged stout would not be one of them. The appearance is golden and hazy, not wildly different from the saison I just finished. There’s minimal chocolate flavor, no roastiness, and nothing that screams barrel aging. Aside from the completely misleading label it’s a pretty decent beer.
Not wanting to leave on a down note, in fact not wanting to leave at all, I order one more beer, a green tea saison from the somewhat eccentric Belgian brewery Fantôme. It pours an improbable greenish yellow, the nose is a Belgo-Japanese fusion of matcha tea and the familiar fruity/spicy saison yeast aromas. This unlikely pairing continues into the taste. The green tea has the upper hand here, but make no mistake it drinks like a beer. Like the India Pale Weizen I had a BrewDog, this is a fusion of different cultures that doesn’t seem like it should work, but somehow it does. Somewhat ironic that my quest for traditional ale ends with an American drinking a Belgian beer infused with Japanese tea in a Scottish bar.
It’s getting onto 6 pm now and the Salt Horse is starting to get busy. The crowd has exceeded the modest seating capacity of the small bar, as you would expect for Friday evening at an amazing craft beer bar. I need to head back to Waverly Station to catch my train, but there’s just enough time to pick up a few things in the bottle shop, including a spruce beer from my new favorite Scottish brewer, 6° North, and a double IPA from Cloudwater.
Life is good.