Scottish Beer and The Smoke Question



There has been some controversy in recent years whether Scottish ales should have a smoky or prominent roasty note. Some people insist they should not. The current edition of the American style guideline BJCP (see p. 25), is an example, repeating for the various categories that a roasty or peat smoke note is inauthentic. It acknowledges (how could it not?) that roasted barley or brown malt can figure in the mashbill but states this is a matter of colour adjustment, and peated malt is excluded from the suggested ingredients. BJCP states if you want to make a smoky Scottish ale, it should be classified in the Classic Styles Smoked Beer section.

The BJCP reflects the current thinking of some that peated or roasted tastes came into Scottish-style beer through an error of thinking Scots brewers must have used peated malt just as Scottish distillers did for their classic malt whiskies.

This is a revisionism gone too far. In my own taste experience with numerous classic Scottish ales since the late 1970s, they sometimes taste of cured malt or a tinge of smoky fire. The early American beer writer James Robertson, in 1978 in The Connoisseur’s Guide To Beer, wrote that McEwan’s Edinburgh Ale had a “roast bacon” taste.

Why would he say that? He had no ax to grind on this issue. He said it because the beer tasted like that. The re-introduced McEwan’s Scotch Ale, which I’ve tasted numerous times, has a similar taste. See for example the reference to “smokey malt” (twice) and “a little bit whisky” in the March 19, 2015 review on Beer Advocate, here.  Of course, not all reviews read the same but not all tasters can identify specific traits in beer due to varying experience and different sensitivity levels. If one reads all the reviews since the beer was brought back by current label-owner Wells Young, I think it is quite clear it has the taste in question. Wells Young researched the taste history of the brand before bringing it back. I doubt is in error as to the taste as it’s been at least from the 1970s.

Belhaven’s St. Andrew’s Ale, about 15 years ago, had a similar tangy cured barley note. Earlier reviews on Beer Advocate show this clearly. This review from December 13, 2010 in Britain states: “mildly dirty and peaty note that nears mild elements of smoke”.  The May 28, 2010 review says “peaty smoke”.  Other reviews use the words “touch of smoke”, “peaty”, “earthy”. Belhaven was not a craft brewery but old-established, as the McEwan’s brand is, and wouldn’t have mistaken the taste of Scottish beer.

My own readings in early Scots literature suggest that beer made on the crofts or in similar artisan surroundings had a smoky taste, one admired locally. An example from the later 1600’s  is here, authored by Sir Robert Murray. He wrote in a discussion of Scottish malting that “the best fuel is peat”. Murray was clearly referring to material for ale-brewing in the discussion.

Another example is here, from a book published in 1822 in London but containing letters written in the 1720s ascribed to Edward Burt. He says plain as day that Scottish common ale was smoky from use of peat, turf, or furze to prepare the malt. The way he writes, it is clear that by then English ale did not have the taste – he notes the Scottish taste as something unusual and acquired due to custom.

With the industrialization of brewing in Scotland through the later 1800s, styles more similar to English mild and pale ales emerged, and these beers did not generally exhibit smoky tastes. Earlier, at an artisan stage, they must have, when wood, turf, straw, or fern was used to cure all malts. With the development of coke or smokeless coal, a smoky note in beer would have subsided except partially in the black porter, where the taste was still wanted. I believe that Scots brewers knew or continued the ancestral use of peaty or smoky malt in brewing and some Scottish beer always showed the taste. Michael Jackson in his 1993 Beer Companion noted a “peaty” note in McEwan’s beers from roasted barley and suggested, or I read him that way, it was a traditional taste; this was the same brewery Jim Robertson wrote about in 1978.

As traditional and craft brewers like to highlight older practices, it is no surprise that since the late 70s, both craft and some traditional Scotch ales have a smoky or cured edge. By cured I mean lightly phenolic or earthy/smoky versus the clean, dark caramel taste of a German dunkel, say.

Addendum: In this 1828 text on malting and distilling by a Scot, John McDonald, he describes in Chapter 99 (see pp 119-120) the procedure to prepare malt. While his focus is spirits, he addresses ale as well and describes under the term “beer” the mash extract for both ale and spirit. He specifically mentions “peats” or “peets” as the fuel to make his malt. Particularly for small-scale ale brewing, it is surely evident that c. 1830 some Scottish ale had a peaty reek.  In 1867, in Charles Dickens’ All The Year Round, it was stated that in New York, Scotch ale tasted “disagreeably sweet and smoky”. That brings matters to the last quarter of the 1800s.

All this being so, that some Scottish ale was always given a peaty or smoky snap seems easy to conclude. It might have been done by ensuring some malt was kilned with peat or wood, or in some other way. Even some pale malt may have been prepared for the purpose. And we know that in 1978 – and after – some Scottish ale conveyed to tasters smoky, earthy, peaty and whisky flavours. This spells a pattern.

Note: The image above is in the public domain, as indicated here.




4 thoughts on “Scottish Beer and The Smoke Question”

  1. Moreover, East Kent Goldings can have an earthy flavour, which could also give you the impression of peat. And a bit of roasted malt for colour can add a hint of ‘smoke’.

    I certainly agree that some people get the impression of peat-smoke (myself included), but that doesn’t mean that “peat-smoked malt” was actually used.

    Either way, I like what I like, and don’t necessarily care if it’s ‘traditional’.

    • Indeed, and traditional is neither here nor there from the standpoint of palate or innovation. My only point is, I believe some Scottish beer always had the roast bacon and smoked taste, as a throwback to an ancestral practice (Roberston actually wrote, roast-bacon flavor with a smoky aftertaste). We can’t know for certain IMO simply by surviving 19th century mashbills, some malt may have been kilned with a bit of peat, and IIRC at least one spec in the 1800’s for Scotch ale does use brown malt (I’ll try to find it). Thanks again Derek.

  2. I had to look up my own review from 2005:

    I do wonder if we simply have a preconceived notion that there might be smoke and subsequently interpret some flavours as smoke, such as phenolics from the yeast.

    I just brewed a Wee Heavy and I did use a bit of peat-smoked malt. I like Scotch Whisky (particularly the smoky ones like Ardbeg), so I’m hoping to get some of that flavour in a drinkable ale.

    • Well, I think the use of roasted barley and brown malt is documented for some Scotch ales, and those can produce roasted or smoky tastes. The question is I guess, did McEwan’s in the 70’s have such preconceptions and use roasted barley, say, to address them? I wouldn’t think so, I’d think an old brewery like that wouldn’t react in that fashion and it is more something a craft brewery might do. McEwan’s in the 70’s was made on the original site (now long closed), so…

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