Scotland’s beer scene has a nice cask

by Jason Foster

Scottish BeerEdinburgh is two totally different towns in one city. There’s Old Town, which is the chaotic mess of narrow streets and impossible inclines that follow the Royal Mile downhill from Edinburgh Castle, dating to the 1200s. Then, across what was a lake and is now a train station (!), there’s New Town, a classic example of Edwardian precision with its designed, geometric streetscape and elegant grey stone buildings.

So it’s only appropriate that Edinburgh’s beer scene is equally bipolar.

Scotland’s brewing industry is relatively small, dwarfed by the thousands of breweries found in England. There are fewer than 90 breweries in all of Scotland, but there’s definitely some world-class beers to be found among them.

On the old side, Edinburgh displays some of the best of traditional British and Scottish ales. You can see it many of the pubs — and without question, one of Edinburgh’s highlights is its pubs. Just like England, Scotland abides by the traditional pub — small, quiet (meaning no TV or music) and emphasizing local cask ales. (Cask ale is a traditional process where the beer is finished in the cask, unfiltered, served warmer and consumed fresh.)

I spent a fair bit of time in Edinburgh pubs (surprise!) during my few days there this past summer, and my favourites were all small and friendly. In Old Town, the Halfway House (halfway up a steep close) is a cozy, family-run pub where I felt like they might let me run the bar after a couple more visits. (They let me pull a pint on my first stop.) On the other side of the Mile sits The Bow Bar, which looks like a non-descript local — but it offers some of the best cask beers in the country.

The traditional approach to brewing in Scotland is well represented by Caledonian, the last of the 19th century breweries that’s still standing. Its brick brewery, unique copper kettles and open fermentation system take a visitor back to the heyday of British ale in the 1800s, and they offer a lineup of classic Scottish and British ales. Some of the highlights are their Scottish Export (called “80/”, which reflects historic pricing) and their English-style bitter, called Deuchars IPA. The brewery is about the size of Big Rock, yet two-thirds of their production is sold locally as cask ales.

Then there’s Williams Brothers, who pretty much epitomize Scottish brewing history. Their primary beers are made from ingredients used by the Picts and Celts hundreds of years ago, with heather, pine, elderberry, gooseberry and even seaweed making their way into their brews. They also produce a line of more modern ales, but flavourful and interesting historic ales are their signature.

So that’s the old. What about the new?

Well, in the midst of all this history and tradition, you can also find beers that rival some of the most outrageously cutting-edge American craft brewers. For example, Scotland is home to BrewDog — a punk-influenced, boundary-pushing brewery with a worldwide reputation that’s got a few beers available in Canada. They have a pub in Edinburgh, which has the same edgy feel as their beer. I sampled a couple of beers not available in Canada, plus a couple of standbys, and they all had the intensity that BrewDog has made their reputation on.

When it comes to cutting-edge drinking houses, The Hanging Bat is basically the anti-pub. Modeled after U.S. craft beer bars, it has a longer tap list than most (about 20) and they highlight British brewers who take more inspiration from BrewDog than Caledonian. I tasted saisons, double IPAs, steam beer and barrel-aged stouts that I would have expected to come from California.

The “new” in Scottish brewing can really be seen in their bottled products, as breweries like Alechemy and Natural Selection work to produce innovative beers that either bend traditional styles, or aim for newer North American styles.

There’s Cromarty Red Rocker, a Rye Pale Ale that might rival the best offered in the U.S. This deep amber ale has a lovely combination of toffee-like malts and a spicy hop bite. Williams Brothers has Profanity Stout, which offers an impressively American interpretation of the deep black style, as part of their edgier line. Its earthy hop bitterness combines with a light coffee roast to create a memorable finish. And Tempest, from tiny Kelso, offers an interesting smoked octoberfest that nicely balances bready malt and woody smoke.

Edinburgh might not be the first place you think of when it comes to classic beer cities — Munich, London, Dublin would all probably place higher. But if you find yourself in Edinburgh, you’ll have no trouble tracking down good beer.