Scotland has made some intriguing historical contributions to the beer industry. From 4000 B.C. to the 21st century, there are interesting facts and fables that make up the wonderful history of Scottish brewing.
The first documented proof of anyone brewing beer was by the Sumerians in 4300 B.C. Mesopotamia. Not widely known, however, is that in the mid to late 4th millennium B.C., there is evidence of fermented beverages being brewed at the Neolithic sites of Skara Brae, the Balfarg/Balbirnie complex in Fife, and at Kinloch on the Isle of Rhum. These “beers” would be akin to a cereal-based porridge and flavoured with meadowsweet in the same manner of a Kvass or Gruit made by the northern European tribes of Picts and Celts.
Early fermented beverages evolved when brewers started using heather in their process, resulting in heather ale and heather mead. This bittering herb added flavour and helped to preserve the beer longer. The furious debate whether the Picts or the Scots developed heather ale is still argued, not surprisingly, considering some of the things my family still debate endlessly every holiday supper! There is evidence however that heather beverages were brewed by the inhabitants of both Scotland and Ireland prior to the arrival of the Romans in Great Britain. The ancient Greek Pytheas remarked in 325 B.C. that the inhabitants of Caledonia were skilled in the art of brewing a potent beverage.
As was true in many of the great brewing societies of the time, brewing fell between the monastic establishments, and the broustaris, or “alewives”, up to the 15th century. In 1509 the Leges Quatuor Burgorum, a code of burgh laws, showed that Aberdeen had over 150 brewers, all women. During this time, events in Scottish brewing started happening faster.
In 1598 the Edinburgh Society of Brewers was formed. Then in 1707, when the Acts of Union levied taxes at a much higher rate in other parts of the United Kingdom, there were no taxes on malt in Scotland, thus Scottish brewers had a financial edge to firmly establish themselves. Giants in the brewing world who started around this time included William Younger in Edinburgh, Robert and Hugh Tennent in Glasgow, and George Younger in Alloa.
Climate also helped Scottish brewers as, in those pre-refrigeration days, they could brew year round because of the cooler weather – an advantage over their southern English rivals. And while English brewers stopped brewing in the summer, the English consumer certainly did not stop drinking. Scottish ales made their way south and were known as Scotch Ales in England.
In 1821 Robert Disher’s brewery in the Canongate area of Edinburgh was producing his hoppy Edinburgh Pale Ale, and exporting it to India, Russia, and the Americas. This started a trend, with other Edinburgh brewers making strong hoppy Scottish beer. Beer historians Charles McMaster and Martyn Cornell have illustrated the Edinburgh brewers outsold both Dublin and Burton upon Trent brewers combined.
The public has a way of dictating trends, and in the latter part of the 19th century clearer, pale-coloured beers with lower gravity were popular. A few breweries, like Tennents, experimented with lager brewing, and in 1890 they built a dedicated lager brewery in Glasgow at their Wellpark site. During this time the effects of the railroads hit the brewing industry. The larger brewers combined their interests, and pushed out the smaller ones who couldn’t compete. In 1840 there were 280 breweries in Scotland, but by 1910 there were only 92 left. Between the Temperance Movement and the restriction on raw materials during World War I, the number had dropped to 36. By 1970 there were only 11.
That was a gloomy time in Scottish beer history, but the light at the end of the tunnel appeared. The start of the 21st century saw a return of smaller breweries opening up across the country, with a variety of specialties. There are a few who are taking the traditional Scottish style to the ultimate level, like Bruce Williams, Fraoch Heather Ale, which he made using an old Pictish recipe. But not all brewers in Scotland are rabid traditionalists.
The concepts from Innis & Gunn have been quite eye opening. Their range of oaked beers matured in bourbon, rum, and scotch barrels has been a taste sensation. They have been criticized for rejecting the real ale format and for the strength of their beers – their not-so-surprising response was to brew both an 18.2% ABV beer, and a 55% ABV variant. Get thee behind me traditionalist!
The breadth and scope of Scotland’s rich history and achievements in the brewing industry are as varied as the country itself. The sheer range of this country’s brewing history, as well as its influence on other beer cultures throughout the world is mind boggling. From small beginnings, to a world-leading brewing centre, to almost non-existent, to arising phoenix-like out of the ashes is incredible. So next time you’re about to take a sip of your favorite Scotch Ale, take a moment to salute all of those brewers of past and present for making your pint a true Scottish experience.
Written by Steve Atherley, Duke of Somerset General Manager