Last updated on May 8th, 2020
Scotland is currently in a beer-brewing renaissance, with the torch being carried by major breweries like Aberdeenshire’s Brewdog and Edinburgh’s Innis and Gunn which are celebrated at Scottish beer festivals like the Alba Real Ale festival and Fynefest, amongst others. Learn everything you ever wanted to know about Scottish beer in this complete guide.
The complete guide to Scottish beer – its history, how it’s made and the best beers you can buy
Scottish Beer is almost as legendary as Scotch whisky, and you can’t step foot in any town in the country without finding yourself in the vicinity of at least one watering hole that serves a wide selection of local brews.
In fact, I’d say beer and pubs are just as much a part of Scottish culture as music and dance, not because the Scots like getting drunk (who doesn’t?) but because having a pint is such an inherently sociable thing to do.
Whether it’s watching the Saturday football at home or relaxing in a pub garden on a sunny afternoon, beer tends to be the glue that brings people together no matter who they are or where they’re from.
Unfortunately, in recent years beer somewhat fell out of favour with drinkers due to a slew of trendy new gin joints and alcohol-free bars (seriously, what’s that all about?) that started to crop up in the majority of Scotland’s city centres, coupled with steadily increasing business rates that caused the humble British pub to close at a rate of 18 per week.
There’s a cultural shift happening too, and young people aged 18 to 24 are now less likely to drink than any other age group, while those that do like a drink prefer to buy their booze in supermarkets and off-licences – leading to a significant drop in sales of draught-pulled beer.
But thankfully mans oldest friend is now making a spectacular comeback thanks to the fantastic craft beer micro-breweries that are springing up everywhere from Kelso in the Borders to Shetland in the far north.
Some of the ales being made by these new breweries are incredibly exciting and are a refreshing kick up the backside to the massive conglomerates that had become complacent by regurgitating the same product over and over again.
Take Edinburgh’s Innis and Gunn as an example. These guys have whole-heartedly accepted America’s love of craft ale by producing their own variety matured in ex-bourbon barrels, something the mass-produced lager companies would never have dreamed of doing.
Or how about Fraserburgh-based BrewDog who kickstarted the new craft beer industry with their delicious Punk IPA? After receiving flak for making another beer at 18.2% ABV they responded with a 0.5% alternative called Nanny State as a two-fingered salute to the establishment, and they’ve continued to stick it to the man ever since.
Scotland’s beer industry is now booming, so if you’d like to learn more about the story of brewing in Scotland I’ve included a few facts in this article that I reckon you’ll find interesting, along with recommendations of my favourite breweries and some really good beer festivals you might like to attend.
I hope you find it useful. Cheers!
The history of Scottish beer
The history of brewing ale in Scotland stretches back further in time than you might imagine. In fact, it’s known that beer was being made by the inhabitants of Skara Brae in Orkney as long ago as 3000BC. That’s 5000 years of beer-making history under Scotland’s belt! No wonder they know how to make such a good pint up here.
Those first Neolithic brewers used barley as the primary ingredient along with a selection of bittering herbs like heather, myrtle and broom – all readily available plants that can still be found throughout Scotland’s wilderness today.
Obviously, no samples from those first days of Scotland’s brewing heritage survive, but records show that the pungent brews were flavoured with meadowsweet (another common Scottish plant) which can still be found in damp meadows throughout Britain.
This method of beer making was likely brought south by the Picts who had developed a herb mixture for brewing called gruit sometime in the late Iron Age, long before the modern preference for using hops had ever been thought of.
Beer became one of the most common beverages during the middle ages and was drunk daily by all classes, not because it was a social thing to do but because it was a healthy thing to do. Yep, back then, drinking beer was considered healthier than drinking water!
The reasons for this train of thought make sense once you look at the quality of water our medieval ancestors would have had to put up with.
Dirty, polluted water raised from a well would no doubt be full of parasites and disease which would have been downright dangerous to drink in an age when medical care was virtually non-existent.
Beer on the other hand was made with boiled water which meant that all the bugs and beasties in the ingredients were killed off, leaving a bacteria-free liquid that maintained its sterility thanks to the alcohol it contained.
It’s known that even children drank beer back then, though what their alcoholism rate was like I can only imagine, but at least the medieval authorities made sure the product was kept at a consistently good quality.
Because so much beer was needed (each person consumed around 60 gallons per year) most large premises brewed their own, especially in priories and castles where entire breweries were created to keep stock levels permanently full.
As demands for the beverage increased so too did the skills of the brewers who gradually formed themselves into trade bodies like the Edinburgh Society of Brewers that was established all the way back in 1598.
These guilds ensured the ale was made to a consistently high quality and were able to build their own breweries to produce ever-increasing quantities, which in turn led to the creation of the first roadside taverns and inns who were able to buy from the guilds and then re-sell at a profit to passing thirsty travellers.
When the Acts of Union was passed in 1707, taxes were introduced on beer that were much lower in Scotland than in England meaning Scottish Breweries were able to cheaply produce vast quantities at an enormous profit that in turn led to some of the biggest breweries in the world being established, like Glasgow’s Tennent and Dunbar’s Belhaven breweries – both of which are still going strong today.
We don’t know exactly when hops were introduced to the beer-making process but author Thomas Pennant wrote in 1769 that the residents of Islay were skilled in making ale from heath plants and ‘sometimes adding hops’, although the use of bittering herbs was still prevalent across the rest of Caledonia at that time.
By the end of the 19th century, hops had completely replaced the ancient use of herbs, though the actual process of making beer remained pretty much unchanged until the 1900s.
Following the Second World War, England was under pressure to increase taxation on beer which in turn led to lower strength – but cheaper – ales, but while these beverages were readily drunk down south the Scottish weren’t so keen and so old stalwarts like English porter eventually disappeared from Scotland’s pubs for good.
Another major change occurred in the 1970s when German lager rapidly established itself as Scotland’s favourite type of beer.
The growth of lager was phenomenal, increasing market share from under 2% in 1965 to over 20% just ten years later – the greatest shift in the industry since hops were introduced more than two hundred years earlier.
Recent years have seen another shift in Scottish beer-drinking circles with the rise of micro-breweries and craft ales inspired by American craft brewers.
These tiny – often two-man – breweries are able to adapt and change quickly to the Scottish consumer’s changing tastes and many people are now saying that Scotland is in a new brewing renaissance, with the torch being carried by major new success stories like the previously mentioned Aberdeenshire Brewdog and Edinburgh Innis and Gunn.
Whatever new developments are around the corner for Scotland’s beer industry is anyone’s guess, but I think it’s safe to say the country will keep its love affair with the brew for many years to come.
How is Scottish beer made?
The process of brewing beer has remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years, though of course it has been refined significantly since the first days when random grains and herbs were thrown into a pot by the earliest European tribes.
These days everything is ultra-sterilised and efficient, but the five basic steps of malting, mashing, boiling, fermenting and bottling are the same as ever, though the process differs slightly between the breweries – much like whisky production is different between distilleries.
- Malting. Every beer contains some type of grain and while barley is the most popular many breweries also use wheat and rye. Just like in whisky distilling, this first stage dries out the grains in a heating process that cracks them open, ensuring they’re ready for the mashing stage.
- Mashing. This step involves steeping the grains in hot water which activates the enzymes locked inside each one. As the water heats up the sugars inside the grain are released. Then, after a couple of hours, the grains are sieved out and the sugary water is used in the next step.
- Boiling. The sugary water – known as wort – is now boiled and hops and herbs are added to flavour the mixture. This stage normally takes about an hour.
- Fermentation. Next, we have to take the flavoured extract and ferment it to produce alcohol. To enable this, yeast is added which reacts with the sugar in the wort. This step takes a few weeks during which the mixture is tested several times until the correct level of alcohol has been achieved.
- Bottling and ageing. The beer is now bottled and is either carbonated artificially or naturally using the CO2 produced by the yeast. Ageing takes anywhere between a few weeks to a few months, as opposed to whisky which takes a minimum of three years.
Now we know the history of Scottish beer and how it’s made, let’s turn our attention to some of the best breweries that actually make it.
Historically, the majority of Scottish breweries developed in the central Lowlands, with Edinburgh regarded as one of Britain’s biggest exporters of beer around the world, though Glasgow comes close thanks to the output of the giant Tennent’s brewery.
The peak of Scottish brewing is acknowledged as the early 1840s when there were an impressive 280 breweries operating but this number sadly declined as the smaller operations either merged or went out of business.
By 1970 there were just 11 breweries left in Scotland, and it was a known joke that if you wanted a pint in your local pub your choices were either Tennents, McEwans… or Tennents.
Thankfully that number is slowly reversing due to the number of microbreweries that are springing up and to date there are over one hundred legal breweries in Scotland producing world-class beer.
I’ll list some of the best in the next section in no particular order, so if you see any in your local supermarket or pub you should do yourself a favour and give them a try.
The best small breweries in Scotland
Stewart Brewing was founded in 2004 by two people and quickly grew to become one of the favourite micro-breweries in Scotland.
From the starting line up of three cask ales they now produce a wide range of beers in bottles, cans, and kegs and are one of the few UK breweries that offer a brew-it-yourself craft beer kitchen.
They also feature two brewery tours where you’ll get to see the operation and learn about the brewing process, accompanied by a pint or two of Stewart Brewing’s best ales.
- Session IPA. Alc 3.7% vol. Pale in colour with strong citrus and fruity aromas. It’s a light and crisp beer that’s perfect for summer BBQs but also goes well with seafood and salads.
- Radical Road. Alc 6.4% vol. Golden with a long foam, this beer bursts with hops, pine and grapefruit. Medium-bodied with a long-lasting smooth bitterness.
- Edinburgh Gold. Alc 4.8% vol. A golden ale that has a strong hop aroma mixed with notes of caramel. The light-bodied taste has a moderate amount of bitterness that works really well with spicy curry.
Brewdog is the world’s first-ever crowd-funded brewery having been set up in Aberdeenshire by two friends in 2008.
Since then they’ve gone on to take the world of craft beers by storm and now have 50 bars in the UK and 24 international bars, with plans to introduce more in the US.
The company are well known for their aggressive marketing tactics which include a 32% alcohol beer (bizarrely named ‘Tactical Nuclear Penguin’) that was claimed to be the world’s strongest, followed by a 55% beer packaged in small stuffed animals!
- Punk IPA. Alc 5.6% vol. This is the beer that started it all and was the first brew produced by the fledgeling company at their first premises on an Aberdeenshire industrial estate. It’s a light, golden ale full of strong hoppy flavours with notes of grapefruit, pineapple and lychee.
- Dead Pony Club. Alc 3.8%. Aromas of citrus, lemongrass and lime with tropical fruit and spicy undertones on the tastebuds, this beer is easy-drinking perfection.
- Indie. Alc 4.2% vol. A pale ale craft beer with notes of pear and banana, with sweet caramel finishing on the back of your tongue. It’s got a very mild bitterness to it that makes it great to drink at any time of the year, whether it’s a blazing-hot summer or freezing-cold winter. Some people have been saying it’s a bit bland in online beer reviews. Whatever. I really like it.
In 2016 they won the Scottish Brewery of the Year award and were featured in the Ratebeer Top 100 Breweries in the World in both 2017 and 2018. Not bad for a small outfit that only started their business in 2010.
Their attitude to the final product is what sets Tempest apart and many of their beers have been created around a single theme, like their fantastic Mexicake brew that’s designed around the idea of a Mexican chocolate cake!
- Mexicake. Alc 11% vol. This delicious ale won gold at the Aldi Scottish beer awards in 2016 and it’s not hard to see (or taste) why. It has bottom notes of thick, dark stouts infused with sweet cinnamon, vanilla, cocoa and chilli that work incredibly well together. Just watch out because that 11% alcohol content packs one hell of a kick.
- Long White Cloud. Alc 5.4% vol. The hops used in this beer are from New Zealand, hence the name. There’s a definite fruity aroma to this pale ale with lots of pineapple and citrus zest on the palate, which makes it a great accompaniment to a summer BBQ.
- Modern Helles. Alc 4.1% vol. Another award winner, this time at the Scottish Beer Awards 2017 where it came first in the title of best lager. It’s very easy to drink with a malty, citrusy flavour like the best Bavarian-style lagers and it works really well with seafood and pasta. This is a beer that’s definitely recommended by me.
Drygate Brewing Co. is the only micro-brewery in the historic heart of Glasgow and is also one of the newest operations in Scotland, having only opened for business in 2014.
In the years since they’ve gained a name not only for the quality of their ales but also for their in-house brewing studio that allows anyone to design their own beer – from the label to the style – in a single day.
Brew days are run in groups of up to six people and you even get to take the beer home with you at the end. Genius idea!
- Seven Peaks. Alc 5.0% vol. This aromatic IPA is the company’s flagship beer and is available in cans and on tap. Crisp in flavour with a sweet aftertaste, it works really well with fish and spicy sausage.
- Close Quarters. Alc 11.2% vol. Yes, you read that correctly. This beer has around the same alcohol content as a bottle of wine, but it tastes absolutely delicious. It’s barrel-aged in oak casks for five months before bottling which infuses flavours of fruitcake and chocolate into it, with hints of vanilla and coconut.
- Chimera. Alc 5.9% vol. A very high-quality India pale lager that’s light, crisp and easily drinkable – possibly too drinkable considering it weighs in at nearly 6% alcohol content. Available in cans but soon moving to draught only, this beer deserves a sample if you’re lucky enough to find it in a Scottish boozer.
The Isle of Arran Brewery is located on one of my favourite west coast islands, popular with hill walkers and holidaymakers alike.
But now there’s another reason for people to fall in love with Arran, and it’s the amazing small-batch beers this brewery near the town of Brodick produces.
The founders have turned the business around since entering administration in 2008 and are now known for the high quality of their ales – many of which have won industry awards like the Great Taste of Britain Award in 2015.
- Isle of Arran Blonde Premium. Alc 5% vol. My first introduction to this brewery, the Blonde Premium is incredibly fresh with a zesty, citrusy taste that finishes with a surprising amount of sweetness.
- Isle of Arran Dark. Alc 4.3% vol. This dark, thick beer has rich caramel notes and fruity flavours mixed with sweet chocolate undertones. It’s not too strong either at 4.3% so it’s easy to sink a couple of bottles on a wintry Scottish afternoon, and it goes really well with dark meats if you’re looking for a drink to compliment your meal. Try it with game pie – it’s fantastic.
- Sleeping Warrior. Alc 8.3% vol. This beer is known as a barley wine which is a traditional alcoholic drink that used to be reserved for the aristocracy, but thankfully times have changed and now anyone can try this delicious ale. The brewery recommends letting the beer mature in the bottle for up to four years before drinking, at which time you’ll be rewarded with a rich, fruity drink that has hints of warm ginger.
The best Scottish beer festivals
There are loads of beer festivals happening throughout Scotland from January to December and it wouldn’t be feasible to include them all in this article, so I’ve included a few of my favourites below.
If you want to find others I recommend checking out The List website which has a constantly updated list of Scotland’s beer festivals along with dates, times and entry prices.
Fynefest is held at the end of May to the beginning of June at the Fyne Ales brewery estate in Argyll where it bills itself as the Scottish beer event of the year – and with good reason.
It’s one of the largest beer festivals in the country that also celebrates Scotland’s connections with great food, lively music and first-class beer, and it’s a genuine family-friendly experience.
2019 was the best festival yet where three stages were set up to showcase more than twenty music acts alongside food market stalls from eleven local and award-winning producers.
Let’s hope 2020 is even better.
The Alba Real Ale Festival runs in the last week of August near Dundee where it has been growing from strength to strength in the last 8 successive years.
This is one of the smaller festivals with expected visitor numbers in the 1000-2000 region, but that’s really part of its charm. It’s not too big and commercialised and it’s small enough to maintain a warm and friendly atmosphere.
The focus at the Alba Real Ale festival is on small breweries and they always ensure they have plentiful supplies of the cream of the (beer) crop, as well as quality selections of cider, wine and spirits.
Kids are welcome at the festival too (they even get free entry) so you won’t have to arrange child-minders while you’re enjoying the event, and there are plenty of food stalls so you won’t have to worry about cooking either.
Live music is catered for with 10 bands on the soundstage covering everything from reggae, blues, rock and indie, but if your children aren’t interested in live music you can always pop them in front of the magic acts instead.
Edinburgh’s Craft Beer Experience Festival has to be in this list for two reasons. First, it’s hosted in my home city in one of my favourite buildings (the Assembly Roxy) and second, it’s a real beer connoisseur’s event that cuts out most of the unnecessary festival fluff and just offers great craft beer instead.
The event is held from the end of October to the beginning of November over five sessions with more than 20 breweries showcasing their best products.
Don’t worry if all that ale makes you hungry because there are plenty of street food vendors on the site, plus a selection of Scottish cider and whisky producers if you fancy trying something a bit different to all that beer.
The festival is held across three floors of the beautiful former church in the heart of the Old Town with the main hall hosting Scottish breweries, the downstairs Snug Bar featuring ales from the rest of the UK, and the upstairs Upper Theatre Room featuring a selection of European breweries.
The festival also has a lineup of masterclasses if you want to hone your tasting knowledge as well as expert-led beer and food pairings if you want to learn which foods go best with which ale.
I hope you’ve found this wee article informative, especially if you’re fond of a drop or two of Scottish beer (which I presume you are seeing as you’ve made it this far).
But as much as I love beer, there’s another drink I love even more and I’m hoping you like it too, which is why I suggest you now take a look at my Complete Guide to the Single Malt Whisky Regions of Scotland.
In the article I cover the history of the spirit, how it’s made and the differences between the whisky made in each area.
I reckon it’s pretty good, so if you take a look I’d be over the moon if you’d click one of the Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest links on the page to share it on your favourite social media site.
Anyway, thank you so much for reading, and I hope to see you again soon on Out About Scotland.
Frequently Asked Questions
Stewart Brewing produce a wide range of beers in bottles, cans, and kegs and are one of the few UK breweries that offer a brew-it-yourself craft beer kitchen. Brewdog is the world’s first-ever crowd-funded brewery having been set up in Aberdeenshire by two friends in 2008. Tempest Brewing are based in the heart of the Scottish Borders and have won a slew of industry awards. Drygate Brewing is the only micro-brewery in the historic heart of Glasgow and is also one of the newest operations in Scotland.
Fynefest is held at the end of May to the beginning of June at the Fyne Ales brewery estate in Argyll. The Alba Real Ale Festival runs in the last week of August near Dundee. Edinburgh’s Craft Beer Experience Festival is held from the end of October to the beginning of November.
1. Malting dries out the grains in a heating process. 2. Mashing involves steeping the grains in hot water. 3. Boiling adds hops and herbs to flavour the mixture. 4. Fermentation takes the flavoured extract and ferments it to produce alcohol. 5. Bottling & ageing the beer either carbonates it artificially or naturally using the CO2 produced by the yeast.
The majority of Scottish breweries are in the central Lowlands, with Edinburgh regarded as one of Britain’s biggest exporters of beer around the world – though Glasgow comes close thanks to the output of the giant Tennent’s brewery.