Last updated on March 17th, 2020
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 to 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.