We always try to brew beers that make people travel. Each sip should be an experience, playful, enjoyable, and should challenge the assumptions of what beer should be.
Behind every beer lays the experience and learning of generations of brewers and scientists, but never before have we so explicitly travelled back in time to design one. That doesn’t mean we’ll shy away from controversy, and it definitely doesn’t mean we’re returning to the abbey; we might just be questioning where those abbeys got some of their ideas.
When Eoghan Walsh, of Brussels Beer City, approached me and asked if I’d be interested in recreating a classic Scotch Ale to coincide with the launch of his book on brewing in Brussels, I was intrigued. Here was a style that was hugely popular in Brussels after WW1, yet today exists only as a shadow of its former self. An influential style either rendered unrecognisable to streamline profit or lost in the dustbins of multinational portfolios.
There are a number of misconceptions around Scottish styles. The first is the assumption that they were peaty (because Scottish malt was kilned with peat). While this might have been the case over 300 years ago, it’s a romantic disservice to Scottish maltsters and the speed at which they adopted new malting and kilning technology. If there was peat, brewers would have wanted it and mentioned it in their recipes, and there are no records of this in any of the Scotch Ale recipes I’ve seen.
Second is that Scottish brewers didn’t use hops because they didn’t grow in Scotland. The UK was shipping barrels of beer across the globe when John Martin stepped off that ship in Antwerp. Scotch Ale would have arrived in the same port in heavy wooden hogsheads. Delivering lightweight hops from Kent to Scotland was not exactly logistically difficult! Scottish brewers used less than English counterparts, true, but recipes often exceed 30 IBU – that’s a lot of hops back in the leafy days! We hit 50 IBU, which is as bitter as some of our double IPAs.
Third is the colour. When you think of Scotch, you think of Christmas Ales, of dark, sickly, cloying one-dimensional sweetness and crippling hang-overs. While the latter is certainly essential to style, the former stylistic restriction is up for debate. It’s true that most Scotch Ales that landed in Belgium were dark, it was fashionable at the time. Duvel’s first incarnation, Victory Ale, was originally brewed dark in 1918. But this was, in most Scottish cases, an end-boil colour correction with caramel or sugar purely to please the customer base. Sneak a peek at the ingredients of a certain famous Belgian Scotch if you don’t believe me. With many recipes from the era, there wasn’t a gram of speciality malt or roasted barley in sight, and the oft-cited direct two-hour boil does not account for that level of caramelisation (believe me, I tried)!
Our SCTCH 1920, is based on the Thomas Usher Scotch Ale from 1928, with many thanks to Ron Pattison, and it skips that colour addition. We brewed what I like to think would have been the brewer’s intention – a stronger, more bitter version of the classic pale ales of the time. A crisp 50 IBU, golden, clear, fermented low and slow for a clean finish.
Floor-malted pale malt, and flaked maize, with a single saccharification rest following a quick decoction. Saaz mash-hopping to bring complexity to the bitterness. Ten sparges, because that seemed to be the tradition in the decades before, and why not – we’re always up for trying something new.
Layered hot-side additions throughout the two-hour boil. Belgian-grown hops: with Progress, a Belgian-grown replacement for Fuggles bringing earthy notes, and Groene Bel, an old variety that would have been grown at that time in Aalst, bringing hints of apple.
End of boil sugar additions were replaced with honey (this would have been 1800’s illegal bootleg-style brewing!) that brings no colour, but rather complexity to the sweetness and body of the beer.
Cross-channel espionage and influence brought the yeast: Edinburgh Scotch Ale, supposedly isolated from a sample of McEwans. This McEwans ‘strain’ would have originally been multiple saccharomyces strains, one of which was borrowed and would go on to become Duvel’s signature workhorse. The one we chose brings subtle notes of pear and melon.
Personally, I don’t think you can ever recreate an old beer exactly, but you can definitely recreate the spirit, and I believe we’ve done that with our interpretation of a Scotch Ale: bitter, boozy, warming, with notes of a ripe orchard. Drinkable, comforting, and very dangerous. For those familiar with Belgium’s brewing traditions, it might make you think twice about what you know.
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