October 29, 2013

Scotch Ale: Another book review

Scotch Ale is a book about...scotch ale. It is among the 1990s Classic Beer Style Series published by Brewers Publications. It is written by Greg Noonan, who also wrote New Brewing Lager Beer, who is known for his detailed writing. Scotch Ale does not fail to deliver the same level of detail and precision. While most of the books in this series dedicate an unnecessary amount of space to discussing general homebrewing technique and equipment, Noonan goes into a style discussion and stays on point from beginning to end. The book presents a historical analysis of Scottish brewing that sets up the brewing-related chapters with a clear theme that Scottish brewing is about quality ingredients and process.

Scotch Ale opens with an extensive discussion of Scottish brewing, covering not only the historical styles but also Scottish brewing technique, which was more closely aligned with continental brewing than English technique. That held true even as the world began to desire English-style ales over the traditional malty Scottish offerings and Scottish brewers turned their attention towards brewing English pale ales and other popular English styles in the nineteenth century. The historical analysis is not filler material; it sets up the remainder of the book by showing how important the process and ingredients are to Scottish brewing. It also demonstrates how Scottish beers have changed over time.

The book then turns to a discussion of ingredients, with a lengthy discussion of Scottish water and the role it plays in brewing scotch ales/wee heavies and the lighter Scottish styles. Scottish water varies dramatically, even in very close areas, and that plays into the differences between Scottish brews and their attempts at English-style beers. Noonan also discusses Scottish grain, which most brewers agree is quality grain, and the significance of yeast and fermentation. Traditionally, scotch ales contained a very high final gravity similar to some of the sweetest imperial stouts on the market, such as Dark Lord. Modern wee heavies would be quite dry by historical standards. This was a desired effect, although one has to imagine that over time these beers would have been dried out by brett and bacteria. The book closes out the ingredients discussion with an explanation of Scottish hop use and alternative herbs once used for bitterness. Could be interesting to try out some Scottish brews with some herbal character.

The book then explores traditional Scottish brewing technique, which is very similar to modern brewing techniques. Scottish brewers championed batch sparging over the English double mash technique. The Scottish techniques discussed by Noonan may not be novel for most homebrewers but for their time they certainly departed from the norm. It should not surprise anybody who has tasted any Scottish-style beer, that the Scots are not huge fans of hops. Their processes reflected that view. This section then briefly discusses how to brew Scottish beers with modern ingredients and equipment.

Next, Scotch Ale turns to a recipe section that includes both nineteenth century recipes and modern recipes. The recipes include everything from big wee heavies to 2-3% Scottish beers. There are recipes broken out to perform partigyle brewing. It's a great selection of recipes although the recipes are all very similar combinations of Scottish pale ale plus a little roasted barley. These are not the Scotch ale recipes you typically see floating around homebrewers (and even many U.S. pro brewers) with all sorts of crystal malts, vienna malt and other grains. The recipes are simple because, as the book continues through with a clear theme, Scottish beers are a product of using great ingredients, processes and time to produce exceptional beers.

The book then offers a couple appendices listing Scottish brewers and bars. It's good background on the big players in Scottish brewing but otherwise not the most useful information in the book. It doesn't read like filler material, either. It's well written; it just wasn't the information I was after. However, the book is so full of good information that I didn't feel like the appendices detracted from the value of the book.

Honestly, I think Scotch Ale is the best written and most in-depth of the series, at least of the books I have read/own (which is about half, collectively). I suppose if I had to criticize something it would be the absence of a deviant recipe or two. However, that is not Noonan's style. He writes to teach technical precision and does so extremely well here as he does in New Brewing Lager Beer.

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