Worldly Brews from the Scottish Craft Scene

The Best Microbrews in Scotland


December 3, 2014 Buying Guides By
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Ten years ago there was little craft brewing going on in Scotland — mostly people were drinking industrial-scale lagers and ales, though beer nerds did have imports from the UK and a few growing Scottish breweries. Then in 2007, the founders of BrewDog, two 24-year-olds tired of their homeland’s boring industrial suds, started gaining international attention for brewing aggressive beer styles from around the world, all with a unique personality. Others soon followed, and today Scottish names both big (BrewDog, Williams Bros., Innis & Gunn) and small (any number of Scotland’s 70+ craft brewers) are experimenting with ales, lagers and every other possible combination of water, malts and hops.

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Though the craft scene is nascent, it’s found fertile ground in Scotland, where the industry’s pioneers are keeping an attentive eye on their role models: brewers from around the world. That lends its drinkers and its brewers unique perspective — and it’s reflected in the beer. “We’ve got a lot of traditional styles that continue to exist, but what did it for the British scene and the Scottish scene was the introduction of hops from the New World, from America, and New Zealand, Australia”, says Sean Brown, manager of DryGate, an “experiential brewery” growing in the shadow of the enormous Wellpark Brewery on the outskirts of Glasgow. “People got a taste for the likes of American craft beer and wanted to get more of those flavors, but more readily available and fresher.”

Nowhere is that international gaze more clear than in DryGate’s bottle room, just off the main floor. It’s kept under the watchful eye of Chris Hoss, the brewery’s bottle manager and an upstart craft brewer himself. Here and there are shelves from all over the world: America’s West and East coasts, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Belgium, Italy, Japan and the UK, plus an entire section devoted to Scotland’s own up-and-coming brewers. We worked with Hoss and Brown to pick five of the best new craft beers Scotland has to offer and found more international styles, Scottish heritage and creative audacity than we bargained for.

Six Degrees North Chopper Stout

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Six Degrees North Brewery gets its name from the difference in its latitude from Belgium’s, and its beers follow suit: all are standard Belgian styles with creative bents. (Their ethos in the matter comes from founder Robert “Brewbob” Lindsay, who lived in Belgium for three years.) The Chopper Stout is the brewery’s retort to the eternally popular Guinness, which Six Degrees North says has a head that’s more important than its body. Rather than a creamy lightness, the Chopper shows off Belgian booziness at 7% ABV and has all the character an unfiltered, bottle-conditioned ale should.

DryGate’s Notes: “Six Degrees North has got a lot of Belgian yeast, and a lot of wheat malt. We picked this one in particular because it’s one of their stouts, and with all of their wheaty beers together, it’s always good, but their stouts are phenomenal. They are just really, really beautiful — really silky, really big.”

GP’s Notes: It’s pitch black with a small, lacy head; on the nose it’s dark, with earthy smells of dirt, molasses and a tree bark freshness. The taste is very true to its Belgian style, with sweet chocolate, heavy malt, molasses, dark fruits and an oily, boozy tone to finish. (ABV: 7%)

Fallen Brewing Blackhouse Smoked Porter

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Fallen Brewing operates out of a small restored railway station in the southwest Highlands. Like many craft breweries around the world, they care deeply about the environment; the brewery’s electrical system is 100 percent sustainable, their keg and bottle products are vegan friendly, and soon they hope to heat their facilities using biomass fuel. They also brew delicious beer based on classic styles from around the world. In the Blackhouse they’ve found a particularly strong intersection between the traditional German Smoked Rauchbier and the traditional Scottish way to smoke beer (and Scotch): peat.

DryGate’s Notes: “This is a smoked porter, a really nice, big kind of German-style smoked. It’s almost a Rauchbier. It’s got that same kind of smoky, bacony flavor.”

GP’s Notes: It pours a deep brown with a big, frothy, light brown head, and smells like a glass of peated Scotch sniffed from a few feet away. That peatiness is actually light on the tongue, overshadowed by a malty backbone, creamy milk chocolate and even some bright hoppy fruitiness. Its Scotch equivalent would be a perfectly peated Speyside — but with its high carbonation, the Blackhouse is far more refreshing. (ABV: 5%)

The Big Two

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Williams Bros. and Brewdog are easily the most influential craft beers in Scotland. They’re available in the US — which is why the guys at DryGate left them out. But they’re still Scottish, and they’re some of the best. Our favorite from Brewdog was the Punk IPA, a “Transatlantic” IPA that fuses English and American styles — tasted like a West Coast hop bomb to us, though, and at 5.6% ABV, it’s not too big for its britches. Williams Bros. are doing some really great off-the-wall beers, our favorite of which was the Kelpie Seaweed Ale, a dark stout that smelled of sea salt and tasted like chocolate and caramel. (Their Joker Double IPA is also known for its delectable potency.)

DryGate Gladeye IPA

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DryGate calls itself “the UK’s first experiential craft brewery”. Using a small 2.5-barrel “studio kit”, its brewers can experiment with different styles without committing to making large batches; this means experimentation runs rampant, but it doesn’t mean that DryGate’s beers are all weird. Of their three flagship beers, the Gladeye IPA is a more traditional style, brewery manager Sean Brown told us. “It’s not like your West Coast American style, banged with hops. It’s got a lot more caramel with a lot more malt to it. And it’s sessionable at 5.5 percent. You can drink 10 of them and not fall over.”

DryGate’s Notes: “This is our beer, which is just a big multi-beast of a light beer. Big, American-British hop flavors on top.”

GP’s Notes: It pours dark gold with faint pineapple and white bread on the nose. Opens fruity and bright, then moves to slight sourness before transitioning to a malt finish overlaid with piney bitterness. The mouthfeel is light — it’s like a maltier Sierra Nevada pale ale. (ABV: 5.5%)

Alechemy Hoppy Saison

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The Scotch Ale was — of course — Scottish before the Belgians stole it and added rock candy sugar, making it the malty, sweet beast it’s known as today. Alechemy, a brewery specializing in hoppy ales, has taken a bit of revenge by stealing a traditional Belgian style, the saison, and adding their own special ingredients: hops, added late for a “lightly bitter but very full flavor and aroma”.

DryGate’s Notes: “A big, beautiful kind of farmhouse ale, fresh but lemony — just a really nice style. It’s not a particular traditional Scottish style at all. So it’s really nice to see people doing all sorts of styles from all over the world, you know?”

GP’s Notes: Smells like fresh apples and yeast, slightly piney and chemical. The hops are extremely present, layering pine atop the traditional apricots, apples, yeast and funk you’d expect from a traditional mouthfeel (traditionalists might see the hops as overpowering the style). All of these flavors coat your mouthfeel, with a strong aftertaste of uncooked bread dough. (ABV: 4.5%)

Cromarty Brewing AKA IPA

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Cromarty is old, relative to the current Scottish craft scene, having finished their first beer in 2011. They’re a family-run business with prior experience at Odell Brewing in Colorado and Cairngorm Brewery in the Speyside region of Scotland, and they’re bringing brewing back to the town of Cromarty, which first began its brewing tradition in 1790. Their product is far different from 200 years ago: nearly every beer is given its power and depth by pungent, aggressive hops from New Zealand and the US.

DryGate’s Notes: “They’ve just been killing it for years now and again. They started way, way back as far as I remember, about the same kind of time as Williams Bros. The AKA is a just complete showcase of big, aggressive hops. It’s just so bitter and so bitey.”

GP’s Notes: This beer is made in the same pungent style as great IPAs like Heady Topper. The nose is surprisingly subtle, with hints of toast and rose. Then the first sip blows up with pungent overripe fruit spice, peppercorns, and a bitter grapefruit finish. (ABV: 6.7%)

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story stated that there was no craft brewing in Scotland eight years ago. We apologize for the error.