Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews

Scottish Ale

Belhaven Brewery Company Ltd.
United Kingdom

Style: Scottish Ale
ABV: 5.2%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Outstanding within its style.)

International Beer Month 2013 is nearing an end and Nigel is finally getting his feet wet. And what better way to get your feet wet in February than dipping them in the tropical waters of the North Sea with a visit to Dunbar, Scotland and Belhaven Brewery.

Belhaven is one of the oldest breweries in Scotland, dating to 1719. Lying on the shores of the North Sea east of Edinburgh, Dunbar is famous not only for the ales produced at Belhaven and distributed throughout the world, but also as the birthplace of John Muir. Many Americans may know Muir as the founder of the Sierra Club, the father of the National Parks system, and President Teddy Roosevelt’s advisor on environmental issues at the turn of the 20th century. While many of Muir’s environmental exploits happened in California, he’s actually a product of the Midwest. At age 11, his family moved from Scotland and settled on a farm in rural central Wisconsin, where he lived for a decade until attending the University of Wisconsin. Muir is world renowned to the point that Scotland has parks and roads named after him and many of the most scenic landmarks in the western United States are named in his honor. Now that’s drinkin’ historical …

The Scottish ale is a style that American craft brewers have called upon more and more in recent years to describe ales that don’t always fall into a specific classification. Basically, it’s a slightly darker, toastier version of another generic genre, the red ale, with a heavy malt profile, a kiss of hops, and a moderate ABV. The Scottish ale is not to be confused with the Scotch ale, also known as “wee heavy,” which is much stronger and darker. Scottish ales are broken down into categories of Light, Heavy, and Export, depending on an ancient, extremely archaic rating scale that was based on the schilling. Why, WHY do we have to make beer so freakin’ confusing? Scottish ales, unlike Scotch ales, can usually be considered session brews, particularly in the cooler months.

Belhaven’s Scottish Ale is a great example of this. Checking in at a modest 5.2 percent ABV, Belhaven has crafted a smooth, flavorful ale that can satisfy in a number of different environments. On the lighter end of the spectrum for Scottish ales, it’s not nearly as overwhelming and overdone as can be some of its brethren in the Scotch ale category, which can overstate many of the characteristics of a good Scottish beer, much like Mel Gibson overstated the antics of William Wallace in Braveheart.

Belhaven Scottish ale comes in a 16-ounce draught can, which is one of the best inventions of the past 15 years in the world of beer in my opinion. With as many fine European ales as there are available in the U.S., the true experience of drinking a draught Euro ale was never fully captured by the American audience until these cans came out. There are a number of versions of the draught can on the market and all do a nice job capturing the pour of a European pub ale, with the freshness and the smooth, creamy texture not diminished by export. Belhaven exemplifies the advantage of the draught can, as I tried this from both bottle and can, and it tastes like a completely different beer … the bottled version was pungent, acidic, and tasted almost stale … and it was actually the fresher version.

Belhaven pops open with the expected vigor of a draught can, and as an added bonus, it doesn’t have the little piece in it that some versions of the draught can have. The pour is beautiful … a thick, creamy foam permeates from top to bottom, penetrating a deep, coppery brew. The creamy head lingers throughout and sticks to the side of the glass, creating a picturesque brew in a pint glass. Aromas are pleasant, with heavy amounts of sugar (caramel and molasses) as well as earthy notes of roasted malt and a slightly bitter touch of hops in the background. It’s a balanced aroma that doesn’t overpower.

Flavors pick up right where the appearance and aroma left off. Sweet and smooth, Belhaven hits the palate with flavors of caramel, toffee, and butterscotch, with secondary notes of dark fruit (figs and raisin). A slight hint of bitter European hops is present in the distant background, as is the familiar hint of stale bread that is found in many imported brews, though it’s nothing offensive in this case. The best thing about Belhaven is the rich, creamy, smooth profile of the beer. It’s not a flavor monster … no single ingredient ever comes to the forefront and overwhelms. Rather, it’s a modest, flavorful beer that goes down easy and reminds us American Dorks that often times craft brewers forget one important mantra: bigger isn’t always better. It’s easy to get caught up in the world of “extreme” beer, but every now and then it’s nice to get back to a nice, smooth beer that symbolizes what humans have been drinking for centuries before laboratories and computers allowed us to push the envelope (and yes, I realize how much that makes me sound like a cranky old man).

Belhaven Scottish Ale is a fine example of a European pub ale, and, true to its roots in chilly, damp Scotland, it’s creamy and rich without being overwhelming. On a cold Wisconsin evening, I was able to enjoy my entire four-pack of nitro cans while relaxing on the couch next to the fire … it doesn’t get much better than that. Belhaven is definitely a beer to try for anyone looking to get back to the northern European roots of fine ales, as it’s sure to please anyone looking for a classic session beer.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on February 25, 2013.
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