When we think of Scotland, we think of whisky drinkers, but many Scots prefer their malted barley in the form of beer, and have done so for centuries. Scotland has as strong a tradition for brewing as their Sassenach neighbors south of the border—the English—and the land of the thistle and haggis has long been recognized as a great ale-producing (and drinking) nation in its own right.
Consider these figures: total ale production in Scotland tops a respectable 528 million gallons, with Scottish tipplers consuming 26 gallons of ale each, per year.
Scottish brewers have carried out their own unique fermentations for centuries, producing delicious dark ales with big malty flavors, perfect for their long cold months. With hops unable to grow in the peaty Scottish soil and cold climate, and its importation, until recently, being cost prohibitive for making beer, Scots brewers have tended to use huge amounts of roasted barley as a substitute. They steep and caramelize it for lengthy periods of time, giving their ales that distinctive sweet, roasted, malt flavor, without the bitter hoppy aftertaste of their continental counterparts.
Scotland’s capable brew masters are also very skilled at producing wonderful beverages from ginger, pepper, various herbs and spices, and yes, even oatmeal, continuing the tradition of sweet Scottish ales. This creativity is one of the reasons for the high quality and huge variety of Scotland’s microbrews.
Scotland’s Independent Craft Microbreweries
In the past decade, just as we have seen in the U.S, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, Scotland has experienced a resurgence of microbreweries (a loose count shows at least 40 microbreweries of varying consequence). The reason for this renaissance in hand crafted microbrews: beer aficionados—led by popular U.K. advocacy group Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA)—are lobbying for greater appreciation of traditional beers as part of their national culture and heritage, and rebelling against the mass-produced, homogenized beer selection cranked out by the large breweries. Microbrews are now stocked in many pubs, with some of the cannier publicans rotating their cask selection.
Clearly there is not enough room here to do justice to all of Scotland’s microbreweries, but a few stand out. You will find most microbrewers only too happy to give you an impromptu tour, if you express interest in their beers.
Brewdog microbrewery, located in Fraserburgh, Aberdeen, has achieved its sensational success as much from its highly entertaining marketing and advertising as from its wide variety of crazy, but finely crafted, concoctions.
Brewdog overtook Harviestoun as Scotland’s largest independent brewery only 15 months after starting up.
Brewdog’s dynamic duo, James Watt and Martin Dickie’s promotional videos are hilarious, antic-ridden comedies, and a romp through some of their videos on YouTube will make your afternoon vanish (great for when you’re bored at work). “We’re all about making futuristic ales. We’re running 24 hours, five days a week”, says Martin Dickie.
Using New Zealand and American hops, combined with Scottish malted barley to flavor their creations, the Brewdoggers display the North American lack of respect for conventional beers (in fact, a deep hatred of commercial beer would be closer to the truth).
The Brewdog duo has produced such titles as Punk IPA, a superb ale: full, powerful, and packed with citrus, herbal and pine notes (5.6% ABV). The Brewdog Riptide is a smooth, rich, imperial stout full of licorice and bitter chocolate flavors, with distinct fruitiness (8% ABV). Brewdog’s Dogma, a refreshing, full-bodied, dark amber with honey notes, has a sweet head, and a honey aftertaste. Other Brewdog experiments worth tasting include Chaos Theory, Trashy Blonde and Zeitgeist. You’ll find Brewdog pubs in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Glasgow.
Located in Perth, in the heart of Scotland, nestled between the rolling hills of Perthshire and the mighty Grampian mountain range, with crystal clear rivers flowing off, the Inveralmond Brewery opened its doors in 1997, and has met with great success.
Every Inveralmond beer has a Celtic theme, reflected on the label and on the pouring handles. CAMRA voted Inveralmond’s well-hopped golden ale, Ossian (4.2% ABV) as its Champion Beer of Scotland a few years ago, Ossian being an ancient Gaelic poet. The Lia Fail (Stone of Destiny) is a rich, balanced, complex dark amber ale, (4.7% ABV) full of chocolate and toffee flavors, named after the famous stone that Scottish kings were crowned on.
Broughton Ales is a small independent brewery situated in the beautiful countryside of the Scottish Borders, also drawing on local history and legend to name their ales and stouts. Try their Jock Ale (6.7% ABV), full of fruity flavors, and concentrated toffee-like malt.
Harviestoun is another independent brewer with awards to boast. Their Bitter & Twisted blond ale won the Best Ale Award at the 2007 World Beer Awards. This refreshing ale has a tart, bitter and zesty finish.
Located on a remote rocky Scottish Island, the Isle of Skye Brewery won the Champion Beer Award at this year’s Scottish Real Ales Festival, with their Cuillin Beast. This strong (7% ABV) traditional ale is sweet and fruity, with caramel throughout the taste, and good fruit variety on the nose.
The Orkney Brewery is housed in a former schoolhouse on the Tranquil Orkney Islands that have been inhabited since Neolithic times. Orkney Brewery is perhaps best known for its Dragonhead Splitter, aka Skull Splitter. Named after the seventh early of Orkney, this strong red ale has an intense wine-like aroma, with rich deep fruity flavor and full bodied smoothness, that slides down well on a hot day. Beware of this powerful brew, with its 8.5% ABV, because if overindulged, it lives up to its name.
Highland Brewing Company, also on Orkney Island, is proud of its recent Overall Cask Beer Champion award at the Brewing Industry International meeting this year, with its IPA taking top honors.
Tiny Moulin Brewery, located in the Moulin Hotel just outside the town of Pitlochry, is renown as a meticulous craft ale producer where the art and science of brewing is studiously applied.
Though this is just a sampling of Scotland’s microbreweries, there are plenty of other delightful tastes from the other microbrewers.
Scotland’s 5,200 pubs have formed the social focal point of towns and cities across the country for centuries. Found in even the smallest, remote country towns, the pub is a home away from home where everyone is welcome.
The Scots are a very social people, and love to gather in the “local” to chat, eat, drink, meet friends, listen to music, read the newspaper, and relax. For visiting Americans a Scottish “pub experience” can be a highly enjoyable and unforgettable affair, as you talk to the locals and get to know them. You’ll meet all sorts of characters, and once you’ve been lightly teased about being a “Yank”, you may just find a pint sliding along the bar towards you.
Scottish pubs come in every size, shape, and description, each with its own personality. You’ll feel it as soon as you step through the door. Some are quiet and reserved, others livelier, sometimes almost like being in someone’s home. If the atmosphere is not what you’re looking for, turn around and go on to the next pub.
Pub lunches are an institution in themselves: pies, sausages and beans, chips (french fries to you), sandwiches, soup, and the ubiquitous “ploughman’s lunch”, with bread, cheese, pickles, and deli meat cuts.
Here are a few of the more traditional, historic or atmospheric pubs in Scotland’s three main population centers. If you’re out in the countryside, simply drop by the “local” and imbibe the atmosphere.
Castle Street, on Aberdeen’s Castlegate, has a couple of gems to visit. Try Old Blackfriars, with a warm, friendly atmosphere in this two level pub, and 6 casks on tap, or The Archibald Simpson, with a high ceiling central hall located in an old bank, and 6 cask ales on pump.
The Prince of Wales (7 St. Nicholas Lane), a classic heritage pub, has a good selection of cask ales, and its own Prince of Wales Ale from Inveralmond Brewery. Known as a rock bar, The Moorings Bar (2 Trinity Quay), has quality rotating cask ales, and a list of 86 bottled beers. Some claim this is the best place to drink in Aberdeen.
Glasgow boasted so many pubs in the late 1700’s that old records show the multitude of hanging signs over the pubs were darkening the streets so much they were taken down. And there’s still an abundance of pubs. Here are a few Glasgow pubs to whet your whistle.
On a cobbled lane near Glasgow Central Station, the Horse Shoe Bar has an excellent variety of brews and special casks rotated frequently, but it’s best known for having the longest bar in Scotland/Europe/The World depending on whom you talk to.
Located in Glasgow’s West End near Partick Cross, The Lismore is a dimly lit pub with stained glass windows, boasting an impressive collection of whiskies, and a solid selection of ales. Also at Partick Cross, The Three Judges features nine casks on constant rotation, with current selections advertised on a chalkboard.
Glasgow’s liveliest and most renowned drinking area is the West End around Byres Road and Ashton Lane. Try the cozy attic space complete with fireplace, in the trendy Attic Bar (Ashton Lane), or The Loft (Ashton Lane), an elegant converted Movie Theater with high vaulted ceiling decorated with gold and white, and three different floors.
Tennent’s Basement Bar (Byres Rd) is a big and airy place with Corinthian columns at the bar, attracting an older crowd (40+) with quick bar service and a good selection of draught beers and spirits. Also on Byres Rd you’ll find popular Curlers, a laidback place where you can soak up the local art and hanging paintings, with exposed brickwork, and an upstairs seating area with big oak tables and fireplace. Curlers features 5 ales, 19 specialty beers and 3 ciders on tap.
In the trendy Merchant City area, Blackfriars is well worth visiting. Winner of the CAMRA Glasgow Pub of the Year Award, it features one of the best beer selections in town, with 5 casks rotated every few days, 20 beers on tap, and great pub food.
Elsewhere in Glasgow, interesting pubs to visit include Corinthian, Rab Ha’s, The Steps Bar, The Cask and Still, Scotia Bar, The Butterfly and Pig, Church on the Hill, The Granary, and Babbity Bowser.
Edinburgh’s Rose Street
The medieval stone city of Edinburgh boasts a staggering 700 pubs for its population of just under 500,000. And the epicenter of Edinburgh’s beer sampling scene, as any local will tell you, is a lively pedestrian walkway named Rose Street, a brisk 10-minute walk down the hill from the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle.
It’s tremendous fun drinking in a place that has some history to it, and Rose Street has that in pints, with some pubs dating to the 1850’s. With 12 pubs in this short 1,000-meter stretch, there’s one public house every 83 meters, a formidable challenge for even the hardiest of pub-crawlers. Even more daunting, some of the pubs are directly opposite each other. Here are a few of my favorites on Rose Street.
Starting at Rose Street’s west end, a stone’s throw from St. Andrew Square, your first pub is Abbotsford Bar, dating from 1902. The Abbotsford’s eye-catching centerpiece, a gorgeous dark brown Spanish mahogany island bar, and lavishly ornamented ceiling, are still tourist attractions in their own right. Intricately carved railings divide the island up into small serving ports where you have to stoop down to order your pint.
Converted to a tavern in 1904, The Kenilworth takes its name from a novel by famed Scottish writer, Sir Walter Scott. With warm and cozy furnishings, red wallpaper with gold gilt edged borders, a magnificently decorated ceiling, and a large square island centered around a brown hand-carved mahogany drinks cabinet, the Kenilworth proved to be in my top three favorite Rose Street pubs.
A wooden sign at The Gordon Arms tells visitors that it’s a “locals” drinking pub, with a friendly atmosphere and comfortable interior. It’s named in honor of the Gordon Highlanders, a famous British Army infantry regiment.
Dirty Dick’s, a dimly lit pub with a friendly atmosphere is the sort of place where you can sit with a good mate and yarn for hours over a few pints, and is my favorite Edinburgh bar. It has history dating from 1859, an adequate selection of ales and quirky artifacts and bits and pieces that seem more fun with every drink you have, as you pass them on the way to the ‘lou: plaster busts, pewter tankards, pictures, plants and plastic flowers, a rocking horse with eye patch, a monkey face, green vases, Victorian pots with country scenes painted on them, old colored cloth wall lamps, an ancient black metal tea kettle, clocks, framed newspapers, assorted gnomes lurking on the wall.
Lots of pubs are decorated like this, but Dirty Dick’s is done with an artistic eye, enough to give a weird old world Steam punk ambience. According to the storyboard outside the pub, Dirty Dick was a man who lived in the 1850’s, a “well keant character in scruffy attire who cleaned up the streets of Edinburgh of all the horse dung! Hence the local townsfolk aptly named him “Dirty Dick” and he became a legend. Indeed he’d follow the draymen’s delivery cart the length of Rose Street shoveling up after the horses, until resting here.”
1780 is another nicely appointed and beautifully decorated bar and restaurant, with large wooden beams across the ceiling and plush traditional purple Victorian wallpaper, gold edged mirrors, ornate light fixtures, red leather topped chairs, and marble topped tables. A place where you bring your first date to impress her or him, as the case may be, and dimly lit to help you relax after a hard day of doing whatever. The stained glass light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, and framed historical photos covering the walls, give the 1780 a classy feeling. You would be remiss if you did not dine in its plush restaurant.
Worthy of Mention
With 153,000 people, Dundee has 83 pubs. The most popular are Ladywell Tavern and Trades House.
A smaller town with a population of 56,000, Dundee’s best-known pubs include Castle Tavern, Corriegarth, Ceol-Mor, and Keg.
Scotland’s Commercial Breweries
Perhaps I spoke too harshly of the major breweries, earlier. They have also had to raise their game to compete with the microbrew upstarts, and are now producing some fine, competitive beers.
Do try the best products of the large commercial breweries such as McEwan, Younger, Deuchar, Dryborough, Belhaven, Usher, Orkney, Tennent, Caledonian, and Traquair House. These big houses have some fine and satisfying brews, including many championship winners, and you would be remiss if you didn’t try a few of their top shelf beers.
The beer aficionado will find a plethora of well-stocked pubs and breweries in Scotland—far too many to visit. But if you try a few new ones each day you’ll have a satisfying tour and make some good friends in Scotland’s variety of taverns.
And here’s my final barman’s dash of advice for beer fans visiting Scotland to taste their way around this bonnie country of 5.1 million people. You’ll find that most pubs stock a mixture of foreign beers alongside local and national ales. Stick to the Scottish ales and ignore the foreign pretenders—you’re in Scotland, laddie!
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