In the world of beers from Scotland, there is a bit of terminology to get out of the way. Some beers will be referred to as “Scottish ale/beer” and others as “Scotch ale/beer.” Is there a difference? And what about all this shilling business?

Beers from Scotland can be lumped under the designation of “Scottish ales,” just like you could refer to all English beers as “English ales.” Scottish ales tend to be described in a four-tiered system, and it’s the heaviest of these beers that are called the “Scotch ales.” So, if you have two bottles of beer in front of you and one is called a Scotch ale while the other is called a Scottish ale, the Scotch ale is going to be the bigger, higher alcohol beer. Following me so far?

Along the same lines, the Scottish ales were often traditionally referred to as Light, Heavy, Export and Strong (also known as “Wee Heavy”). Finally, the third way of classifying Scottish beers is by the archaic shilling system. In times past, Scottish brewers were taxed on the strength of the beer. Higher alcohol beers were taxed at a higher rate, so Light beers were called “60-shilling,” Heavy beers were called “70-shilling,” Exports were called “80-shilling” and Wee Heavies or Scotch ales were called “90-shilling” beers.

While no exact range of alcohol has ever been determined in the shilling system, the following is a review of all the things you can call a nice pint of beer from Scotland:

  • Light = 60 shilling = beers generally under 3.5%ABV
  • Heavy = 70 shilling = beers around 3.5-4.0%ABV
  • Export = 80 shilling = beers in the range of 4.0-5.5%ABV
  • Scotch ale = Wee Heavy = 90 shilling = generally 6.0%ABV and higher

So, now that you know how to order a beer in Scotland, let’s get on with it! Because Scotland is about the worst place on the planet to grow hops, as a group, Scottish ales tend to be maltier, with little to no hop character. Wee Heavies have pretty much zero hop aroma or flavor, but may have a buttery (think buttered popcorn) undertone from diacetyl, a compound that can be found in this style of beer (it’s an inappropriate flavor in most other beers). The bitterness that is found in these beers comes mostly from the roasted grains, and when served too cold these beers may come off as being more bitter than intended, so generally try to enjoy these after they’ve been out of the fridge for a while.

Finally, Scotch ales tend to usually have a smoky character. Sometimes actual smoked malts are used in small quantities, but in other cases, a light smoky (peaty) character is found as a result from the yeast and local water that produces some Scotch ales.

Sprecher’s Pipers Scotch Ale is part of their Premium Reserve line. These are affordably priced beers (in my opinion) that are usually sold in 4-packs of Sprecher’s trademark 16-oz bottles. Sprecher seems to specialize in German-style beers, and I tend to like most of what they make. I picked up some loose bottles while I was in Omaha not too long ago. I paid all of $1.79 for this bottle!

An aggressive pour into my large New Belgium beer snifter (which holds 16-oz perfectly) yielded a big, fluffy, shaving-cream like head that was a nice tan color. The beer itself was a deep reddish-brown, almost opaque, with some red highlights. It’s a nice looking beer. According to Sprecher’s website, Pipers weighs in at 8.27%ABV, so you aren’t generally going to be drinking too many of these in one session, and it has 21 IBU’s, five types of malts and two kinds of hops for balance.

I didn’t get much on the aroma. Some maltiness, of course, and some esters of dark fruit, possible. Maybe a raisiny quality.

Despite having no smoke in the aroma, there was a lot on the first sip. There was a slightly metallic flavor that was quickly overcome by a big, smoky character. The smokiness lasted through the sip and into the aftertaste, and the metallic flavor also kicked back up in the aftertaste, then disappeared. The alcohol is pretty apparent in this beer, and although the IBU’s are only 21, I think the malts were carrying some extra bitter character that wouldn’t be calculated in the final IBU number.

This beer finishes very dry and is not a sticky sweet beer like a lot of doppelbocks I’ve had. As I drank, the metallic character seemed to go away, so either it was something that gassed off the beer, or it may have been my palate getting used to it. I think what I was tasting as metallic was a combination of the alcohol, hops and smoky malt, playing a dirty trick on my palate!

This beer is pretty easy to drink, with a nice mouthfeel and a dry finish. I think it was nicely balanced, probably with a little more hop character than some other Wee Heavies I’ve had, and the smokiness dies down after a few sips and your palate gets used to it, revealing some raisiny and dark fruit character way back in the aftertaste.

This is a nice complex beer and another winner from Sprecher!