Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Peat and Scottish beer

Scottish beer tastes of peat, right? It’s made by kilted Highlanders drying malt on the smoky peat fire in front of the but an’ ben and full of the peaty water coming off the glen. Everyone knows that. 

The above is of course, like much of what is written about Scottish beer, a legend based on romantic nonsense about what Scotland is actually like. It doesn’t help that plenty of Scottish brewers are perfectly willing to repeat the nonsense to sell beer. You even get people complaining that real Scottish beer isn’t “Scottish” enough. Not even Belhaven can make a proper Scottish ale according to some people. This type of discourse is the equivalent of writing an essay on Scottish politics based on watching Braveheart.

Ron has just posted a map of 275 Scottish breweries known to exist in 1837. Here is a picture of it:



Here is a map of the peaty bits of Scotland which I’ve quoted from the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute:



Superimposing one map on the other, one thing is quite clear: with a few exceptions, the breweries in Scotland in 1837 were nowhere near the peaty areas:



Now, just on the basis of this — ignoring all the other evidence, ignoring that the industrial revolution started in Scotland, ignoring that many of these breweries are nearer to sources of coal than sources of peat, ignoring that we know for a fact that several of the largest breweries made their own malt on site, ignoring that they used a lot of imported malt anyway … just on the basis of this map, exactly how likely do you think it would be that the beer from these breweries would have a peaty influence?


13 comments:

  1. This is fantastic, exactly what Ron was explaining to me the other day. Marvellous work.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Sorry Ron, couldn’t resist. The idea has been rattling around for a while. I had the peat map, but was looking for a higher resolution version, or preferably a Google maps overlay of the same thing, couldn’t find it. When you posted the breweries map I had to go ahead and do it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. The breweries are beside the rivers, the water in the rivers runs down off the hills through the peaty areas to the doors of the breweries. You don't need to build the brewery (or distillery) on top of the peaty area for the peat to have an influence on the taste.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Where does the water from all the non-peaty areas go?

    The "peaty" water would be so dilute by the time it has travelled the hundreds of miles from the peaty areas to the non-peaty breweries as to be homeopathic in its peatiness.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Ade: clutching at straws springs to mind (or possibly having a laugh: I'm unsure.) So now we've moved from peaty malt to peaty water. That would explain why the tap water you get in those areas a) tastes nothing like peat and b) is amongst the softest water in world and c) why brewers have always preferred well-water anyway. I've lived in Donegal, matey: the water there is as peaty as you'll find anywhere. It comes out of the tap brown. And yet it doesn't taste particularly of peat. Will you please just give it up? There's no peaty characteristic to Scottish beer. It's an urban myth, and this is demonstrated by the repeated hoop jumping: "It's peat dried": debunked. "It's got peaty water": debunked. "It's because of kettle caramelisation"; no more than anywhere else. "Scotch ale" is a style completely unknown in Scotland. It's never been known in Scotland. It's a Belgian romantic fantasy of what Scottish beer was like.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I remember as a kid in Uist the water was brown as well, but the powers that be built a filtration plant. Some of the tastiest water in the world can be found on Benbecula.

    I can confirm however that cutting the peats is bloody hard work, and using it as a fuel source makes the house smell great and gives you black boogers.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Black Boogers Scotch Ale sounds just like something an American micro would come up with.

    Fr Stack: it's a bit more complicated than that. I can count four distinct types of beers called Scotch Ale that were produced in Scotland. There’s the pale Scotch Ale that Booth described in the 19th century. There’s the darker “Belgian” type exemplified by Gordon Highland Scotch. The weaker Younger’s No. 3 type, and weakest of all, Best Scotch as produced for the Tyneside market. The American style is clearly based on the “Belgian” type.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I said the style was unknown, not the name.

    ReplyDelete
  9. The American style being modelled on the Belgian style makes perfect sense given the obsession over here with Belgian beers, and by Belgian that of course means as laden with as much funky weirdness as possible. If InBev ever put out a version of Stella warm-fermented with an "abbey" yeast strain it would be a runaway success!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Al, I think it predates that. The Scotch Ale stuff has been floating around the internet longer than the current infatuation with Belgian beer. I suspect it’s because Michael Jackson wrote about it, whereas to my knowledge he didn’t write about the others, nor were those exported to the US in the way that McEwan’s Scotch Ale or MacAndrew’s were.

    ReplyDelete