Your intrepid liquor reporter has been partaking in a bit of the Wee Heavy lately.
No gentle reader, I’m not referring to the bygone days of my callow youth, when the Wee Heavy referred to the first-year sorority girls who were feeling particularly needy after packing on the freshman 15.
Today, in the fullness of time, the only Wee Heavy that your humble narrator still chases after is the Strong Scotch Ale style of beer, affectionately known as the Wee Heavy.
As you might have guessed from the name, this is a particular type of beer from Scotland that tends to have a high alcohol content, and is a close cousin of Barley Wine.
Much like a sorority girl on Santa’s knee at the mall, this beer sits on a lot of wood. Yes, gentle reader, unlike the giant stainless steel vats that our modern beers are aged in, the Wee Heavy harkens back to a simpler time, when beer was aged in oaken casks.
The aging in oak helps finish the beer, and helps provide the signature flavours and mouth feel this beer is known for.
Wee Heavy beers tend to be lightly hopped, in no small part because hops were expensive to import into Scotland, and those Scottish brewmasters knew how to stretch every shilling.
The Wee Heavy style of beer is thought to originate in 18th century Edinburgh, where brew kettles were still generally heated over a charcoal fire, lending to its distinctive sweet flavour. Some modern breweries use steam to heat the brew kettle, avoiding the malt caramelization altogether. That is fine for a clean and crisp later, but is sadly unsuitable for brewing an authentic Wee Heavy.
To give their beers a hint of whisky flavour, the brewers will often dry their barley over a peat fire, imparting the dry and smoky flavour so common with the Islay whiskies.
The flavour is heavily malted, with overtones and vanilla and sherry imparted from the wood aging, as well as hints of burnt toffee.
The burnt toffee flavour comes from caramelization of the malted barley, which will commonly occur when the copper brew kettle is directly heated with a flame.
While there are a wide variety of different brands in this style available in the UK, McEwan’s Scotch Ale is pretty much the only Wee Heavy that is widely available in Canada.
Luckily, we need look no further than our own Albertan craft beer industry for local twists on this beer style, with both Edmonton and Calgary being home to our own domestic versions of the Wee Heavy.
About this time last year, Big Rock added a new product to the shelves of your local booze merchant, with the bottles clad in a plaid tartan design, and Scottish Style Heavy Ale emblazoned across the front.
At $14.75 for a six-pack at my local liquor retailer, it is definitely more expensive than a Lucky Lager, but is worth every penny.
Big Rock’s interpretation of this beer style pours into your glass as a rich amber with a very slight tan head, quickly fading away to nothing. Typical of the style, the beer has very little hop aroma, and is only lightly carbonated. Aging on oak has given the beer a toasty biscuit mouth feel, with some smoky peat in the finish.
Looking north to Deadmonton, Alley Kat Brewing first produced a Wee Heavy beer called Kilt Lifter as a seasonal brew back in 2007, and again in 2009.
This year’s version was renamed to Darn Tartan, possibly to mollify the neo-prohibitionists in our midst that, horror of horrors, think that beer and lifted kilts should never be mentioned in the same sentence.
Your humble narrator taste-tested both the Big Rock Scottish Style Heavy Ale and the Alley Kat Darn Tartan at a single sitting, and the Alley Kat brew was a bit more to my liking.
Perhaps it was the 650mL bottle that poured in a dark ruby into my pint glass, with rich aromas of smoked peat and burnt caramel malt. The Alley Kat beer definitely has less mass-market appeal than the offering from Big Rock, but I predict it will be a winner with the beer nerds like your humble narrator.
Whatever your preference, both Big Rock and Alley Kat products are widely available within Alberta, so give them a try today!