Also known as “Strong Scotch Ale” or simply “Scotch Ale” (and not to be confused with the tamer “Scottish Ales”), Wee Heavy is the strongest of the range of Scottish origin beers.
With ABV ranging from 6.5%-10%, these beers are rich, full-bodied and malt-forward and have very low hopping rates, producing sweeter beers of considerable complexity that have strong caramel or toffee components, and smooth but noticeable alcohol character.
Aroma will generally mirror flavor. Color can range from light copper to dark brown and is traditionally derived mostly from pale malt. Wee Heavy’s use high mash temperatures and kettle caramelization rather than depending on darker malts for color, except a small amount of roasted barley.
The modern yeast varieties used ferment at the lower (cooler) range of Ale types, resulting in a slower fermentation, producing less fruity esters, and letting the caramelized malt character shine through as the star of this beer. The small amount of esters that develop may suggest plum, raisin, or other dried fruit.
While commercial examples do exist that use Peat Smoked Malt to add a smoky Scotch type character, as this is sometimes thought of as being historically accurate, there is little evidence to suggest that this is true. The best examples should exhibit extremely low levels of smoky presence, if any.
Another romantic -- but probably, or at least debatably, historically inaccurate -- popular belief is that the low hopping rates came from Scotland's desire to remain as independent of England as possible. Because of the near-impossibility of growing hops in Scotland, hops would have to be imported from England, thus the Wee Heavy’s mythic creation from importing as little of the highly taxed English hops as possible.
Later, factual research of trade records indicate that Scotland may have actually imported and used a comparable amount of hops as England and exported hoppy versions of Scottish beers to many locations around the globe.
My favorite Wee Heavy is Founders Dirty Bastard, as this beer drinks brilliantly on a cool night in the fall or winter. This should be paired with rich foods such as roasted or grilled game, beef, smoked salmon, softly smoked cheese, caramel or chocolate flavored desserts. If you’re at HopCat, try it with the Vladimir Poutine!
Adam Roberts is a Certified Cicerone.