Scottish ales don’t taste like whisky. That is because at least traditionally, Scottish ales don’t contain any smoked malts. Sure, back in the day, all malt was dried over fires, but consequently all beers had a smokey character.
The brewing process and traditional yeasts produced beers with levels of complexity. Roasty caramel flavours increased as you progress from 60 shilling and 70 shilling beers through 80 shilling to a wee heavy. The stronger beers will have hints of smoke and a toffee, but little apparent hop character.
Many people mistakenly connect Scotch ales and Scotch whisky, though they come from decidedly different histories. Some modern interpretations do use peated malt to introduce a hint of complexity.
At some point some modern brewer, likely an American homebrewer, saw peated malt on the shelf of his supplier, and decided to add it to his recipe, and a modern version of the style evolved. Peated malt is intentionally smoked over peat fires. It gives whisky its distinctive character, and can be quite potent in a beer.
For those craving a whisky beer, Wellington based brewing mavericks the Yeasty Boys have just released Rex Attitude, a peated strong golden ale. Apart from the peat, it has nothing to do with Scotch ales. It is more like a Belgian Strong ale such as Duvel, but with a shot of Highland Malt thrown into the mix. It best fits into a smoked beer category, and the exclusive use of light malts makes it relatively unique.
This is not a beer for the faint of heart. It pours light like a good whiskey, and overwhelms the senses when drunk. The smokey malt pervades, with notes of burnt plastic and earth, and hints of straw, and even some hops in the finish. To a trained palate, it has the flaws of a wild homebrew. Yet these are intentional. (For some great visuals of first sips of this beer, see Jed Soane’s TheBeerProject.
Brewer Stu McKinley thinks it is a beer for drinking, not sniffing and sipping. Our recommendation would be to try a taste before springing for a whole pint.
The beer is currently on tap at the locally, and available in bottles as well. People we have spoken to are completely polarised by the brew. Mic Dover, a proprietor of the Freehouse: “We’ve had from ‘undrinkable’ to the ‘best beer I’ve ever tasted’.”
The flavours of Rex Attitude are in the same range as a straight whisky. Yeasties used heavily peated malt (40+ ppm phenol) specially imported from the Bairds Malting in Inverness. Says Stu: “We actually sent a few bottles over to Inverness and they were served at a whisky festival …” (See a snap of the local coverage here.)
Not all Scotch whiskies contain peated malt, which lends a smokey and peaty character to products that contain it. The malts themselves come in different strengths, usually smoked to the specifications of the distilleries. Heavily peated malts are said to have 30 ppm or more of phenols, while lighter malts have less than 15 ppm. Even unpeated malts have some smokey character from the malting temperatures, coming in at 3 ppm for darker versions.
It is no surprise that this beer is overwhelming to some. The human palate is sensitive to low levels of phenols, with even 0.1 ppm being detectable. A pint of Rex Attitude leaves a scent trail as it crosses the room.
The beer may have more smokiness because so little of it is lost in the brewing process. A typical whisky will lose nearly 40% of its phenols in from grain to distillation, and another 60 percent in the first 10 years of aging. (So it may be a good thing the Yeasties didn’t get a hold of any Islay malt, with its even more pungent and distinctive smoked kippers and seaweed vibe.)
There is more to this beer than just smoke. After your palate has acclimated to the initial assault, you will find some hops, and even a slight Belgian spiciness. The late additions of US Willamette give the beer a fruitiness on the nose that Stu refers to as Feijioa. The bitterness of the hops melds with the sharpness of the smoked malt (hints of espresso or charred meat ) for a lingering finish.
While there is a Belgian character to the beer, is doesn’t come from the yeast. A US ale strain was used to keep the focus on the malt, though the malt clearly can speak for itself, even if they had used a more assertive strain.
So, it’s big and old and smokey, but is it good? In our opinion, it’s pretty good for a smoke beer. The thing is, assertive smoke beers are generally curiosities, not really sessionable for most people. Fritz is more partial to them, while Maria will only occasionally indulge in a classic like Alaskan Smoked Porter. Peat smoke is one of the most distinctive, and assertive, with an oily, tar and creosote character.
We wonder if there is any food that would go well with this beer, and think that a bold BBQ sauce would hold its own. Two strong flavours combined might leave you wanting to cut the flavours rather then multiply them.
We found the best drinking combination was with a whiskey chaser, which filled in some of the rougher edges, and cleansed the palate for another drink. A straight sided glass or bowl works well. We found small snifters and thistle glasses concentrated the aroma too much for our delicate palates.
This beer should age well, and would benefit from a hint of vanilla and tannin. So we are looking forward to trying some of the batch now slumbering in French oak chardonnay barrels.
If you are a homebrewer, you might want to make one for yourself. Willamette hops, with 15 minute and end of boil additions, a clean yeast, 90 minute boil, and enough base malt to get that 7% ABV. You can even smoke your own malt, laid out on a screen in the barbeque for an hour or so. Home distillers use peat from the garden store, but you might want to do some research before embarking on a full scale production.