Scotch ales aren’t so common in Japan, so we’ll take advantage of the seasonal Baird Yabai Yabai Strong Scotch Ale to take a look at them. Our European contestant for today is the Black Isle Scotch Ale, which, like everything else they do, is organic.
Baird Yabai Yabai Strong Scotch Ale (やばいやばいストロングスコッチエール)
Package: 330mL bottle
Misc: IBU – 30
Pour – Nice caramel brown color, moderate carbonation
Aroma – Very deep malts aroma, sweet, caramel, also hint of alcohol
Flavor – At first very malty, then some sugar, finish is bitter caramel but also a bit of seltzer and alcohol, smooth texture, very sweet overall
This is our first Scotch Ale review, so let’s go over some of the style characteristics. One of the more prominent features is that the wort is boiled until caramelization, which will give it some sweetness and body. The emphasis is on the malt flavors, and it’s usually relatively strong in ABV, anywhere from 6% to 10% (the style is also known as “Wee Heavy“). You may get a peaty/smoky aroma, but not all the time.
The history of the scotch ale is also quite interesting. In the old old days they brewed ales with heather instead of hops, but as beer became more standardized over the centuries the Scots too switched to hops. However, the cold weather of Scotland made growing hops there impossible, so they had to be imported. Of course, this was quite expensive so they used very little hops, which is why scotch ales are malty. The cold weather, though, did allow them to brew year-round (this is before refrigeration), and they were exported to England in the summer, where they were called scotch ales. There are lots more details in those two links above that are quite interesting (including some notes on the shilling price scale nomenclature for Scottish beers), so if take a look if you have a minute.
This particular Baird Yabai Yabai Strong Scotch Ale, which is one of their regular seasonals, if you will (it’s only available in the fall but has a properly designed label instead of one of their generic ones), is one of only a few scotch ales brewed in Japan. As the name implies, it is a bit on the strong side at 8% ABV, and it does warm up the belly.
Flavor-wise, it hits most of the points – it’s quite heavy on the malt and caramel and very sugary. You can both smell and taste the alcohol, which depending on your mood may be a good or a bad thing, The texture is nice, and while overall it’s a pretty good beer I think it’s just a tad too sweet, especially as it warms up.
Black Isle Scotch Ale
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Deep red wine/coffee brown, not very fizzy
Aroma – Rich smell, almost like whiskey without the alcohol, lots of caramel
Flavor – Super rich, malty, very nice caramel, slight peat/smoke flavor near the finish, well-balanced
Black Isle (the locale in Scotland), it turns out, is a peninsula rather than an island. There’s a lot of farmland there, so it ends up being a great place to run an organic brewery. That’s right, Black Isle Brewery is an organic brewery, complete with organic barley farm and a cow called Molly. Their homepage notes that they brew beer using completely organic (no chemicals or pesticides!) barley and hops, but as it has no mention of a hop farm (and this is Scotland, after all, where hops don’t grow so well) I assume they are outsourcing their organic hop production. (Unrelated to beer – they’re also into bees).
So does organic beer make good beer? If this beer is the litmus test, then yes. The Black Isle Scotch Ale, in a word, is rich. Very smooth, has the right balance of malts and caramel, not too sweet, has peat – overall, this is an excellent beer. The comparison with the Baird is quite interesting – the Baird is a bit too strong on both the upfront alcohol and the sweetness, and put up against the Black Isle the Baird comes across as lacking subtlety. The Black Isle, on the other hand, is rich and complex, and makes for a very satisfying and yet drinkable beer.
As I mentioned before scotch ales aren’t too common yet in Japan, but they have proven popular with American craft brewers so I’m sure it’s only a matter a time before we see more of them. I’ve tried the Ise Kadoya one on tap before, so if we see a bottled version we’ll take a look at that one, and any others we can find.