Style School – Wee Heavy

When the topic of malt-based beverages from Scotland comes up, most peoples’ first thought is understandably whisky. What is perhaps lesser known is Scotland’s extremely long history with beer. Brewing vessels have been found in Scotland dating back as far as 6000 years, and when you consider that whisky is essentially just concentrated beer, it is little surprise that the ancient Scots were handy with a mash paddle.

But this is not an article about ancient Scottish beer (although that might be the topic for a future one!) The Wee Heavy as we know it is a far more recent addition to the Scottish beer arsenal. Scottish ales as we know them today are generally very malt forward, with less of the bracing bitterness associated with English Pales (although a lot of very successful IPAs were coming out of Edinburgh around the time that the beer trade to the Indies opened up).

The way these malty delicious ales are categorized is based on strength, with Light (~3%), Heavy (~3.5-4%) and export (~4-5%). For quite a while these were incorrectly being referred to in homebrew circles as 60-, 70- and 80-shilling beers, based on the barrel cost of each, but we have since found that this was not a historical naming convention for the styles. What is known is that these beers were most likely partigyled from the one mash, similar to the pale ales of England, but with a darker grist and lower hop rate. The reason I am detailing these beers, is that the wee heavy is to the Scottish ale what the Barley wine is to the English Pale. The delicious, easy drinking pub beer of choice taken to excessive levels of decadence and debauchery.

So how do we approach this style?

For me, one of my favourite things about Wee Heavy is the complex caramel flavours in the malt profile. There are two main methods for achieving caramel flavour in beer. One is through the use of crystal malts. This is an easy and reliable method and will get predictable results. Unfortunately, I like to do things the hard way if I think there is a historical precedent, and in this case, there is (kind of). For a long time, it was thought that these beers had a particularly long, extended boil time to achieve kettle caramelization and thus malt complexity. Whilst it has now been found that this probably wasn’t a method used in the classical production of these beers, enough homebrewers and commercial adaptors of the style have included this in the process for long enough that I feel there is now a precedent to justify chasing the flavour achieved through this method.

Which brings me to my approach. Rather than boiling the whole kettle of wort for 2-3 hours to reduce it down and achieve kettle caramelization, I pull off a couple of litres at the start of the boil, and while the main bulk of the wort boils, I reduce those down in a separate pot into a thick syrupy reduction before adding it back into the main kettle. This achieves an intensely complex and delicious malt caramel (which, if you make enough of it, is extremely good on ice cream!). Using this technique, I think the beer that results is far more interesting and characterful than simply using crystal malt. If you wanted to bypass this step, I would use an even mix of light, medium and dark crystals up to about 10% of the grist, removing the same weight in base malt.

In terms of hops, you want just enough bitterness to balance the malt, and little to no hop flavour. I tend to go with around 25-30IBU of Fuggles added at 60 minutes. The herbal, grassy character and smooth bitterness compliments the style nicely. Using a small amount of Roast barley (I use about 50g total) helps to dry the beer slightly as well so less hops are needed. Just be careful not to add too much roast flavour, as this beer shouldn’t be roasty. I ferment with WY1728 at 17 degrees, whilst rich dark fruit esters are a key part of wee heavy, the fermentation should still be as clean as you can manage. Keeping it on the cool side will help to avoid hot alcohol character as well.


Expected OG


Batch Size

30 IBU

Expected Bitterness

25 EBC

Expected Colour


Assumed System Efficiency (measured post boil)

1. Grain

  1. Simpsons Golden Promise – 9.2kg (99.5%)
  2. Simpsons Roast Barley – 50g (0.5%)

2. Mash Schedule

  1. Heat 35 litres water to 70 degrees Celsius. Depending on the size of your brewing vessel, you may need to use less water to start with and add the remainder in after the grains are removed. Ask instore if you require help with this.

  2. Dissolve 2.5g Calcium Chloride and 2.5g Calcium Sulphate
  3. Mash at 66 degrees Celsius for 60 minutes followed by a stirred ramp to 77 degrees Celsius.

3. Boil –

60 minutes – pull off 3L of wort at start of boil and boil separately until it forms a thick syrupy dark caramel (don’t burn it, worth keeping an eye on it) before adding back into kettle towards the end of the boil

4. Hops

  1. Fuggles (6%) – 40g @ 60min (30 IBU)

5. Extras

  1. Kettle Finings: One half Whirlfloc tablet or 2.5g GelBrite, 10 mins from end of boil
  2. Yeast Nutrient: 1tsp, 10 mins from end of boil

6. Fermentation

Pitch a good, healthy quantity of WY1728 or Danstar Nottingham at 17 degrees Celsius and expect an FG of approximately 1.025-30