February. At the beginning of the month that infernal rodent out in the western part of the state predicted, as he almost always does, that we’d be enduring another six weeks of winter. Since then we’ve had to suffer though more snow, a bout or two of freezing rain, and soul killing record low temperatures. The weather folk are spreading no hope for the latter part of the month. The fat rat was correct in his prognostications.
However, we need not despair entirely. Life provides its small compensations. Lately, mine have come in the form of winter beers, characterized by their big flavors and warming higher alcohol content. Demanding to be sipped slowly and savored, preferably in good company, they are the perfect antidote for all that ails us this time of year. Today I am thinking of a favorite example: Scottish Wee Heavy. Lucky for me, I don’t have to go far to find a local representation of the style. Chestnut Hill’s Iron Hill Brewery makes one that suits me just fine.
Iron Hill’s Wee Heavy
This fellow looks great in the glass! — a big creamy off white head sitting atop a body of dark copper. Although traditionally served in a thistle glass, a tulip or goblet will work just fine. The immediate impression in both aroma and flavor is malt writ large. The lush caramel sweetness announces itself long before your nose gets to the glass. Let the glass warm a bit and you will be rewarded with a hint of smoke in the background. In recent years, some craft brewers have been adding a bit of peated malt to their Wee Heavies. I personally like this trend. The style, with its reliance on malt can verge on cloying. The peat counters the big sweetness with a subtle smokey bitterness. In fact, at 35 I.B.U.s, Iron Hill’s version is at the high end of the bitterness range for the style, but it most certainly is not hoppy. If you are among the hops-adverse, this is a great beer for you to try.
Iron Hill’s Wee Heavy comes in at 8.3% alcohol by volume, so you will want to put away the heavy machinery before indulging. But that’s what Wee Heavies are for — sipping slowly on a cold winter’s night when the groundhog has given no good news.
About Wee Heavies
Most beer styles, if you follow them back far enough, were determined by the resources available in their region of origin. This is certainly true of Wee Heavy (also know as Scotch Ale). Scotland is a great place for growing barley; hops, not so much. That’s why Scottish beer styles are characterized by strong malt flavors and very little to no hop bitterness. The colder climate also means that they ferment at lower temperatures, so the fruit esters associated with English styles are restrained.
Wee Heavies are malt-forward in flavor — big sweetness usually accompanied by a strong suggestion of caramel. Though not necessary to the style, a background hint of smoke from peated malt often provides a balance to the sweetness. They are usually fairly high in alcohol, ranging up as far as 10% a.b.v. Because of their prominent sweetness, Wee Heavies pair well with desserts, particularly those with caramel or toffee components. I imagine it would also be terrific next to a dish of French vanilla ice cream.