Beer: Understanding Wee Heavy via Homebrewing
Homebrewing. (Rob Fink)
From Rob Fink. Follow him on Twitter @RobDFink or email him at rob[AT]borderstan.com.
In order to fully comprehend (or at least attempt to) a given style of beer, it’s sometimes beneficial to conceive of it from the inside out. In other words, it’s sometimes best to brew it yourself in order to come to terms with style parameters. In years past, I’ve brewed a fair number of “imperialized” styles, styles which are meant to amplify, accentuate and otherwise strengthen beers of relatively modest strength. When my good friend Brian Stanton approached me to collaborate on a beer in honor of his son’s first birthday, the idea for a Wee Heavy was born.
However, the birth of the style itself has a more complicated history. What eventually become known as wee heavy (or alternate phrasings such as scotch ale or strong scotch ale) in the United States engendered quite the convoluted history before traversing the Atlantic.
Beginning in the 19th Century, the strength of Scottish ales where referred to by the shilling system. Numerical differences anywhere from 60 to 160 shillings indicated alcoholic strength while anything over 100 shillings could be characterized as wee heavy, with potential alcohol by volumes reaching the double digits. However, “heavy” could also refer to a beer of much more modest strength akin to an English bitter, which would typically not surpass beyond 4%.
As it’s conceived of in the American craft landscape, wee heavy is a strong, malt behemoth, and what Brian and I fervently sought to replicate. We wanted to encapsulate the lush caramel, rich toffee, burnt sugar and hint of chocolate the wee heavy provides in spades. After a two-hour boil wherein two gallons of first runnings were condensed then added it back to the main boil, the beer was chilled, yeast was pitched, and the rest was history, at least for a short while.
It ended up with an original gravity of 1.125 (this is a huge beer regardless of historical period), and nearly a month later, is currently hovering around 13%. Interestingly, my inspiration in terms of recipe formulation is a beer of more modest strength but incalculable grace.
Dressed in deep mahogany with a rocky off-white head, Traquir House Ale is undoubtedly my favorite wee heavy and actually Scottish to boot. Densely sweet toffee and caramelized sugar catapults out of the glass while the body remains relatively dry, making the beer not only drinkable but very food appropriate. Even at 7.2%, this beer was practically born for venison stew or a rack of lamb. Regardless of what you serve it with, it is a delicious malt bomb in the best sense of the phrase. Thankfully, this beer is also readily available in the Borderstan area — stores such as Whole Foods on P St and De Vinos on 18th Street NW typically carry it while it never leaves the 500-plus bottle list at Churchkey on 14th Street NW.
Given the rapidly approaching five-month DC heat wave, Traquir House Ale is the perfect match for mint accented crème brûlée or a vivacious fruit tart. I only hope that my wee heavy has mellowed out by then in order to enjoy sweater weather this fall (full report forthcoming!).