11 May 2010

A Pint of Heavy, Please

They say a language has the most words for things that are important to its speakers. Scottish beer jargon combines two of the most important things in any Scot's life: booze and taxes.

In the 19th century, ale brewing styles shook out into four broad categories based on the excise taxes applied to alcohol. While originally various types of beer were brewed in each category, eventually the different categories each became associated with a particular brew. In the 1970s, almost a century later, these categories were revived by the new "real ale" movement (the UK's equivalent to the microbrewing craze). So today, people still refer to beers by the tax (in shillings) a hogshead of said beer would have incurred in 1885.

The main categories are as follows:
  • 60/- (aka "Light") under 3.5% ABV
  • 70/- (aka "Heavy") 3.5%-4.5% ABV
  • 80/- (aka "Heavy" or "Export") 4.0%-5.5% ABV
  • 90/- (aka "Wee Heavy") over 5.5% ABV
Of these categories, the 80/- (pronounced "eighty-shilling" or "eighty-bob") is by far the most common, and has become perhaps the iconic Scottish ale. 80/- is a mild, malty, red-brown brew, usually sweet with a bit of a biscuity flavor.

The other appellations have fallen out of use for a variety of reasons. Cheap lagers have pushed out the 60/- style, for example, and English, Irish, and American varieties (pale ales, bitters, porters, stouts, etc) have encroached upon the scene. But the 80/- every bit as Scottish as haggis and whisky--Caledonian in Edinburgh and Williams Bros. in Alloa make the best examples, if you ask me.


  1. About the other appellations falling out of favour whilst this may be the case for 60/- and 80/-, 70/- which i notice you don't mention directly but by the way you singled out the 80/-, is implied, certainly hasn't and is still a common sight to me in pubs during my visits north of the border.

  2. Not sure about now, but you used to be able to walk in and ask for an 80 or 90 shilling