Something's Brewing: Scotland's finest real ales


Thanks to an explosion of micro brewers all over the country, Scotland is pushing back the boundaries of real ale innovation. Frank Park of the Scottish Real Ale Shop runs the rule over a selection of his favourite small breweries.

Valhalla Brewery

A feature of Scottish real ale is the use of local ingredients to add a unique flavour. The Valhalla Brewery on the island of Unst in Shetland has a strong Viking influence, including the name Valhalla, the hall in the celestial regions, home of the Norse god Odin, where slain Viking warriors were borne, to be revived by a horn full of ale. Valhalla brews six regular ales. The original is Auld Rock, Shetlanders’ name for their island. Among the others is a very light bitter, Old Scatness, which is brewed from an ancient type of six row barley called bere. The beer takes its name from the Old Scatness archaeological dig at the south end of Shetland where evidence was found of beer making well over 2000 years ago. With an ABV of 4.0 per cent, this brew has heather honey added at the end of the boil to give a nice, refreshing, smoky aftertaste.

Orkney Brewery

The famous Skullsplitter and Dark Island are two of the beers produced at the Orkney Brewery. Skullsplitter carries on the Viking influence, being named after Thorfinn Einarsson, the seventh Viking Earl of Orkney. It is a tawny red colour, with a fruity malty aroma and a spicy, fresh and dried fruit taste. Dark Island, twice CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Scotland, is a very dark beer, deep ruby in colour, with a chocolate and mixed fruit aroma and a coffee roast malt flavour. A connoisseur’s version, Dark Island Reserve, is brewed twice a year and delivers ten per cent ABV by introducing whisky into the brewing process.

Colonsay Brewery

The brewing tradition on Colonsay and Oransay dates back to the monks who ruled the islands. Now the brewery is researching the processes used in those distant times. A five-barrel operation, Colonsay Brewery creates very traditional beers and lagers that strive to encapsulate the wild and rugged nature of the island in a bottle. It produces a lager, 80/- and IPA, the distinctive quality of each being attributed to the unhurried nature of brewing and the quality of the peaty water that adds to the flavour of the beers.

Islay Ales

Islay Ales was founded in 2003 by Paul Hathaway, Paul Capper and Walter Schobert who decided that an island with eight (soon to be nine) distilleries, producing some of the most famous whiskies in the world, needed a brewery. The company specialises in cask and bottle-conditioned beer, which is the classic description of real ale. The beers are neither filtered nor pasteurised and so continue to ferment and mature in the cask and the bottle, which inevitably means a shorter shelf life. Islay Ales offers a superb selection including the very light Saligo lager-style beer, the tawny Ardnave and Finlaggan, the ruby red dark Nerabus and Black Rock and an excellent stout, Dun Hogs Head.

Arran Brewery

A final stop on this island tour is the Arran Brewery, which survived a period of administration to surface healthier, fitter and still with its superb selection of beers. Arran Blonde, Dark and Sunset have been joined by its latest, Arran Milestone, its first bottle-conditioned ale and winner of the Champion Bottle Conditioned Beer of Scotland at the 2008 Ayrshire and Galloway Beer Festival. Milestone is a dark, amber brew with a subtle balance of malt and floral hop character, giving a lingering fruity finish.

Skye Brewing

Established in 1995, the Uig-based Isle of Skye Brewery was re-branded as Skye Brewing in 2014, and makes a good selection of ales including gems such as Skye Red, Skye Black and Skye Blaven. Its Skye Gold is brewed with porridge oats, which creates an exceptional smoothness as well as a thick, creamy head.

Williams Bros.

The Williams brothers are leading innovators in brewing, having created the iconic Fraoch from an ancient Gaelic recipe for ‘leann fraoich’ (heather ale), which was revived and reintroduced to the Scottish culture. They add sweet gale and flowering heather into the boiling bree of malted barley then, after it cools slightly, they pour the hot ale into a vat of fresh heather flowers, where it infuses for an hour before being fermented. A light, amber ale with a floral, peaty aroma and full malt character, it has a spicy, herbal flavour and dry, wine-like finish. Williams Bros also pioneered the use of gooseberries in Grozet, pine and spruce shoots in Alba, elderberries in Ebulum and seaweed in Kelpie, all creating very interesting and uniquely Scottish ales.

Tryst Brewery

Centrally located in Larbert by Falkirk, Tryst was set up in 2004 by John McGarva. When John was young there was always home-made beer, wine and jam in the house. His dad was an enthusiastic maker of anything that could be grown and collected from his own garden, fruit farm or hedgerow. His beer style was a big Scottish 80/- usually made from a commercial bitter kit with extra hops for taste and sugar for strength (Electric Soup) and more than a few unsuspecting visitors were helped out the door worse for having a couple of pints. Tryst has concentrated on cask and bottle-conditioned beers offering a range of about ten real ales. Among these is Blathan (pronounced ‘bla-han’), which translates from Gaelic as 'little blossom'. A single hop variety is enhanced with elderflower and pale malts to create a beer with a strong floral nose and refreshing taste.

Black Wolf Brewery

Stirling is the home of Black Wolf Brewery, re-branded from Traditional Scottish Ales in 2014, which has an excellent range of beers including 1488 Whisky Ale, which is matured for up to 12 weeks in newly disgorged Tullibardine casks to give it a glorious rich, natural, malt whisky colour and a light Tullibardine aroma with a clean, fresh whisky aftertaste.

Frank Park is part of the family partnership that acquired the Lade Inn and Trossachs Microbrewery in 2005. Working with brewer Traditional Scottish Ales (TSA), now Black Wolf Brewery, they developed three real ales: Waylade, a creamy blonde bitter with a malty, fruity nose and lightly hopped aftertaste; Ladeback, a slightly sweeter amber ale with a dry, hop-dominated finish; and Ladeout, a dark ale with a complex flavour of dark chocolate and liquorice. When customers began asking for carry-outs and came prepared with their own jugs to be filled with the Lade beers, they decided to bottle the beers. The success of these gave them the idea to provide a wider selection of beers. This idea developed into the Scottish Real Ale Shop and they began sourcing real ales from microbrewers from Shetland to the Borders. The shop now has over 120 Scottish real ales from 26 microbreweries. The Scottish Real Ales shop and Lade Inn are at Kilmahog, by Callander (

Scotland’s microbreweries

With some examples of their beers.

Arran Brewery,
Arran Blonde, Sunset and Milestone

Black Isle Brewery, Ross-shire,
Blonde, Yellowhammer, Hibernator Oatmeal Stout

Black Wolf Brewery, Stirling,
Nevis, William Wallace, Lomond Gold

Brewdog, Fraserburgh,
Punk IPA, 5am Saint and Dead Pony Club

Broughton Ales Ltd, Biggar,
Old Jock, Clipper IPA and Greenmantle Ale

Cairngorm Brewery, Aviemore,
Trade Winds, Wildcat and Cairngorm Gold

Colonsay Brewery,
Lager, 80/- Ale and IPA

Deeside Brewery, Lumphanan, Aberdeenshire,
Macbeth, Brude and LAF

Fyne Ales, Cairndow, Loch Fyne,
Avalanche, Vital Spark, Jarl

Harviestoun Brewery, Alva, Clackmannanshire,
Ptarmigan, Bitter & Twisted and Schiehallion

Hebridean Brewing Company, Isle of Lewis,
Clansman, Beserker Export Pale Ale, Celtic Black

Innis & Gunn, Edinburgh,
Innis & Gunn Original, Rum Finish, Lager Beer

Inveralmond Brewery, Perth,
Lia Fail, Ossian and Thrappledouser

Islay Ales, Bridgend,
Nerabus, Black Rock and Angus Og

Kelburn Brewing Company, Renfrewshire,
Goldihops, Red Smiddy and Misty Law

Lade Inn House Ales, Kilmahog, by Callander,
Waylade, Ladeback, Ladeout

Orkney Brewery, Stromness,
Skullsplitter, Dark Island, Dragonhead Stout

Skye Brewery, Uig,
Skye Red, Skye Gold, Skye Blaven

Stewart Brewing, Edinburgh,
Edinburgh Gold, Pentland IPA, Embra

Sulwath Brewers, Castle Douglas,
Criffel, Galloway Gold, Solway Mist

Traquair House Brewery, Innerleithen,
Traquair House Ale, Bear Ale and Jacobite Ale

Tryst Brewery, Larbert by Falkirk,
Stars and Stripes, Drovers 80/-, Raj IPA

Valhalla Brewery, Shetland,
Auld Rock, Simmer Dim and Sjolmet Stout

West Beer, Glasgow,
St Mungo, Munich Red and West 4

Williams Bros,
Heather Ale, Caesar Augustus, Joker IPA

See our full brewery list here for even more Scottish beer.

A Islay Ales
Islay House Square, Isle of Islay, Argyll and Bute, PA44 7NZ
Non-filtered and unpasteurised, Islay Ales continue the fermentation and maturation process in the cask or bottle. Eight ales are brewed regularly in the four-barrel plant, from the red-hued, nutty Black Rock Ale to Angus Og Ale, similar to an IPA.
B Colonsay Brewery
The Brewery, Isle of Colonsay, Argyll and Bute, PA61 7YT
Colonsay Brewery employs 10 per cent of the island's population – otherwise known as Chris and Bob. A five-barrel plant, they brew three core beers (a lager, an IPA and an 80/-) as well as seasonal specials, though getting it off the island in…
C The Scottish Real Ale Shop
The Lade Inn, Callander, Stirling, FK17 8HD
Situated in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, the Scottish Real Ale Shop in Callander has been selling over 100 different Scottish beers since 2006. A one-stop shop for Scottish beers, real ale festival and brewing information, this is where…
D Tryst Brewery
Lorne Road, Larbert, Falkirk, FK5 4AT
From the demise of one brewery to the launch, in 2004, of another, Tryst uses 10-barrel equipment from Manchester’s ex-Berkley Brewery. Brewer John McGarva focuses on traditional-style beer, starting out with cask ales and now with a range of…
E Williams Bros. Brewing Company
New Alloa Brewery, Kelliebank, Alloa, Clackmannanshire, FK10 1NU
At 40 barrels, the Williams Bros is one of Scotland’s largest independent breweries. One of the last remaining in Alloa, once known as ‘Scotland’s Beer Capital’ for having nine breweries, they are known for unusual flavours. This is rooted in the…
F The Orkney Brewery
Quoyloo, Stromness, Orkney Islands, KW16 3LT
Housed in a former schoolhouse in Orkney’s west mainland, the Orkney Brewery has settled into its existence as a Sinclair Brewery after being bought from Highlands and Island Breweries in 2006. Originally founded by Roger White in 1988, many of its…

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