A pint of wee heavy

Belhaven Scottish Ale LabelBack in the 60s, while serving in the US Navy, I spent about three months in Scotland. Most of that time was spent in the town of Greenoch and much of that spent in a couple of favorite pubs.

It was in Scotland that I developed a taste for stronger and darker brews and consuming them at the ambient temperature of the pub’s cellar where the kegs were stored and pints drawn from.

Drinking beer in a Scottish pub was pretty simple. Basically you had two choices, a pint of light or a pint of heavy. I never really knew what the difference but I always ordered the heavy. I’m pretty sure it had something to do with sounding more masculine.

Recently I’ve been watching a British detective series, Rebus, which is set in Edinburgh. Rebus claims that his talent as a detective is, “Drinking and thinking,” and subsequently heads for a pub at any chance he gets. In one episode he walked in and asked for a, “…pint of heavy.” That got me wondering about just what heavy beer was.

Given the magic of Google the answer was easy to come by and quite different from whatever thoughts I’d had. I always assumed it had to do with the thickness or body of the brew but the terms actually go back to the late 1800s and the amount of taxes applied to different brews. Light beer was taxed at a lower rate than heavy for some combination of two factors, quality and alcohol content. Additionally beer was also referred to by the amount of tax placed on a hogshead (54 imperial gallons) of brew in the 19th Century. Light was known as 60 shilling and heavy as 80 shilling. These terms are still used today as evidenced by Belhaven Brewery’s (Scotland’s oldest brewery) 80 Shilling Ale.

I have no idea what any of you will do with this trivia but hopefully you’ll be a contestant on Jeopardy someday and this will be the topic that will win you the championship. My fee, as always, will be a six-pack of quality brew.

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