by Paul Deines
Every beer lover has the story of his (occasionally, her) first furtive craft experience. It’s generally something akin to an awkward, sometimes handsy, slow dance at homecoming. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of mine:
I was interning at a regional theatre in central Florida the year after college, and part of this internship involved running the light-board for shows. One night after a performance of a David Ives play, Michael the assistant stage manager – a hulking West Virginian who shot the shit with me about James Bond movies, sitcoms and lefty politics – asked me if I liked beer. The question seemed peculiar: who didn’t like beer? I mean, I could crush some Rolling Rock.
Michael was not talking a pitcher of Bud, of course. Instead, he took me up the road to a craft beer bar called Stubbies. That night and several more over the coming weeks I had my first Abbey Ale, my first Double IPA, my first Lambic, Coffee Stout, Dunkelweizen and on and on and on. The aromas and flavors – dark breads, stewed fruits, campfire, chocolate, meat – were unlike anything I’d had before, and the consistencies: sometimes heavy water, sometimes malted milk. I was staggered by the sheer variety of experiences that could be categorized under beer.
One night, a Scottish ale caught our eyes. It had the nondescript name of Skull Splitter, and we felt compelled to give it a whirl. This thing was thick and sweet: Michael called it the beer equivalent of a milkshake. We each scarfed one down, only to belatedly feel an alcoholic tide wash over our brains. The next morning, we were both a little creaky and agreed that Skull Splitter was the most diabolical beer we’d ever had.
So last month I decided to pick up another bottle, a decade after my first (and last) time drinking it. I was shocked to discover that it was a scant 8.5% ABV. Not light by any stretch, but hardly the booze-bomb I remember it being. I’ve gotten older, of course, and learned to drink a bit. I’ve had substantially higher ABV ales, as well as ones that genuinely have the heft of milkshakes.
Skull Splitter is the flagship ale of Orkey Brewery, one of two Scottish brewers owned and operated by Norman Sinclair since the early-2000s. The brewery has been in operation on the remote northern isle since 1988. Skull Splitter is a Wee Heavy, the biggest and highest-ABV form of the traditional Scottish Ale.
The Scottish style of brewing is a mirror of England’s. England has long delineated its ales – Pales, Old Ales, Barleywines – based on hue and potency. North of Hadrian’s Wall, the Scots similarly categorize based on color and gravity. Their ales lean heavy on black malt, which is steeped alongside crystal and pale malts, so Scottish ales – even at their lightest – are darker than English. They’re also less thoroughly hopped and undergo longer boils to draw out a more sugary toffee taste. The gravity designations were once referred to by their tax levies: 60, 70 and 80 shillings. Skull Splitter would have fallen under 80.
Named, according to the label, “after Thorfinn Einarsson … the 7th Viking Earl of Orkney,” it pours a glassy ruby-amber with a creamy off-white head. There’s a nectary malt nose full of pumpernickel, plum, caramel, orange bitters and cinnamon. The beer tastes of caramel, chai, and raisin. Skull Splitter is actually reminiscent of a Belgian Dubbel. It’s heavy but quite drinkable, hardly the full wallop that felled me at 22.
So, having dispelled my youthful memories of a monster beer, I decided to approach some American-brewed examples of the Wee Heavy. I started with Founders Brewing’s Backwoods Bastard. I’ve talked Founders in previous posts, and Backwoods Bastard is a bourbon barrel-aged version of the brewer’s Dirty Bastard. It’s a limited seasonal offering, like the ballyhooed KBS. Everyone goes crazy for KBS, but many over-it beer nerds insist Bastard is the superior barrel-aged ale. If KBS is The Godfather, Backwoods Bastard is The Conversation. KBS is OK Computer, Bastard The Bends. And so on.
It’s a foggy mahogany ale with a slight tan head. Nutty, with vanilla and butterscotch. For a bourbon barrel-aged ale, there’s not much fruit or smoke in the nose. It tastes lovely and decadent, though: hazelnut, cinnamon-raisin bread, molasses, with finer hints of banana and plum. This is a heavy, hot ale, on par with a stout, and you definitely feel every point of the 10.2% ABV.
I also snagged a couple bottles of Wulver, a similarly barrel-aged ale made by Akron’s Thirsty Dog Brewing Company. Wulver is aged 11 months in bourbon barrels, and it’s currently the top rated Wee Heavy on Beer Advocate. Deep mahogany, it smells of toffee, vanilla, date and worn leather. Smokiness explodes as it hits the tongue, then the taste opens into lots of sweet smoky bourbon, cinnamon toast, fig and a touch of lemon. Lighter than Backwoods Bastard, Wulver is easy drinking, though at 12% it’s as strong as a Wee Heavy gets.
Ten years later, I look back on the night in Stubbie’s when Michael and I drank our first Scottish Ales, and I thought I felt my skull split. Today I’m less enchanted by this style’s booziness than its bready, fruity maltiness. The two American variations on the Wee Heavy are bigger and hotter, and there’s a fine historiographic symmetry to the barrel-aging, for the men who distilled corn-whiskey in Kentucky were the ancestors of Scots-Irish settlers who settled in the Appalachian Hills before there was such a thing as the United States.
It’s a beautiful marriage – one that’s been sanctified at Cigar City, Clown Shoes, AleSmith, and many other brewers – but it’s a little dull. Backwoods Bastard and Wulver taste great, but they’re essentially lighter forms of the equally-hyped barrel-aged Barleywines. They’re enjoyable but a tad derivative. That’s definitely dismissive and probably unfair, I know. I’ll continue drinking Backwoods Bastards a year, but if someone asks me about the Wee Heavy, I’ll probably recommend one that’s never seen the inside of a whiskey barrel.
SKULL SPLITTER (Orkney Brewery) Available year-round where this brewer is distributed, which is pretty much across the whole US. Go to your local bottle shop or specialty food story, and you’re likely to find it.
BACKWOODS BASTARD (Founders Brewing Co.) Available across Founders’ distribution footprint in November. I still see 2014 bottles on the shelves from time to time, but if you don’t have it in your area, there’s only 7 months to wait for the next batch.
WULVER (Thirsty Dog Brewing Company) Available throughout Thirsty Dog’s footprint – primarily the East Coast and New England on a rotating basis. Keep your eyes open.