Scotch Ales

A uniquely Montana brewing niche offers an approachable dark beer that’s smooth going down, making it a year-round favorite

By Micah Drew
Cold Smoke Scotch Ale from Kettle House Brewing Co. of Missoula. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

If you walk into a brewery in Montana and scan the tap handles, you’ll see all the usual suspects — the pale ales, the hoppy hazy IPAs, a stout or porter if it’s wintertime, a seltzer if the brewers have embraced that trend. Then, most likely, you’ll spy a Scotch ale, a malty style that Montana beer drinkers are inexplicably accustomed to, but which is hard to find elsewhere. 

“It really is a uniquely Montana style that’s become synonymous with Montana and the outdoors on an almost unconscious level,” says Raymond Dickinson, owner of Brix Bottleshop in Kalispell. “I’ll get tourists in the shop as they pass through town and so many of them will say, ‘I was told to buy a Cold Smoke while I’m in Montana.’”

First brewed by Kettlehouse Brewing Co. in Missoula as a flagship staple in 2002, Cold Smoke is one of the state’s most iconic beers. More than any other brewery, Kettlehouse deserves credit for putting the Scotch-ale style on the Montana map and cementing its legacy in the taproom rotation. 

Scotch ales, also known as Wee Heavy or Scottish-style ales, trace their lineage back to, you guessed it, Scotland. In the 1800s, brewers in Edinburgh did not have easy access to suitable hops to highlight in their beer and instead focused on the malt instead. The style is adjacent to English strong ales and barley wine, but eventually emerged with its own character as a Scotch ale. 

The brew itself is dark, malt-driven and a little sweet, with dominant caramel and toffee notes and a hint of roasted toastiness. Not as thick and heavy as a stout — along those lines, the “Wee Heavy” moniker is an apt one — the beer tends to be higher on the ABV scale, generally registering above 6%. 

Taking up a middle ground in the brewery lineup, Scotch ales appeal to many beer drinkers who aren’t fans of the current hopped-up IPA trend, and who want an easy-drinking beer, similar to an amber or a red ale, according to Dickinson. 

Montana Scotch ales, from left: Logan’s Pass from Bias Brewing of Kalispell, Cold Smoke from Kettle House Brewing Co. of Missoula and Mountain Man from Jeremiah Johnson Brewing Company of Whitefish, pictured March 11, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“It’s also just a great outdoors-y beer. When people are up on a mountain, they want to throw a can in their pack and have one good beer on top of the mountain. This is a great beer for that,” he said. “Then in the summertime, an ice-cold Scotch ale is so refreshing and delicious, and it’s not too much beer for a hot day. It’s really a well-rounded option.”

Jeremiah Johnson, owner of the eponymous brewery in Whitefish, went as far as stamping his rugged visage and brewing persona onto the Mountain Man Scotch Ale, the mainstay offering that “really portrays the image of our brewery.”

“We produce more Mountain Man, we can more Mountain Man and we sell more Mountain Man than anything else,” Johnson said. “We’ve gotten that beer into nearly a dozen states, but by far we sell the most of it in the Flathead Valley.”

Johnson describes the beer as, of course, malt-heavy, with notes of molasses, honey, and chocolate and a hint of smoke to it. It’s a flavor profile that lends itself to some spinoffs, with a coffee Scotch ale on the horizon. 

 Even with Montana’s odd embrace of the novelty Scotch ale, Johnson points out that, within the state, only Kettlehouse and Jeremiah Johnson Brewing Company really elevate their Scotch ale as their No. 1 brew. 

“If you go around the country, they just aren’t as prevalent as they are here,” Johnson said. “But the thing is, to Montanans, they’re very beloved. What better beer to be the flagship of a no-nonsense, Montana-rooted brewery?”

Down in Kalispell, Bias Brewing produces the Logan’s Lass Scotch ale, which weighs in at a hefty 8.5% ABV without coming across as an overpowering beer. A blend of several caramel malts gives the Lass an impressive depth of flavor that hooks first-time drinkers and fans of the style alike, says head brewer Christina Beisel. 

“It’s really just a great mainstay dark beer to have on tap and in a can,” she said. “It’s an approachable, drinkable year that’s appealing all year round.”

A Local Scotch Ale Roundup

Mountain ManJeremiah Johnson Brewing Company, Whitefish

Logan’s LassBias Brewing, Kalispell

Elk SnortTamarack Brewing, Lakeside (seasonal)

Campfire Scotch AleSunRift Beer Company (seasonal)

Macdonald Wee HeavyRonan Cooperative Brewery, Ronan

Cold SmokeKettlehouse Brewing Co., Missoula

Tartanic Scottish AleBlackfoot River Brewing Company, Helena

The BruceUberbrew, Billings

Pub Talk

• “Scotch” specifically refers to its region of origin and does not have any association with Scotch whisky. 

• Common flavor notes for Scotch ales include maltiness, toastiness, caramel, toffee, smoke, raisin, maple, molasses.

• Scottish ales are cataloged as a different style than a Scotch ale, and traditionally have a lower ABV below 5%.