I have nothing against whisky, but more than enough ink has been spilled about the pleasures of sipping a wee dram after a round of golf in Scotland. Besides, Scotland's brewing history actually predates its distilling history by thousands of years, so there's no need to hide its fine ales under a bushel of barley. Archaeological evidence shows that the northern people known as the Picts were brewing a fermented heather-based ale centuries before the birth of Christ. Scottish whisky (basically distilled ale) didn't come into its own until the late eighteenth century.
This means that the fateful first shepherd to whack a stone with his crook up and down the linksland slaked his thirst not with whisky but with ale. Why do differently today? Especially with the noble traditions of Scottish brewing on the rebound after dipping to a low point in 1970, when a mere eleven breweries remained, down from a high of 280 in 1840. At last count, the number had more than tripled, to thirty-five, largely because of enterprising new microbreweries.
Because hops were next to impossible to grow in Scotland's northern climate and costly to import from England, Scottish ales tended to be brewed with a minimal amount, making them less bitter than typical English varieties. Traditional "Scotch" ale, also called Wee Heavy, is a particular style of strong Scottish ale, customarily drunk in a short-stemmed thistle-shaped glass. Scotch ales undergo a long boil in the kettle, which caramelizes the wort (the liquid drained from the barley mash), producing a malty flavor and a deep color ranging from copper to brown. They also pack a stronger punch than their English counterparts, with alcohol levels generally between 6 and 10 percent.
Or, put another way: "The beer was a lot stronger in Scotland because life was harder," says Ken Duncan, head brewer at the Inveralmond Brewery in Perth.
If Scottish breweries are hidden gems of the British Isles, so, too, are many of the golf courses situated near them— timeless layouts that might otherwise slip beneath the radar of the visiting golfer. It's possible to make marvelous golf and ale pairings on a journey that could last a week. All but one of the following breweries will gladly conduct tours and tastings; just don't expect anything too formal. As Jane Morrison of Atlas Brewery in Kinlochleven, a small village 100 miles north of Glasgow, puts it: "We ask people to phone in front"—ahead of time—"to give us a bit of warning."
Armchair travelers can at least enjoy the liquid part of this experience: With the exceptions of Atlas and Caledonian, each of the breweries listed here distributes in some volume to the United States.
Broughton, Peeblesshire; 011-44/1899-830-345, broughtonales.co.uk
Nestled in a hill-country valley and housed in a former sheep abattoir, this pioneering microbrewery has an impressive portfolio of traditional Scottish ales. The list includes Greenmantle, Merlin's Ale, Black Douglas and Ghillie. Evening tours can be arranged for groups of ten to fifteen people—you might even wind up in the office of the brewery's managing director, enjoying a sampling of ales and a spot of Scottish meat pie.
On Tap: Try the Old Jock Ale. Named after the fighting soldiers of the Highland and Lowland regiments of the Royal Army, this is a strong brew (6.7 percent alcohol) that's bracingly sweet and deep brown in color.
On the Tee: Peebles Golf Club (peeblesgolfclub.co.uk), a nearby 1934 Harry Colt design, is the obvious first choice. Also try the Macdonald Cardrona Hotel Golf and Country Club (cardrona-hotel.co.uk), designed by Dave Thomas, the architect of the Belfry, a four-time Ryder Cup site.
TRAQUAIR HOUSE BREWERY
Innerleithen, Selkirkshire; 011-44/1896-830-323, traquair.co.uk
The most scenic of all the brewery stops, Traquair claims to be the oldest inhabited castle in Scotland, dating back to a.d. 950. The brewing process is so traditional here, the batches are still fermented in oak rather than the more common stainless steel. There's a small museum and brewery shop on hand, and devotees can book rooms as well. The house and gardens are reason enough to visit in peak season (Easter through late October).
On Tap: A Wee Heavy here can weigh in at 7 percent alcohol or higher. The Traquair House Ale (7.2 percent) is a definitive example—tawny, with an inviting white collar of head, a fruity nose and rich malty sweetness. A fine version of a Scotch Ale.
On the Tee: Warm up at the nine-hole Innerleithen Golf Club (011-44/1896-830-951). Then take a slight jaunt east to Kelso for a night at the Duke of Roxburghe's elegant twenty-two-room country hotel and a round at Roxburghe Golf Course (roxburghe.net), another Dave Thomas design.