The Shilling System
It is generally held that the classic Scottish ale is referred to as an 80/- (eighty shilling) while a stronger Scotch ale of today is often known as a 90/- (ninety shilling) or "Wee Heavy". These terms are familiar to many acquainted with the ales of Scotland but how did this unique system of labeling come about? This short article will hopefully shed some light on the historical basis for what is known as the "shilling terminology" or the shilling system.
The shilling system started to be used some time in the mid 19th century. According to Charles McMaster, Scottish brewing historian and former archivist at the Scottish Brewing Archive, the "shilling terminology" started just after 1880 when the previous taxes on malt and sugar in the United Kingdom were replaced by Beer Duty. Scottish Craft Brewers member Bill Cooper has additionally pointed out that the research of Dr. John Harrison and the Durden Park Beer Circle indicates that at least the brewers were using this naming convention as much as fifty years prior to 1880. The names referred to the invoice price of ale per barrel (36 U.K. gallons or about 43.2 U.S. gallons) or hogshead (a cask holding 54 U.K. gallons or about 64.8 U.S. gallons). This dual application of pricing applied to two different liquid measures brought about complications: a 60/- ale in the barrel was a 90/- ale in the hogshead even though it was the same product. The actual price of the ale could be as little as half of the invoice cost once the calculated duties and the discounts allowed by the brewers were subtracted.
During this period the majority of Scottish brewers were producing a number of beers of differing styles and alcohol content. Light beers such as table beer ranged from 42/- to 48/-. Mild and pale ales were 54/- and 60/- while export beers were sold as 70/- and 80/-. Strong ales were usually sold as a twelve guinea or fifteen guinea (although the guinea coin - worth 21 shillings at the time - was phased out after the Coinage Act of 1816). The strong ales were typically sold in bottles in "nips" of 6 fluid ounces which equates to 1/3 Imperial pint. These "nips" were also known as "Wee Heavy", hence the origin of this term. As can be seen, these values gave a rough indication of the alcoholic strength of the product. However, they were far from consistent but did certainly drop in strength over time. Dr. Harrison's book "Old British Beers And How To Make Them" lists 60/- shilling ales from both J.&T. Usher and William Younger (both in Edinburgh) in the range of 1.060-1.062 O.G. in the 1870s and 1880s. Curiously, Usher also made a 68/- Mild ale in 1885 with an OG of 1.080. Also documented are ales from Younger's brewery in the 1870s ranging from an 80/- of 1.070 O.G. to a 160/- measuring a whopping 1.126 O.G. By the early twentieth century, original gravities had dropped significantly. A brewing book from J. & T. Usher dating to 1920 researched by the author at the Scottish Brewing Archive notes beers from various (and sometimes unnamed) breweries and their original gravities. In it there is listed a 54/- at 1.034, a 60/- from Ballingall's of Dundee (1922) at 1.040 and one from MacLachlan's (1929) at 1.033, a 70/- from Deuchar's of Edinburgh (Craigmillar/Duddingston) (1928) at 1.056, an 80/- Export Stout at 1.067 (1920), and 90/- ales ranging from 1.040 to 1.045 O.G. including ones from Ballingall's of Dundee, Murray's of Edinburgh (Craigmillar/Duddingston), and Aitchison's of Edinburgh. Clearly by this time the system had lost most if not all of its meaning.
The shilling system was carried on through World War II but gradually declined in use thereafter. The terms "Light", "Heavy" and "Export" took the place of the previous shilling terminology as the breadth in range of beers offered shrunk. Light, a low gravity ale, replaced Mild although was typically still dark in color much as what most of the few Mild ales still available today in the U.K. are. Heavy was a medium gravity beer that was sweeter than Light but still fairly light in color. Export beer, along with the increasingly popular India Pale Ale, were beers of the highest quality, were stronger and darker than Heavy and were normally brewed for the export market.
Today, few brewers use the terminology but those that do have for the most part adhered to labeling beers of increasing alcoholic strength and flavor profile with increasing "values" in shillings. It is somewhat admirable that the terminology has outlived the currency unit itself. This system was unique to Scotland and as such provides one of the purely Scottish contributions to the overall history of brewing. So, the next time you approach the barman in the pub and order a "pint of eighty", pause before you take that first sip and raise your glass in salute to all the great brewers of the past and present that have contributed to this truly Scottish tradition.
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- McMaster, Charles. Scottish Beers and Brewing. Scottish Brewing Archive Newsletter Number Two, Summer 1983.
- Harrison, John. Old British Beers And How To Make Them. United Kingdom: The Durden Park Beer Circle, 1991.
- Mayhew, Nicholas. Sterling, The History of a Currency. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000.
- Cooper, Bill. Personal correspondence with the author, 2005.