Culture Through Beer Goggles: Porters, Scottish Ales, and Wee Heavies

Photo by Kyle Jacobson

What do William Shakespeare, Anne Sexton, Martin Luther, Ray Bradbury, Winston Churchill, Henry David Thoreau, and Thomas Jefferson have in common? An admiration for beer, of course. Beer is a drink in which many great minds from all facets of culture find reason and stability. When used with consideration, beer brings about an exploration of the mind often barred by cultural norms and common courtesy. The flow of ideas and rush of heated debates allowed by this freer of the tongue have brought upon the world great writings, music, ideas, and sciences. Not only has our culture found great inspiration through beer, but we continue the tradition of injecting ourselves into evolving brewing styles and traditions. By infusing today’s beers with past cultures, the significance of the microbrewery stretches demand for experiences beyond the American Adjunct Lager.

So we begin this series with the working man’s beer from London: the Porter. “It’s the great egalitarian, middle-class beer for literally a couple of centuries,” says Tom Porter, brewmaster and owner of Lake Louie Brewing. Talk about an evolution, this dark-colored beer was literally brought back from the dead to become what purveyors of malt know and love. Though the beer found home in America in the late 1700s, Prohibition struck Porters down with a boot of ignorance. But rest assured this is the one and only time such an act would occur by a government unto its people. It wasn’t until the 1970s that microbreweries in America brought the style back to life.

Often seen as synonymous with the Porter is the Stout. The word “stout” simply means strong, and has been used with beer since the late 1600s. Back then there were Stout Porters, Stout Pale Ales, and stout aristocrats—I guess some things never change. Nowadays, Stout is used only in terms of the Porter, and is associated with darkness and high alcohol content. Not to say that some brewers don’t muddy the waters by creating exceptions, and their risks are what make the industry so refreshing.

Photo by Barbara Wilson

Let’s move on to the Scottish Ale: a beer that doesn’t have a very rich history. A Scottish Ale is simply a Pale Ale with low bitterness and high maltiness…sweet, sweet maltiness. The first time the phrase Scottish Ale was used to refer to a style, rather than a regional indicator, was in America around 1982.1

However, the Scottish brewing tradition dates back to Celtic times, some 5,000 years ago. For the uninitiated, there are four ingredients imperative to every beer: water, grain, yeast, and hops. But it used to be that brewers used other bittering herbs, such as heather, myrtle, and broom, to make their beers. Rural parts of Scotland are noted for using these bittering herbs years after the rest of the United Kingdom switched to hops. In addition, the hard water in Scotland is particularly good for brewing Pale Ales.

The gem of beer from Scotland actually takes us to the 1800s. Historically, and contemporarily, people paid for beer by alcohol content. In 19th century Scotland, the different beers were categorized by their cost. A Light 60 shilling (60/-) beer was 3.5 percent alcohol or less, a Heavy 70/- beer was between 3.5 to 4.0 percent alcohol, an Export 80/- beer was between 4.0 and 5.5 percent alcohol, and the prized Wee Heavy 90/- had over 6.0 percent alcohol.

It is the Wee Heavy (Scotch Ale) that is the torch gaining followers beyond the beer drinker. Its dark-copper color and malty caramel sweetness work a hypnotic aroma that only the strong-willed could theoretically resist, but they choose not to. And it is the Wee Heavy from where I will steer the conversation to today. Beer is no doubt a large part of our culture, especially in Wisconsin. It drives our festivals and social activities to an extent we’ve come to consider essential. Often it is not seen as a tool, but a means to an exhausting end. And therein lies the gap.

Beer has a reputation that it bears in taxing confidence. For every great thing that has ever existed will always be victim to greed and perforated ideas of moderation. We see today that we can go to our local microbrewery and celebrate sports, music, and beyond with an ale in one hand and a friend in the other. Cheers fill our ears with a warmth that trickles into our hearts and confounds our brains. When the scale is tipped and our center of balance is a faltering top, shades of gray darken and lighten in hue. (This seems an appropriate place to remind readers that whether or not to drive home is the easiest question on a test that 80 percent of the students get wrong. I have no issues with this form of drinking, but take a moment when you reach for the car keys to weigh your wants against the lives of others.)

Photo by Kyle Jacobson

It’s easy to ignore, but right now, at this very moment, we are defining our culture through the way we brew, drink, and appreciate beer. Looking back, Tom says, “George Washington made a great Porter. … Thomas Jefferson was a really, really great brewer, and Porters were his styles.” Though we ascribe the Porter to London in the 1700s, we can just as easily see its connection to two of our most-respected founding fathers. As new styles develop and old styles are tweaked, generations look back and assess the cultures surrounding beers in conjunction with their styles.

I would never suggest that people stop enjoying beer in their own way, but it seems that beer’s potential to create great conversation, healthy debates among friends, and newfound admiration for those we thought we knew is often overlooked. Beer isn’t about how others perceive us, but about how we perceive others. The bar can be an experience of calculated insight just as it can be a place of celebration. Both are important, and, in balance, both can help our tops spin longer with inspired direction.

The next time you’re in a bar, take a moment to speak to a stranger. Talk about the beer you’re drinking with the person who brewed it, ask the construction worker about his upcoming projects, and buy the professor a beer so you can tell him why scientists and philosophers with bushy mustaches are not to be trusted.

We can be just as diverse in our appreciation of beer as we are in the ways even a single style can be brewed. David Worth, brewmaster at Viking Brew Pub in Stoughton says, “I like bold flavors, so if I’m doing a chocolate Porter it’s going to taste like chocolate.” This sounds amazing, and I’ll readily take a pint. Tom’s approach, “I want to know that I brewed a new beer correct to style,” is just as valid, and makes me just as thirsty.

Consider this leg one of the journey in exploring past cultures through the scope of beer to gain an understanding of where we are now. So raise your glass. No, not above your head, to your lips. Prost, Skål, and Cheers!

1 RateBeer . .

Kyle Jacobson is copy editor for Madison Essentials Magazine, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.