The Rich and Often Dark History of the Humble Porter
Few beers arouse more mythology and discussion than the ‘Porter’. After all, it’s killed people in floods, kick started the industrial revolution, built London’s greatest breweries and even slaked the thirsts of America’s revolution-minded colonists.
This is the rich and often dark history of the humble Porter.
What is a Porter?
Today’s renditions are dark, malt assertive beers. They’re well-hopped, but relatively low in alcohol (3.5-6.0% ABV). They have a complex character that varies by sub-style but are well balanced and aromatic. Expect predominant notes of rich chocolate as well as hints of coffee, caramel, nuts, and sometimes a faint smokiness, combined with an often dry, even slightly acidic, finish.
Take it from us that they’re as delicious, as they are intriguing.
Origin of Porter, The ‘Entire’ Story?
Like a lot of beer history, the exact origins of Porters remain as murky as the beer itself.
Most accounts link it back to 1700’s England and London Brewer, Ralph Harwood. Harwood, the owner of the Bell Brewhouse in Shoreditch, was believed to have created a beer he dubbed “Entire”.
Back in those days it was normal practice to serve a brew that was a mix of different beer brewed in individual beer casks. Each cask was known as a ‘Butt’ and each beer that came from that Butt was a ‘Thread’. A mug of beer might contain several threads of blended beer with ‘Three Threads’ a well-known term at the time.
There were a few reasons this was the case. Think about the quality of ingredients and brewing techniques available back then - consistency was always an issue.
By combining beer from different sources, publicans could cater to their customers’ individual tastes, creating unique blends on the spot. More deviously, it was also a way to use up stale or ‘off’ beers rather than pouring them away.
Getting back to Ralph Harwood, the story goes that the Landlord of the nearby ‘Blue Last’ Pub asked Harwood to pre-blend different ‘threads’ together, but gave him just one cask to use. Harwood then created a mash that he hoped would deliver the same complexities of flavours from the one, ‘Entire Butt’.
‘Entire’ was a hit with the burly, muscle for hire ‘cockney geezers’ that frequented the Blue Last, who often worked as porters. These hard working folk loved the beer so much that in time, it took on their name.
It’s a great story. But unfortunately this tall tale almost certainly isn’t true.
‘Three-threads’ was a reality, but it seems that Porter was in fact something else. It’s true as well that Porter was often a blend of beers, and maybe this is where the various stories came together to become entangled.
Most beer scholars (can you believe that’s a thing?), believe that the Porter style emerged as aged, or “stale” versions of brown beer. Before 1700 London brewers were sending out their beer very young with it then required to be aged by the publican. Porter was the first style aged at the brewery so that it was fit for immediate consumption as soon as the publican purchased it.
An Interesting Side Note: The ‘Expected Flavour’ of Porter of the Late 1700s
We often see references to the ‘expected flavour’ of early Porters. And it’s more than likely that there’s a bacterial side story to tell.
Considering the long aging time in (often massive) wooden vats, it’s easy to imagine these warm, moist conditions were ideal for the propagation of wild yeasts and bacteria, including lactobacillus and what is now known as Brettanomyces - both of which have notable effects on the flavour of the finished beer.
Whereas lactobacillus produces tart lactic acid, the “wild” yeast strain Brettanomyces is responsible for the barnyard and sweaty ‘horse blanket’ notes we have come to associate with many Belgian spontaneously-fermented Lambics.
Despite Belgium’s love of these sweaty god-particles, Brettanomyces as its name suggests (if you speak Latin) was first identified not in Belgium, but in Britain. N. Hjelte Claussen, then director of the Laboratory of the New Carlsberg Brewery in Copenhagen, Denmark, identified it in the secondary fermentation of a British stock ale.
Claussen introduced the term “Brettanomyces,” meaning “the British yeast,” at a special meeting of the Institute of Brewing in April 1904 and referred to its flavour as giving beer an “English character.”
But Back to the Evolution of Porters:
As the popularity of this complex Black Ale increased, it wasn’t long before the American colonies were screaming for it. But by the 1760s Anglo/American tensions started to build as supply of London Porter dried up, with American brewers forced to take up the slack.
By the end of the 18th century Porter had become truly big business. It had become arguably the first mass-produced commercial beer with demand peaking in the 1820s.
One challenge with creating Porters was that only larger breweries had space for the huge aging vats required to create the brew. This meant small breweries couldn’t get a slice of the profits and pubs were unable to brew the style themselves – the big breweries had total control of supply.
To capitalise on the huge profits on offer, brewers frequently aging vats capable of holding two million litres. To give you a sense of the scale of these fermenters, some brewers used to hold promotional parties in the vats when they weren’t in use!
Of course, all this one upmanship was going to end in tears and in October 1814 it did. One of these wooden colossi at Meux Brewery burst, causing a river of Porter to flow through the streets of London. This boozy deluge ended killing 8 people (either through drowning or subsequent alcohol poisoning), and demolishing 8 homes.
That is what you call a beer flood.
Dubious Health & Safety wasn’t the only consequence of this incredible demand. Innovation, partly as a result of the Industrial Revolution and partly due to changing tax rules, meant that Porter production gave the beer world many ‘firsts’ and patents.
Aside from the time it took to produce, another reason Porters were hard work to produce was the high percentage of brown malts required. Brown malt was haphazardly produced by exposing grains to flame, meaning fermentable sugars were limited and a lot of malt was required to give beer the required strength.
Boxed in by high prices for materials on one side and the demands of the drinking public on the other, brewers often sought ways to economise.
Some used molasses and burnt sugar to artificially colour their ale. Others began evaporating wort until what remained was a colour and consistency of treacle, with this dark syrup then used to colour the beer.
Unfortunately where there’s huge demand and a fundamental lack of oversight, other shadier practices emerged. Cash strapped brewers used deadly chemicals to produce intoxicating effects. Everything from exotic poison berries, opium, Indian hemp, strychnine, tobacco, darnel seed, logwood and salts of zinc, lead and alum were thrown in. Many patrons fell ill and even died as a result of these unscrupulous antics.
The Patent Malt Revolution
While these dastardly deeds took place it was Daniel Wheeler’s invention of the malt roaster in 1817 that was the real game changer.
The method, Patent No. 4112, was called a “New and Improved Method of Drying and Preparation of Malt.” The patent allowed pale malt or ‘black patent malt’ as it became known, to be “more highly roasted and more highly coloured than the ordinary brown malt, allowing a beer of the same strength and colour to be made more cheaply than with the brown malt.” - Wheeler had created black malts.
The process for doing this was similar to the way coffee is roasted. It involved Pale malt being roasted at 180 to 200º C in metal cylinders, which revolved over a furnace, and thus stopped the malt from burning. A genius innovation at the time.
By using the black patent malt for colour and roastiness, brewers could use a smaller amount of the more sugary, cheaper pale malts to produce their brew. For the more mathematical thinkers, consider this complex formula:
Less tax + Lower cost of ingredients = $$$
The Evolving Family of Porters
Technological advances gave brewers more control and choice over how their Porters turned out. Some were brewed stronger, either for home consumption or for export to countries like Russia & the West Indies. These particularly rich offerings were referred to as “Stout Porters,” Yes, it’s generally accepted that the most full-bodied Porters served as the genesis of ‘Stout’ as a separate beer style.
For the booming trade with Baltic countries, another stronger version of Porter, unsurprisingly called ‘Baltic Porter’ emerged.
Today, these Porters can still be found in many countries around the Baltic Sea, including in Finland, Sweden, and Estonia. Flavour wise they resemble less roasty Imperial Stouts and exhibit similar strengths (7+% ABV). They’re definitely more sipping than quaffing beers and are usually cold fermented with Lager yeasts.
In Victorian England, some Porters started casting off their working class roots, becoming a bit posh. The “Robust Porter,” turned into a beer associated with well-heeled connoisseurs over cheeky cockney chappies. Perhaps benefiting from a sweeter, less dry finish than it’s Irish or Baltic counterparts, the toffs couldn’t get enough of it.
So after dominating the International beer scene for so long, you’re probably beginning to wonder why with this illustrious past, there are comparatively so few around now. Much like Hyper Colour T-shirts, it seems the only thing the mighty Porter couldn’t overcome was changing fashions.
Throughout the 1800’s and most of the early 1900’s demand for clearer, lighter beers like Pale Ales and Lagers intensified. And on the other end of the spectrum, if you did want a complex, roasty dark beer to contemplate life with, Stouts increasing took over from their thinner, less roasty older brothers.
As demand for Porters decreased, the quality of what remained available really suffered. Brewers focussed on newer, more in-vogue styles, so by 1930s Porter was seen as an ‘old man’s’ beer. By the 1970s, it wasn’t only disco that was in danger of dying out.
But leave it to the good ol’ US of A to point out that Black beers (if not lives) matter. During the early ’80’s, Porters staged an unlikely comeback within the US Home brewing and Micro brewing revolution, pulling the style from the clutches of obscurity.
Today, heavily influenced by the trends of using ‘new world’ hops and higher ABVs, as well as the obvious additions like smoked malt and coffee (to give us Smoked and Coffee Porters respectively) there are 4 main sub styles of ‘modern’ Porter:
English Porter, further sub divided into ‘ Brown’ & ‘Robust’, ‘American Porter’ and ‘Baltic Porter ’
Bear in mind as with history these style terms are all frequently used, modified and interchanged. When all is said and drunk, all these terms should really give you is an impression of what either the brewer had in mind when they came up with the recipe, or what a slightly nervous brewery owner thought of it once it had fermented!
A Brown Porter has a moderately strong malt flavour including a lightly burnt, black malt character (and sometimes chocolate and/or coffee flavours) with a roasty dryness in the finish. Traditional versions will have a more subtle hop character, while modern versions may be more aggressive.
Some of the most popular examples of the style include Fullers London Porter and Meantime London Porter.
A Robust Porter, as the name suggests, is more intense with more roasty malts, sometimes with a pronounced hop bitterness.
Some of the more popular examples are Riverside 88 Robust Porter (on hand pump if possible!), Harviestoun Brewing’s Old Engine Oil Engineer's Reserve, AleSmith Robust Porter & Bridge Road Robust Porter .
American brewers have embraced this style and lovingly restored it – with some modern innovations and techniques, to its rightful place on our beer menus. Look out for highly hopped offerings, often using smoked malts or other flavour adjuncts like coffee, lactose or chocolate to complement the roasty flavours associated with this style. Much like their younger brother, Stout, some are even barrel aged in Bourbon or Whiskey barrels. If this sounds where you’re at flavour wise, consider Founders Porter , Ballast Point Victory at Sea , Rogue Mocha Porter or Terrapin Brewing Liquid Bliss.
Now this one really blurs the lines between Porter and Stout. It’s basically an English Porter that’s been fortified, with ABVs ranging from 5.5 to 9.5%
Baltic Porters have a rich malty sweetness with a complex blend of deep malt, dried fruit esters and often warming booze notes. They may have a burnt caramelised finish and are full bodied.
So where does all this leave us then? We know that many of the stories of the origins of Porter are mostly untrue. We know the original taste of Porter is unknown. We know that there are virtually no differences between the different styles of Porter that exist today, and that this picture only becomes more confusing when you start adding Stouts to the mix. It’s a valuable lesson we all just learned. If you’re looking for a satisfying finish, it’s always better to drink the beer rather than study it!