The Porter

And we are starting the year off with the elusive Porter! We have a number of friends, and Kerensa includes herself in this group, who once assumed all dark beers were Stouts. (Ally was just happy living in ignorant bliss.)  Legend even has it that Kerensa came up with some completely inaccurate but intellectual-sounding phrase like, “All Porters are Stouts, but not all Stouts are Porters.” We really had no idea. And on an early quest to learn more about the style and what to look for when tasting one, we were baffled by the number of different forms a Porter could take: Smoked Porter, Mocha Porter, Vanilla Porter. Then, we began noticing that some Porters were even classified by geographic region: Baltic Porter, London Porter, Irish Porter. We knew that there must be some fascinating story behind this…

And so, to sort it all out, we’ve compiled a brief history of the Porter from a number of trustworthy and informative sources.

But first!

Some Technical Jargon

While we do not fancy ourselves chemists, we recognize that brewing is ultimately chemistry. Thus, we will do our best to provide relevant information without inundating you (and ourselves) with too many discussions on molecular formulas and the like.

You may or may not know, but there are, predominantly, two types of beer: the ALE and the LAGER. What is the difference, really? Well, an ale is produced by using a “top-fermenting” brewing yeast in what is known as the warm fermentation method, while a lager is produced by using a “bottom-fermenting” brewing yeast in the cold fermentation method. Top-fermenting yeasts produce sweeter, higher alcohol content beer (making ales your go-to beer if you’re planning on getting a little wild on a Friday, or, um, Tuesday night).

The Porter is a warm-fermented beer using the ale yeasts. Thus, it contains a hint of sweetness and is often characterized by flavors of coffee, caramel, and chocolate.

A Fabled Beginning

The origin of the Porter is to be found in 18th Century England, but the origin story is a slightly mythical and unsubstantiated one.  It has been said that in order to be frugal, workers in London would mix a more expensive beer with a lighter one (e.g. the Black and Tan). In 1802, a writer named John Feltham claimed that this was the case with the Porter. It developed from a particular combination of three beers (known as the “three threads”) that were popular with transportation workers in London: a bad ale that was no longer drinkable on its own; a brown or pale ale; and a mild ale. According to this legend, the combination became so popular that a man by the name of Ralph Harwood began brewing “three threads” as a single beer, and it became popular with–lo and behold!–London porters.

London Porters

The term “Porter,” as used in relation to the beer, is actually mentioned as early as 1721, but no writer before Feltham says it was made to replicate “three threads.”  Given this lack of evidence, many believe the Harwood origin story to be a fable. Instead, it is more likely that Porter evolved from the already-existing brown beers being made in London at the time. Before 1700, London brewers shipped out their beer very young and any aging was performed by either the tavern owner or a dealer. Porter, however, was aged at the brewery–a first in the history of beer–and was sent to bars ready to be consumed immediately.

The Pioneer of Beer

Not only was Porter the first beer to be aged at the brewery, it was also the first beer that could be made on any large scale–and lead to breweries such as Whitbread & Co. and the Old Truman Brewery making a pretty penny from it.  Furthermore, Porters benefited from the first applications of technological advances in brewing, such as the use of the thermometer and the hydrometer (an instrument that measures the relative density of a liquid).  Early London versions were strong by modern standards (at about 6.6%) and were brewed with 100% malt. However, as taxes increased during the Napoleonic Wars (you know, the conflagrations in the early 1800s that led to the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire), the percentages as well as the types of malt used fluctuated.

Whitbread & Co. (credit: http://zythophile.wordpress.com)

As the Porter developed and changed through the years, it varied in levels of strength, the stronger Porters being referred to as “Extra Porters” or “Double Porters” or even–oh hey–“Stout Porters.”  The term “Stout Porter” would later be shortened to, simply, “Stout.”  And so, as it turns out, Kerensa and friends weren’t so far off in considering this month’s beer to be a Stout in Porter’s Clothing.  But in answer to the chicken-or-egg question of what came first, it is the mighty Porter that wins.

Not Just an English Thing

The Porter recipe was exported to other countries, the most famous journey of which evolved into what we know now as the Baltic Porter, popular in the Baltic region–from Estonia to Denmark (and most countries around and in between). The major difference between the English and Baltic Porters is that, though the style was introduced to the area using top-fermenting yeasts typically used for ales, many breweries started to use bottom-fermenting yeast that are typically used for lagers (lager yeasts were more common in the region). However, some Baltic Porters do use ale yeasts. [If you are super interested in teasing out the variations of this style, here is a link to message board thread discussing the finer details of the Baltic Porter: http://beeradvocate.com/forum/read/3826379.]

A Typical Baltic Voyage (credit: http://history.skyforger.lv)

And what about us Americans?  In the United States, Porters can be traced back to colonial times.  (Makes sense, right?)  American Porters were originally made using top-fermenting yeasts and were rumored to be most tasty. In fact, Porters were the favorite brew of George Washington himself (also Jefferson, but whatever). Yards Brewing Company of Philadelphia even produces a “George Washington Porter” using his original recipe!

George Washington's Porter recipe (credit: NYPL)

However, as the country welcomed German immigrants who brought with them the Lager, brewers began using lager yeasts in the production of the Porter. Two of the oldest surviving Porter recipes in the United States are the Yuengling Porter and the Lion Brewery Porter, both of out of Pennsylvania (the home of many a German immigrant).

The Fall and Rise

Around the 1940s, Porter production stopped in England as the Stout increased in popularity. However, there was a renewed interest in the style at the end of the 1970s, and now, many brewers around the Western world have  brewed up their interpretation of the English classic. Many, in fact, have even put their own spin on things, with the introduction of a variety of flavored Porters (the aforementioned mocha, vanilla, and smoked–even the jolly pumpkin Porter!)

Well then!  Now that we’ve filled out brains with a little bit of knowledge on this month’s spotlight beer, it’s time to fill our mouths with some examples of the delicious brown stuff.  Check back soon for posts highlighting the taste, texture, and titillating aromas ascribed to the Porter, as well as hard-hitting reports and reviews on the bars and breweries that do this fine beer justice.

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Categories: Porter | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “The Porter

  1. Myles

    That was an excellent history lesson thank you kindly.

  2. great post! Keep up the good work!

  3. Pingback: Brown Ales: A History More Complex Than Its Nondescript Name « The Year in Beer

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