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Porter casts a long shadow on ale history

Even though my parents scarcely drank alcohol, except for a modest glass on special occasions, I knew as a small boy that there was something called Port. It seemed to be winey stuff of some kind or another.

Was that what the sign above the pub door meant? Should it have read, "licensed to sell tobacco, ale and Port"? Trouble was, it didn't. The sign clearly mentioned Porter, as though it were offering to carry my bags.

As I stood waiting by the pub for the school bus, I reread that sign a thousand times. Even when I was old enough to go inside the pub, the sign remained a puzzle: there was nothing called Porter anywhere to be seen.


Long before I ever drank beer, let alone devoted my life to it, I knew that Porter was a mystery.


Long before I ever drank beer, let alone devoted my life to it, I knew that Porter was a mystery. No style of beer has loomed quite so large, or so long, in the history of Britain and Ireland.

Yet no style of beer is so shadowy and elusive. It is not a spirit, but it is a recurrent ghost among beers.

No style of beer inspires so many questions when I give talks. What was the original Porter like? Why was it so called? How did it differ from Stout?

As St Patrick's Day approaches, the questions intensify. Should we regard Porter as a British, or Irish, style? Does it belong to London, perhaps Belfast, or Dublin?

Anyone who has ever asked these questions is probably familiar with the received wisdom that the name Porter was first applied to a beer produced by one Ralph Harwood at a brewbouse (and pub?) called The Bellin Shoreditch, London: in 1730, according to the 1889 book "'The Curiosities of Ale and Beer"; 10 years earlier if we believe HA. Monckton's 1966 work "A history of English Ale and Beer" (or did he simply confuse decades?).

On my bookshelf, the most detailed account is in the 1975 work "A History of Brewing," by HS Corran, a former curator of the Guinness brewery's archives.

The earliest mention of Porter spotted by Corran was in a letter of 1726, from a Frenchman (or Belgian?) to his family.

Corran also refers to the early trade journal "The London and Country Brewer," pointing out that, "Porter is not mentioned in the 1735 edition, but is said to appear in 1739, and there are several mentions in 1750."

Most accounts of British brewing in the 1700s say that Porter was a ready-made blend of three different styles previously available, sometimes known as "ale," "beer" and "twopenny." Because it was a combination of all three, it was also known as "Entire".

This beer is said to have been popular with the workers who carried meat, fish and vegetables in the produce markets to the East of Central London, none of them far from Shoreditch; hence the name "Porter." I feel that too much is made of these romantic stories. It seems likely that the trio of "styles" was simply the results of the three waters used in mashing and sparging.

Brewers would have made their lives easier by combining three into a single product and persuading themselves this was in response to public demand (sound familiar?).

The period under review was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Previously, most breweries had been in the pubs they served; now some were free standing, distributing their beer by canal. In this new situation, did some delivery men announce themselves by shouting, "Porter!"?

It has been argued that sharp increases in the prices of malt encouraged brewers to use less, offsetting the impact on flavour by kilning it more highly and adding more hops.


For whatever reason, this very dark beer happened to be hitting its stride just as a national transport network came into existence.


For whatever reason, this very dark beer happened to be hitting its stride just as a national transport network came into existence. That is why Porter became the first nationwide style of beer anywhere in the world. Britain's Industrial Revolution preceded those of other parts of Europe and North America.

The darkness of Porter as a style would have covered up cloudiness and the roasty, bitter, tastes masked flavour defects - both important factors as beer was shipped farther from the brewery.

Although Pale Ale is first mentioned in the same period, it does not seem to have been perfected until the 1820s, at which time the two styles, the translucent bronze or amber and the largely opaque black, became rivals for the affection of the British drinker.

Both styles, but especiaIly Porter, were the stock-in-trade of British brewers in the greatest days of this country's Imperial and international influence. That is why the shadow of Porter looms so large. While internal transport was still embryonic, Porter was being shipped across the Channel and the North Sea and through the Baltic to Eastern Europe and even China. In all of those regions, the term Porter is to some extent still used, normally to identify a dark, roasty, very strong brew, sometimes made with a top-fermenting ale yeast but more often with a lager culture.

Even after or War II, at least one German brewer continued to make a "British-style" Porter with a Brettanomyces yeast culture.

This type of yeast typically developed (luring the long maturation of strong, export Porters in the huge wooden tuns of the Victorian period.

The brewer told me that a Porter without the "horse blanket" aroma of Brettanomyces would have been thought "insufficiently British."

By then, the term Porter had all but vanished in Britain. Dr John Harrison, who has researched brew-house records from London to Scotland, points out that a British brewer in the 1800s typically produced Porter to as many gravities and strengths as he later made Pale Ales and today that style's descendant, Bitter.


The lower-gravity Porters evolved into Mild ales, those in the middle range retained their original designation (only to vanish for decades before their recent revival), and the fuller-bodied versions came to be known as Stouts.


The lower-gravity Porters evolved into Mild ales, those in the middle range retained their original designation (only to vanish for decades before their recent revival), and the fuller-bodied versions came to be known as Stouts.

Brewing historian Terry Foster argues that the term Stout derived from the fuller flavours introduced when the drum-roasting of malts was developed in 1817.

Guinness, which has brewed in Dublin since 1759, first made ales. It launched a Porter in the 1770s, and was concentrating on that style before the decade was out.

For a time, there were two gravities of Porter, marked with a single and a double "X", and aIready a stronger third version for export to the Caribbean.

In 1820, the double was renamed Guinness Extra Stout Porter, and at some point the triple "X" gained the soubriquet Foreign Extra Stout. In 1974, the "single," still known as Porter. was dropped.

The type of Dry Stout made by Guinness and its couple of local competitors had in the meantime become Ireland's national style of beer.

When both Porters and Stouts diminished in popularity in Britain, why did they stand their ground in Ireland?

One reason may be that restrictions on the use of energy during World War I made it difficult for British maltaters to roast their grains.

These restrictions were not imposed in Ireland, where rebellion and independence were in the wind.

If the terrible beauty finally finds a lasting serenity, perhaps the toast should be in a new brew called Peace Porter.


Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: MAR 1, 1995
In: What's Brewing

Beer Styles

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