After a rather lengthy break, we reconvened the Crafty Pint Blind Tasting Panel at the weekend for a look at porters. As ever, before publishing the results, here we have our Resident Beer Scholar, Chris Brady, delving back into the beer’s colourful and myth-riddled past to ascertain just what it is and where it came from.
"It was darkly rumoured that the butler, regarding him with favour such as that stern man had never shown before to mortal boy, had sometimes mingled porter with his table beer to make him strong."
Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son, 1848
Porter has a proud history and at one time its ubiquity went hand in hand with a reputation as a strength-giving elixir. This history, however, is cloaked in myth and apocrypha. This murky history can be credited to the fact that this beer, along with many of the old beer styles, didn't come about by way of a cartoon lightbulb above a brewer's head, but rather evolved over a period of time and came to be known as "porter" along the way.
Though it may be hard to imagine today, porter once enjoyed a popularity that eclipsed that of anything else on offer. London porter was shipped across the globe to every colony, eventually even being brewed in locales as disparate as Africa, North America and the Indian subcontinent. Indeed, it was the beer drunk by the British in India before anyone had even dreamed of naming a beer IPA. In one sense, porter was the first beer to be imported into Australia arriving as it did with the First Fleet.
Porter was brewed in vast quantities by breweries that often specialised in porter and made little else. Porter was aged in large casks or barrels known as "butts", which had a capacity of nearly 500 litres. These were stored in cellars and warehouses dotted across London. Storage of this kind had inherent dangers as throughout this period of secondary fermentation, the slowly working yeast produced carbon dioxide. Pure carbon dioxide is heavier than air and so a cellar could soon fill up with this asphyxiant and it was not unheard of for unwitting cellarmen to suffocate as they went about their tasks.
As production increased, the larger and wealthier breweries invested capital in the construction of huge vats that could hold tens of thousands of litres of beer. Even when taking into account the large initial outlay, these vats proved to be a cheaper option in the long run as they could be maintained over many years whereas casks had a much shorter lifespan and took up more space in costly warehousing.
Storing beer in such vast containers had its dangers. The Meux Brewery had some of the largest and, on the 17 October, 1814, the most dangerous. A collapse sent a tsunami of some 500,000 litres of porter crashing through the brewery wall and out into the crowded streets, killing eight people and injuring many more.
But what were the origins of this world-dominating (and house-flattening) beer? Before porter, the two big hitters in London public houses were the imaginatively named "twopenny pale ale", a relatively new style, and the equally catchily titled "brown beer", which was the time-honoured stalwart of 17th and 18th century London boozers. Contemporary drinkers would be forgiven for finding these brown beers somewhat challenging, but if you were a London labourer living in Dickensian squalor then a belly full of three threads would have been just what the doctor ordered, that is if you could afford to see a doctor, which you couldn't.
At this point we should bear in mind that at that time "ale" meant a lightly hopped beverage and "beer" referred to something more heavily hopped. This was an etymological hangover from the days when Britain’s indigenous drink, ale, contained no hops all, hops being unheard of until the hopped beverage known as beer came to find its way across the Channel from Europe.
Brown beers were, unsurprisingly, made from brown malt that had been dried over beech or oak fire. This produced roasty beers of a deep mahogany hue with a distinct smokiness. London's alehouses sold beer and ale straight from the cask and would usually supply two flavours of brown beer: mild and stale. The "mild" were younger, fresher beers that were sweet, smoky, lower in alcohol and most likely tasted quite "green" by todays standards. The "stale" beers had been aged for periods of six to 12 months. This ageing reduced the level of smoke in the beer and allowed any microscopic beasties present to bloom, lending the beer a tart and vinous character that was held in high regard. Secondary fermentation also bolstered the alcohol content.
Booze-hounds of the day, known as malt-worms, would take a blend of beers of different vintages to make a drink that, as if Goldilocks herself were the drinker, was not too sour and not to sweet but just right. A blend of three was common and this became known as "three threads", due to the fact that a serve of beer was known as a thread, perhaps as a metaphor for the thin stream of beer flowing from the tap.
Pale ales were more expensive than brown beers simply because pale malts were more expensive to produce and thus commanded a higher price. This obviously didn’t dissuade the moneyed classes from drinking them who saw them as a status symbol. The advent of glassware made the new, more expensive pale ales all the more attractive to aspirational drinkers keen to copy what the gentry were quaffing. To counteract the increasing market share of pale ale, London’s brown beer brewers redoubled their efforts, and this "new" version took off. And that, put simply, is that.
Perhaps the biggest invention in the porter story is the name itself, as porter was an existing beer renamed "Porter" after London's army of street and river porters amongst whom the drink was enormously popular. In the days before motorcycle couriers and delivery trucks, these porters had the unenviable task of oiling the wheels of commerce by shouldering heavy loads to and fro across the city. It was thirsty work and alehouses (often porterhouses if that was all they sold) would often have a bench seat directly outside the pub specifically for the porters. It was a place they could temporarily rest their load, call for a pint of restorative porter and slake their thirst before continuing on their way.
It would be remiss of any writing about porter to go without mentioning the bigger brother, stout. At one time "stout" referred to any strong beer, so there was nothing strange about advertising a beer as being a stout pale ale. So, naturally the step up in strength from a porter was a stout porter. Eventually, the word stout came to be so inextricably linked to porter that with stout porters the porter was dropped and the beers became known as simply "stout".
By the middle of the 20th century, two world wars and the attendant shortages had sent original gravities (and therefore alcohol content) into in free fall. This resulted in latter day porters being a shadow of their former selves. A reputation as a geriatric drink did nothing to bolster the sharp decline in popularity from which it would take years to recover. Indeed, if porter was a species, it would have been on the endangered list.
As with many historical beer styles formerly in decline, micro-brewers came to the rescue and today there are many porters to choose from brewed both here in Australia and overseas. Today's porters obviously bear little resemblance to the original London porters of yesteryear. Indeed, the lines today between stout and porter are now so blurred that it's a moot point as to whether there is any meaningful distinction at all so far the average drinker is concerned, besides a vague feeling that a stout ought to be blacker and roastier.
However, to this writer's mind, whether a particular black, roasty ale is identified as a stout or a porter seems to be down to what the brewer divide to put on the label. To recap, stouts were stout porters – that is bigger, stronger versions of porters. Today's stouts hover around the same ABV as porters and in both "styles" there are to be found a variety of expressions, be it sweet or dry, sessionable or knock-yer-socks-off, aggressively roasty or smooth as silk.
Nowadays, beers labelled as porter may fall into one of three categories: Brown Porter, Robust Porter and Baltic Porter, and the three rise in terms of size and complexity in that order. The first two are usually ales, whereas Baltic porters are often brewed with a lager yeast. Brown and Robust occupy the lower end of the ABV range, say from around four to six percent whereas the Baltics are the big guys, sometimes approaching the 10 percent mark and are often fermented with a clean lager yeast thus any rich fruit character comes must come from the malt bill alone.
Flavour descriptors such as chocolate, coffee, dark fruit, leather and roast malt are common with the best examples displaying a rich complexity – perfect winter drinking! Whichever porter you choose to fill your glass with, pause and feel the weight of history as you sup a beer descended from one of the earliest global beer styles. Remember, Charles Dickens drank this stuff.