Traditional London style porter using an original 1910 recipe and authentic London yeast.
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Porter is a style of beer that was developed in London, England in the early eighteenth century. It was well-hopped and dark in appearance owing to the use of brown malt. The name originated from its popularity with street and river porters.
The popularity of porter was significant, and it became the first beer style to be brewed across the world, and production had commenced in Ireland, North America, Sweden and Russia by the end of the eighteenth century.
The history of stout and porter are intertwined. The name “stout”, used for a dark beer, is believed to have come about because strong porters were marketed under such names as “extra porter”, “double porter”, and “stout porter”. The term stout porter would later be shortened to just stout.
In 1802, John Feltham wrote a version of the history of porter that has been used as the basis for most writings on the topic. Very little of Feltham’s story is backed up by contemporary evidence; his account is based on a letter written by Obadiah Poundage (who had worked for decades in the London brewing trade) in the 1760s. Feltham badly misinterpreted parts of the text, mainly due to his unfamiliarity with eighteenth-century brewing terminology. Feltham claimed that in eighteenth-century London a popular beverage called three threads was made consisting of a third of a pint each of ale, beer and twopenny (the strongest beer, costing two pence a quart). About 1730, Feltham said, a brewer called Harwood made a single beer called Entire or Entire butt, which recreated the flavour of “three threads” and became known as “porter”.
Porter is mentioned as early as 1721, but no writer before Feltham says it was made to replicate “three threads”. Instead, it seems to be a more-aged development of the brown beers already being made in London. Before 1700, London brewers sent out their beer very young and any ageing was either performed by the publican or a dealer. Porter was the first beer to be aged at the brewery and dispatched in a condition fit to be drunk immediately. It was the first beer that could be made on any large scale, and the London porter brewers, such as Whitbread, Truman, Parsons and Thrale, achieved great success financially.
Early London porters were strong beers by modern standards. Early trials with the hydrometer in the 1770s recorded porter as having an OG (original gravity) of 1.071 and 6.6% ABV. Increased taxation during the Napoleonic Wars pushed its gravity down to around 1.055, where it remained for the rest of the nineteenth century. The popularity of the style prompted brewers to produce porters in a wide variety of strengths. These started with Single Stout Porter at around 1.066, Double Stout Porter at 1.072, Triple Stout Porter at 1.078 and Imperial Stout Porter at 1.095 and more. As the nineteenth century progressed the porter suffix was gradually dropped.
The large London porter breweries pioneered many technological advances, such as the use of the thermometer (about 1760) and the hydrometer (1770). The use of the latter transformed the nature of porter. The first porters were brewed from 100% brown malt. Now brewers were able to accurately measure the yield of the malt they used, and noticed that brown malt, though cheaper than pale malt, only produced about two-thirds as much fermentable material. When the malt tax was increased to help pay for the Napoleonic War, brewers had an incentive to use less malt. Their solution was to use a proportion of pale malt and add colouring to obtain the expected hue. When a law was passed in 1816 allowing only malt and hops to be used in the production of beer (a sort of British Reinheitsgebot), they were left in a quandary. Their problem was solved by Wheeler’s invention of the almost black (kilned) patent malt in 1817. It was now possible to brew porter from 95% pale malt and 5% patent malt, though most London brewers continued to use some brown malt for flavour.
Until about 1800, all London porter was matured in large vats, often holding several hundred barrels, for between six and eighteen months before being racked into smaller casks to be delivered to pubs. It was discovered that it was unnecessary to age all porter. A small quantity of highly aged beer (18 months or more) mixed with fresh or “mild” porter produced a flavour similar to that of aged beer. It was a cheaper method of producing porter, as it required less beer to be stored for long periods. The normal blend was around two parts young beer to one part old.
After 1860, as the popularity of porter and the aged taste began to wane, porter was increasingly sold “mild”. In the final decades of the century, many breweries discontinued their porter, but continued to brew one or two stouts. Those that persisted with porter, brewed it weaker and with fewer hops. Between 1860 and 1914, the gravity dropped from 1.058 to 1.050 and the hopping rate from two pounds to one pound per 36 gallon barrel.
Twentieth and twenty-first century
During the First World War in Britain, shortages of grain led to restrictions on the strength of beer. Less strict rules were applied in Ireland, allowing Irish brewers such as Guinness to continue to brew beers closer to pre-war strengths. English breweries continued to brew a range of bottled, and sometimes draught, stouts until the Second World War and beyond. During the Second World War, because of the Irish Free State’s official policy of neutrality, this period was not technically considered wartime, however the country suffered similar resource scarcities and consequent rationing to the United Kingdom, thus this period was officially named The Emergency there. They were considerably weaker than the pre-war versions (down from 1.055–1.060 to 1.040–1.042) and around the strength that porter had been in 1914. The drinking of porter, with its strength slot now occupied by single stout, steadily declined, and the last porter was produced in 1941.