Where does porter come from? Chris Hall takes a look into the murky origins of this great, and greatly misunderstood, drink.
Some beers, like India Pale Ale, are defined by history. Others refuse to be. Porter, the dark, malty style which begat stout and bitter, which begat pale ale, which in turn begat pilsner, has a place in history but not a clear origin. A quick search online will bring up a raft of articles that begin in much the same way: uncertainty. At some point in the late 1700’s, people began drinking a beer that was darker and stronger than those before it.
John Feltham is perhaps most to blame for this murky history. In 1802 he wrote The Picture of London, where he proceeded to make a right dog’s dinner of porter’s origins. Feltham based his knowledge of porter on a letter written by Obadiah Poundage (you’re right, you don’t get names like that anymore) to the London Chronicle about beer taxation. Unfortunately, Feltham didn’t know the first thing about brewing, and had everyone believing that porter was originally created to replicate a popular blended beer called ‘three threads’, made from light ale, stronger beer, and super-strength ‘twopenny’. Whilst brewers did occasionally do this (normally adding one part aged beer to two parts ‘young’ or aged beer to speed up production times), it is far more likely that porter was simply developed from existing brown ales, perhaps blended with older beer to give it a stronger, rounded taste, hence one of its original names, ‘Entire’.
Supposedly, the ‘porter’ moniker came from the new beer’s popularity with the working classes, including the many labourers and porters that filled the streets of London during the industrial revolution. The reason for its popularity was not just because it tasted different. Porter was so rich and filling that allegedly some of its namesakes would substitute their lunch for a pint, and who could blame them? Soon it wasn’t just the working classes who were partaking in liquid lunches, and porter went from being the capital’s beer to the nation’s favourite. It helped that a national transport network had just been born.
The popularity of porter was also the cause of the most tragic and frankly spectacular brewing accident of all time: the London Beer Flood. Canals and trains were bearing porter to the furthest reaches of Britain, and ships were conveying it to the darkest corners of the Empire. Competition was fierce, and the brewery who could supply the most, would profit the most. A brewery on the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, owned by Messrs Meux & Co, had several large vats of beer on its roof, maturing. The largest of these vats held porter, some 511,920 pints of it. The Times described the 22-foot high behemoth as being a ‘size of which defies all credibility, being designed to hold 20,000 barrels of porter…’
In October 1814, a batch of porter had been maturing in the enormous vat for many months (ensuring a higher price when sold), when the vat simply couldn’t take any more. One of the vat’s 29 massive wrought iron hoops snapped, preceding an explosion of beer under pressure that was heard up to five miles away. Worse still, the explosion of beer caused a chain reaction within the brewery, bursting other surrounding vats. It is estimated over one million litres of beer burst through the brewery wall into the slum of St Giles. During scenes of destruction as homes were demolished in a tsunami of beer, hundreds ran into the carnage with pots and pans, desperately trying to save whatever beer they could, some even lapping up the beer running down the street. The final death count stands at eight or nine, depending on the account. One story from the event, whilst incredible, I wish with all my heart to be true: the final victim died the day later from alcohol poisoning, after allegedly attempting to heroically stem the malty tide by drinking as much of it as possible. On October 14th, the flood’s 197th anniversary, be sure to raise a glass of porter to that hero.
Soon, it would be Ireland’s time to shine. Efforts to make stronger and darker brews resulted in ‘Stout Porter’, which eventually dropped its suffix to become stout. A young Arthur Guinness took his fascination with London’s dark and stormy beer back to Ireland and set about building a legacy that would define a beer style, and help bring an end to porter.
Like with any beer style, porters of all strengths and flavours were being made. The lower strength versions (less aged, with less malt and hops) eventually became ‘milds’ (another historic beer style making a comeback), and the stronger brews were thought of as stouts. By 1820, pale ale was being perfected, and porter lost its place amongst the variety of beer available to the discerning Victorian. The rise of mild was helped by laws passed decreeing only hops and malt could be used to make beer, meaning some crafty porter brewers (who used cheaper pale malt then coloured their beer) made the switch to the product that was cheaper to make.
By turn of the century, porter had all but disappeared from Britain’s pubs. Eventually the Great War demanded higher taxes on grains like malt, and beer became weaker, whilst in Ireland, the likes of Guinness were able to still turn out stout at pre-war strengths. It would be over fifty years until porter made its American comeback tour…