I thought that it might be a good idea to write some posts about the history of beer rather than just a bunch of status updates and “how to” articles. So we are going to kick this mini-series off by going out of order. I wanted to do an overall history of beer but that is going to take longer than I thought and I wanted to get the history of Porter out before I share a few bottles of my Baltic Porter with some of you. So here is the History of Porter.
The Porter is one of the more ambiguous and unclear beer styles seconded (perhaps tied with) the Stout. Sure on it’s own the stout if fairly unique but when you’re asked to differentiate between a porter and a stout you’d be hard pressed to come up with a good list of differences (as per style). This posts focus will be the history of the porter but due to their similarities it will be, at least in part, a very brief history of the Stout until the styles split.
A quick bit of background, early in the 1700’s a stout was any beer that was high in alcohol. It could be crystal clear or as black as a black hole. Beer in general was very different both by taste and nomenclature. There were three main types sold in England at the time. They were an old ale (stale or soured),new ale (brown ale that was fresh) and a weak ale (mild ale). These were commonly blended to get varying degrees of staleness which was desirable. Its also important to remember at this time the concept of what yeast is was 100 years away and there was not a strong understanding of ale or lager.
There is a common story, and as far as I can tell a misconception that Porter was invented to replace the three-threads beer, described by John Feltham as a beer made of three separate beers which was mixed by the publican from three casks. According to Feltham porter was invented to be served from one cask, saving the publican time. From what I can tell and based on secondary sources there does not appear to be any evidence to back this claim up. If you have contradicting evidence please let me know! This is discussed in great detail on Martyn Cornell’s blog post linked here. So I won’t go into the details here, as this is probably going to be a lengthy post.
Another story I found on the Anchor Brewing Blog seems to indicate that the brewer who created the drink that became known as porter in 1722 was Ralph Harwood. According to the blog he created a beer that was called Entire, which was previously referred to as three-threads. I was not able to find any primary sources, as any sources dating back to that era are very hard to find and often require buying multiple books for just a few paragraphs. Either way this story seems to fit. It seems likely to me that three-threads was a form of brown beer and as technology and demand grew the beer was brewed and aged longer at the brewer rather than the pub. This probably reduced price and increased quality though that is all speculation on my part based on the evidence below. It doesn’t seem likely that time saving was a driving factor.
According to a dictionary called Slang and it’s Analogues: Past and Present (linked here) the 1696 definition of three-threads was “half common Ale, and the rest stout or double beer” However a later definition from 1874 defines it as “Three-threads is a corruption of three-thirds, and denoted a draught, once popular, made up of a third each of, ale, beer, and two-penny… This beverage was superseded in 1722 by the very similar porter.” This dictionary appears to have been printed around 1903. Two- penny was the strongest type of beer that cost 2 pence (stout like).
From this definition it seems clear that the porter was created as an offshoot from three-threads beverage. Why was it developed? We may never know. But for the purpose of this blog that is, in part, irrelevant. Could it have been invented to save the publican time as Feltham suggest, sure, but we can not prove this. However we can safely assume the style of Porter was developed by 1722. If you read the last paragraph of the blog linked here you will see further evidence for this date.
Martyn Cornell presents convincing evidence that porter was actually used synonymously for brown ale. As with any product when external pressures arise the product needs to change to fit the market. This is what is believed to have happened to the London Brown ales. Cornell bases these changes off of writings by an Obadiah Poundage, who was an elderly brewer working in 1760. Of the changes mentioned by Poundage, middle men were buying beer from the breweries and storing it for some time and then selling it to the publicans. This ageing imparted a series of flavors that were desirable to the people (the flavors would be described as stale but think bitter and or sour). The introduction of “two-penny” ale also became popular drawing the market away from the previously existing beer. So with those two reasons we have a driving factor for the creation or more accurately evolution of the brown beer. The key to remember is that the people liked the beer that was between stale and new. So the brewers went back to the drawing board and redesigned their brown beer. They added more hops increasing the storage life and improved the storing ability of the breweries. Poundage writes, “”…When the brewers conceived there was a mean to be found preferable to any of there extremes; which was, that beer well brewed, from being kept its proper time, becoming mello, that is neither new or stale, would recommend itself to the public.” He goes on to say how this “experiment” was a great success. You can read the full text here.
The interchangeability of Porter and Brown Ale is seen in many sources from the time. Just a note the info that follows is from Cornell’s post linked in here. A Sheffield newspaper published in 1744 used “London Brew’d Porter” and “brown beer” interchangeably. Michael Combrune’s book Theory and Practice of Brewing published in 1762 frequently refers to “Porter or Brown beer”. There are a few other examples but I will let you check them out on Cornell’s post for them.
One thing we have yet to talk about is the name itself. Where did it come from? This seems to be answered by Poundage’s writings. He writes “The labouring people, porters, found it’s utility; from once came its appellation, porter.” Other tertiary sources say that the specific group of people that the style is named for are the river and street porters.
To sum up what we have so far. The porter is a result of a competitive market in London during the early 1700’s. This competition drew people from the three-threads drink and prompted a redesign of the brown beer commonly consumed in the day. The term porter seems to have been coined after the people who drank the drink the most, river and street porters, and was coined by 1722. Some sources suggest it was named after the market porters instead, but at this point we are really splitting hairs.
Over time, increased taxation brought about milder versions of the porter. In Britain tax on beer was based on the beer’s alcohol content. This increased cost caused breweries to cut corners and in some case use illegal ingredients. There are documented cases where breweries would use dark sugar or molasses to darken the beers as well as cases of breweries using deadly narcotics. These narcotics included, poison berries, opium, Indian hemp, tobacco and salts of zinc. All of these were used to increase the drunken effects with lower alcohol content. Of Course these practices lead to many deaths and illnesses. More stringent brewing laws were put in place to prevent these practices.
The next major change came with invention of the malt roaster in 1817. This allowed for new types of grain never before available. Namely black patent malt, which gave (and still gives) a dark color and roastier flavors. Eventually porters made their way to America, Russia and the Baltic countries where the porter would evolve based on each area. German porters were made with lager yeast and were generally high ABV. Porters all but disappeared with the rise of prohibition. In 1972 Anchor Brewing Co became the first American brewery to produce a porter since the fall of prohibition.
So what’s the difference between porter and a stout. They are very similar. A porter is classified into three sub style: Brown Porter, Robust Porter, and a Baltic Porter. Where a stout can be divided into: Dry, Sweet, Oatmeal, foreign Extra, American and Russian Imperial. The biggest and probably most noticeable difference is that stouts tend to be drier and toastier while porters are more malty and full bodied. Of course this depends on who is brewing. I prefer a fuller bodied stout, but really it comes down to what taste good is good.
Image credits: In order of appearance