Porter doesn’t have the fame of stout, the thunderous hops of IPA or the quirk of barrel aging, but once upon a time, it boasted all three. Largely relegated to ordinary status, porter was designed as a populist brew in London. The halcyon days of porter were significant; it was the first worldwide beer, changed the approach to brewing, spawned many modern styles and dominated brewing in the British Isles and beyond for a century and a half. Today’s versions would still be recognized by 19th-century ale drinkers. Virtually extinct a scant four decades ago, porter was resuscitated by America’s first microbrewers and Britain’s desire for nostalgic real ales in the 1970s.
Early 1700s London brewers developed ancestral porter as a well-hopped and aged adaptation of the ubiquitous sweet, strong brown ale. Proletarian by design, it was named for its popularity among the porters who unloaded ships around London. Prior to this, porter was known as “entire butt beer,” and made by combining successive mashings, rather than making separate beers. This consolidated beer was produced from the entire runnings and matured in casks known as butts.
It was made solely with highly kilned brown malt, also known as blown, snap or porter malt that was kilned with wood and smoky in flavor. Since it was aged for some time, the rough smoke character would mellow over time, that character replaced by prolonged fermentation and action of Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus in the porous cask wood. These factors, and copious hopping, distinguished porter from sweet brown ales. Hoppy pale ales were also brewed at this time―for the rural well-heeled―from expensive pale malt rather than cheap brown malt, keeping those two styles firmly opposed.
Original porter, or entire, is often attributed to Ralph Harwood of Shoreditch, who in 1730 simplified the common method of blending twopenny (hoppy pale ale), beer (aged, hoppy brown) and ale (fresh, sweet brown), known as “three threads,” by creating a single recipe (entire), drawn from a single cask. Entire was brewed well before this claim though.
Porter was consumed so prodigiously in London that successful brewers got busy building huge facilities with massive storage capability. Large-scale brewers built huge facilities with massive storage capability. This drove many publican brewers out of business and ushered in the mega-brewer era. Harwood himself was out of business by 1747, as just a few large breweries were slaking the thirst for porter in London. Into the late part of the century, porter was still a strong, brown, hoppy, smoke-tinged brew carrying Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus character, sent to publican both mild (young) and stale (aged) for blending.
Successful London entrepreneurs also sought markets abroad for stout and porter in Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, the Caribbean and South Pacific. Nearby, London-style porter could be found in other parts of England, Ireland and Scotland. It was brewed in Edinburgh by 1763 and Dublin by 1764, the skill often taught by esteemed London brewers.
By the end of the 18th century, pale and amber malts were more affordable and finding their way into porter recipes. Tastes moved from aged towards fresher beer as paler malts ensured fuller fermentation without maturation. Nonetheless, stale beer was still sent out to add a bit of the famous porter “aged” character. Still brown, porter was nearing the template of modern porter.
Porter was also an integral part of early American brewing, established by the British colonists. Among its devotees was George Washington, who insisted upon drinking only colonial porter. New American porter was different, made with 6-row malt and adjuncts such as corn and molasses. After the Revolution, porter hung on throughout the states and territories, but especially in the Northeast. Philadelphia porter was the most coveted. Even immigrants from Central Europe brewed porter, fashioned with their bottom-fermenting yeast.
When Daniel Wheeler introduced his drum-roasted patent malt in 1817, black as night and full of roasted flavor, brewers of porter and stout porter (strong porter) took quick notice. Black patent malt allowed brewers to use more extract-efficient pale malt and still get the desired color. Irish brewers, most notably Arthur Guinness, opted for a simple grist of pale and patent. Londoners used grist of pale, amber, brown and a small measure of patent, in fairly specific house ratios, and were keen to point out the superiority of their brew, citing complexity, depth and overall fullness. The former stout porter morphed into stout, creating stylistic boundaries between stout and porter, based on the grist composition. To this day, Irish stout recipes are largely roasted and pale malt, whereas porter generally has a more complicated makeup.
As the 19th century wore on, porter slowly relinquished market share to pale and mild ale. This trend continued into the 20th century, gravities dropped substantially and war rationing, taxation and personal preference sounded the death knell of porter. By the end of World War II, and for the first time in almost 250 years, porter was no longer a pub staple. It would be about 30 years before porter brewing became common again, spurred by a mutual desire in America and England to bring back traditional ales.
In the 1970s in both America and Britain, the vapid state of brewing was so lamentable to some that grassroots movements were instigated to change things. In Britain, ale was vastly removed from the natural, living, traditional product that they had come to expect at the local. Porter was entirely absent. The Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA) was founded in 1971 to bring awareness to the state of things. The ensuing movement reacquainted Brits with their past, and more importantly, a way of life that was uniquely theirs. Cask-conditioned, hand-pulled “real ale” sprung from large and small brewery alike.
The first porters influenced by CAMRA came in 1978 by long established brewer Timothy Taylor of West Yorkshire, and new brewer Penrhos of Hertfordshire―the first seen in pubs in nearly 40 years. There would be 60 within 20 years. With heritage brewing operating at full steam, even big boys Guinness, Watneys, Samuel Smith and Fuller’s hopped aboard. Many were bottled, but porter was just at home in a cask, where its earthy, bittersweet and malty notes are a perfect match for fresh, live presentation.
In America, a simultaneous, and equally exciting and nostalgic movement was stirring. Though Yuengling, since 1829, had been making porter through the thick and thin of Prohibition and devolving tastes, the style was otherwise wholly unknown. Fritz Maytag, ever the pioneer, brewed his first porter in 1972 as an all-malt, top-fermenting harkening back to what brewing once was, and more importantly, could be in America. Boulder Brewing of Boulder, CO, began operations in 1979, with porter as an original flagship style.
Before long, the blossoming American micro scene tapped into the love for porters and stouts. The number of porters available today is staggering, and along with pale ale and stout, is a style that they do best. Most are made with a nod to the British roots and a Yankee twist, but others are expertly and thoroughly true to the London porters of yore, down to the malt, hops and yeast.
What humble porter lacks in cache, it more than makes up for in universally complex appeal, making use of many malts to get the desired, individualistic depth. Premium English pale ale or American 2-row malt will suffice as a base. American brewers often use Munich malt for a maltier foundation.
Where porter shines though, is in the employment of its dark malts, often used in complex combinations. Crystal malt of all persuasions is used for residual sweetness and confectionary aroma. Chocolate and black patent malt are near essential ingredients, especially the patent, and combined give the requisite gritty, bittersweet chocolate character. Roasted notes should be rather aggressive, but balanced by the other malts. Brown and amber malt have come back into favor by maltsters in the past few years; they contribute earthy ruggedness as well as an historical touch. Porters can be somewhat dry or sweet, but never the extreme of either.
English hops like East Kent Goldings, Fuggles and Challenger mesh perfectly with a porter grain bill, especially when combined with estery London or English yeast. U.S. hops contribute yet another dimension, and one that often contrasts with the malts. American-style porters often lean towards hops in the aroma, with English versions more on estery, caramel and malty notes. There is no mistaking the two side by side. Most fall in the range of 5 to 6.5 percent ABV. The overall variety is vast, yet most of them are easily recognized as porter, the original brew of the people.
Samuel Smith’s Taddy PorterABV: 5.0
Tasting Notes: Brewed in the North Yorkshire town of Tadcaster, England, Taddy Porter was first offered by Samuel Smith in 1979 as an authentic version of long-lost historical porter. Black-brown with glints of ruby, Taddy Porter offers up an aroma of black malt, brown bread and dried, dark fruit. Medium mouthfeel, leaning dry, but silky. There are notes of butterscotch, bittersweet chocolate, anise and herbal hop in the flavor. It finishes dry with a touch of lingering sweetness. The Old Brewery never disappoints, its porter is a classic.
Fuller’s London PorterABV: 5.4
Tasting Notes: A traditional London porter in every sense of the word, Fuller’s is brewed in the western area of the city known as Chiswick. The grist includes brown malt, a simple, but keen nod to porter of yore. It imparts gritty contrast to the smooth, malty notes of pale ale and crystal malts. It pours deep garnet-brown with a nose of malt, toffee and cocoa. Dark chocolate, burnt caramel, dried currant and a whisper of licorice fill the flavor with complexity, with earthy Fuggles hops to finish it off. The smooth mouthfeel rounds out this porter beautifully.
Anchor PorterABV: 5.6
Tasting Notes: The brew that introduced beer-hungry America to English-style porter in 1972, Anchor Porter fairly epitomizes the American brewing renaissance. The lacy head sits atop an opaque-black brew. The aroma has dark roast, malt, fresh hops and a bit of fruit ester. The palate is creamy, finishing dry with brisk carbonation, chicory, grainy malt and full hop dosage. The flavor is heavy on roast with footnotes of toffee, chocolate and malty sweetness. Anchor porter has a little extra of everything that makes a great porter, a beer of bold American ingenuity and daring.
Deschutes Black Butte PorterABV: 5.2
Tasting Notes: The flagship beer of the Bend, OR, brewery, Black Butte has been brewed since their founding in 1988. This perfectly balanced jet black porter may be the finest made in America. The aroma is a deft blend of floral hops, dark roast coffee, bready malt and chocolate. The body is medium-full with a velvety feel. The clean taste is toasted malt, offset by espresso, and glossed with milk chocolate. The hop flavor comes through as fresh and herbal, the finale of bitterness is firm and long lasting. Despite the modest strength, Black Butte is compact, satisfying and quite easygoing.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning homebrewer and general hobbyist who thinks there is no more sublime marriage than that of art and science.