The birth of porter in the early 18th century is among the most significant brewing events of the past 300 years. At a time when England was leading the Industrial Revolution, this deep brown ale drove a revolution in brewing. Porter became the first beer style to gain wide popularity—it was enjoyed all across Britain, and was even George Washington’s favorite beer.
Before porter, beer brewing was a small-scale activity limited to homes and small pub breweries. The alehouses in London stocked different types of beer: freshly brewed beer, aged beer and strong beer. Pub customers often ordered blends of these beers, to suit their taste and their budget: one such blend was known as “three threads.”
One common account of the origin of porter is charming, but probably incorrect. It claims that pub owners, tired of mixing the different beers to order, found a way to brew a single beer with the characteristics of three threads, and that became porter.
It is more likely that London brewers of brown beer, facing competition for customers, improved the quality of their beers. The new, “improved” brown beers—well brewed, with more hops and aged longer—came to be known as porter. The name “porter” was adopted for these beers because of the new brew’s immense popularity with the porters who carried goods around the city.
The popularity of porter during the 18th century coincided nicely with the groundswell of the Industrial Revolution. Businessmen built massive breweries: one new vat at a porter brewery was so large that 200 people dined in it before its first use.
Steam-powered engines provided power and cooling systems allowed year-round brewing and storing. This was the end of the local pub brewery, and the beginning of true commercial brewing.
Brewers took advantage of the improving trade routes to send their brew throughout England, Scotland and Ireland. To the dismay of the brewers outside of London, porter was driving many to the verge of bankruptcy. The solution was to make porters themselves.
In Ireland, Arthur Guinness was brewing only porter early in the 19th century, but became well known for its “stout porter,” simply a strong version of porter. Within a century, Guinness became the largest brewery in the world.
Porter’s rule lasted into the 19th century, when pale ales and pilsners became the darlings of Europe. Stout was catching the eye of those who wanted a dark beer, but something stronger. Brown ales and milds emerged as regional favorites. Then restrictions on industry use during the First World War drove the production of porter down further. By the 1940s, porter had largely vanished in England.
Across the Atlantic, a handful of East Coast breweries made porters, including Narragansett, Yuengling, and Stegmaier. But the style blossomed again at the hands of new microbreweries. Today’s porters are generally ruby-black to deep brown in color, with chocolaty, caramel or licorice notes.
For sheer versatility, porters are hard to beat, offering sturdiness on the one hand, drinkablility on the other. They can be the epitome of balance, or a dark, bitter beer for hop lovers. The range of flavors in porter is almost unparalleled for a beer of modest means. Soothing enough for cold weather, modest enough for warm, porters may still take a back seat to stout, but they occupy the driver’s seat for many.