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.