What The Hell Is A Porter?

by: BeerAdvocate on 12-13-2000
No other type of beer arouses so many questions as to its origin. What the hell is it? Is it British or Irish? How does it vary from the Stout style? What does the name mean?

Porter is said to have been popular with transportation workers of Central London, hence the name. Most traditional British brewing documentation from the 1700’s state that Porter was a blend of three different styles: an old ale (stale or soured), a new ale (brown or pale ale) and a weak one (mild ale), with various combinations of blending and staleness. The end result was also commonly known as "Entire Butt" or "Three Threads" and had a pleasing taste of neither new nor old. It was the first truly engineered beer, catering to the publics taste, playing a critical role in quenching the thirst of the UK’s Industrial Revolution and lending an arm in building the mega-breweries of today.

Porters of the late 1700’s were quite strong compared to today’s standards, easily surpassing 7% alcohol by volume. Some brewers made a stronger, more robust version, to be shipped across the North Sea, dubbed a Baltic Porter. In general, the style’s dark brown colour covered up cloudiness and the smoky/roasted brown malts and bitter tastes masked brewing imperfections. The addition of stale ale also lent a pleasant acidic flavour to the style, which made it quite popular. These issues were quite important given that most breweries were getting away from pub brewing and opening up breweries that could ship beer across the world.

Due to the necessity to age the Porter for several months, sometimes over a year, the brewers needed to invest in huge storage casks chiefly made out of wood. Porter brewers prided themselves on having the biggest maturation vats and were always trying to build bigger ones. Half-million gallon vats were not infrequent. One of these vats, owned by Richard Meux's brewery, erupted back in 1814 releasing 320,000 gallons of Porter which demolished part of the brewery, a line of small homes and killed eight people in the wave of beer.

In the 1770s, well before the birth of his world renowned Guinness Stout, Sir Arthur Guinness' focus was on the mass-production of Porter. There were two strengths of Porter at that time, either marked with a single or a double "X." Soon to follow was a more robust third version, for export to the Caribbean. In 1820, the XX was renamed Guinness Extra Stout Porter, and soon after, the XXX gained the soubriquet Foreign Extra Stout (Guinness dropped the X Porter in 1974). During this period in the 19th century, "stout" referred to a strong or robust ale, but with the advent of coffee roasters many maltsters found that they could blacken grain, imparting a black colour and mild-roasted flavour to the beer. The use of these highly roasted malts eventually spawned Stout as a style unto its own. Yes, Porter is the father of Stout, and without it there'd be no creamy Guinness, Murphy's or Beamish as we know them today.

Even with the mass-production of Porter, some breweries could not keep up with the demand for the unique blending of old and new ales, since a portion of the blend could only be derived from patience and maturation. Many learned to keep a stash of aged ale on hand, however as malt prices and taxation on alcohol increased, corners were cut. It’s been documented that breweries used molasses and burnt sugar to artificially colour their ale. Others even introduced deadly narcotics to produce intoxicating effects, such as exotic poison berries, opium, Indian hemp, strychnine, tobacco, darnel seed, logwood and salts of zinc, lead and alum. Many fell ill and even died as a result. This begat new brewing laws against adding poisons to beer, and penalized any brewer or druggist associated in doing so.

With consumers lusting for clearer beer, the strength of Porter’s rule over the brewing industry diminished. The popularity of the Pale Ale style in the mid 1800’s, and Lagers in 1900’s, forced Porter to become more or less nonexistent.

Porter saw a comeback during the homebrewing and micro-brewery revolution of the late 1970’s and early 80’s, in the US. Modern-day Porters are typically brewed using a pale malt base with the addition of black malt, crystal, chocolate or smoked brown malt. The addition of roasted malt is uncommon, but used occasionally. Some brewers will also age their beers after inoculation with live bacteria to create an authentic taste. Hop bitterness is moderate on the whole and colour ranges from brown to black. Overall they remain very complex and interesting beers.

The recent fall of Sam Adams Honey Porter (sigh), and other breweries around the country dropping their Porter or darker style of brews, shows that Porter remains a well respected yet very misunderstood beer. Everyone should at least try one in their lifetime in owed to a style that helped to build so much. You can start your liquid nod here, with some modern-day Porters to enjoy:

  • Anchor Porter
  • Baltic Porters: Sinebrychoff Porter & D. Carnegie Porter
  • Brew Moon Planetary Porter
  • Catamount Porter
  • Cambridge Brewing Co.’s Charles River Porter
  • Otter Creek Stovepipe Porter
  • North East Brewing Co.’s Oak Cask-Conditioned Whiskey Porter
  • Tremont Porter
  • Sierra Nevada Porter
  • Smuttynose Robust Porter
  • London Style Porters: Fuller’s London Porter, Sam Smith Taddy Porter and Geary's London Style Porter
  • Wachusett’s Black Shack Porter
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