A Journey Through the Past: London Brews Porter Again

Feature by | Aug 2017 | Issue #127
Illustration by Joe Waldron

The Old Blue Last has a remarkable history. This handsome, three-story, street-corner pub in Shoreditch was once famed as the first place to serve Porter, the British capital’s native beer style. A sign on the pub’s exterior used to boast that it was “The first house where Porter was sold,” too, although it’s nowhere to be seen now.

There’s not even a Porter on tap inside; Molson Coors’ Irish brewery, Franciscan Well, is the only dark beer on the bar in the form of the nondescript Shandon Stout. And when, one recent weekday, a customer asked about the pub’s past (a stone panel on the restored Victorian frontage reads “AD 1700 Rebuilt 1876’’) the barman chose to relate a more recent claim to fame. “Well,” he said with a nonchalance that suggested this was a well-worn fact, “it used to be a brothel in the ’70s.”

A touch dispiriting, perhaps, but also misleading (as, some beer historians say, is the Blue Last’s claim to be the home of Porter). Better known as a music venue today, The Old Blue Last is behind the times when it comes to its draft selection. Although Porter did disappear from London’s bartops for many years after World War II, it has now made an impressive comeback.

Dozens of Porters are currently brewed on a regular basis in London: Fuller’s London Porter, Gipsy Hill Dissident, Five Points Railway Porter, Beavertown Smog Rocket, The Kernel Export India Porter, and more. Exact figures are hard to come by—beers appear and disappear at dizzying speeds in the era of craft brewing, in London as much as elsewhere—but it’s much easier to find Porter in London than it is anywhere else in the UK.

The style’s comeback, a stuttering, stop-start affair, began at Fuller’s, the city’s only remaining historic brewery. Founded in 1845, Fuller’s celebrated its 150th birthday in 1995 by brewing a Strong Ale, which was successful enough that the brewing team decided to produce a “new” beer the following year. That beer was London Porter.

“We thought we should have a seasonal beer offering of some description, and a bit more variety in what we did,” says John Keeling, now Fuller’s roving brewing director but then deputy head brewer to Reg Drury, who died two years ago. “London Porter came out of that. It was an obvious beer to go back to, because it was the beer of London at one point. Reg came up with the recipe by looking at historic recipes; he didn’t do a copy, he came out with his take on what London Porter was, based on what we used to do.”

It wasn’t an immediate success for Fuller’s—or even a long-term one, really. “The response wasn’t great,” says Keeling. “When people liked it, they loved it—but it didn’t sell well. Lots of people approached it with a closed mind: ‘It’s dark and black, it must be horrible!’”

Given that fact, it’s unsurprising that not much followed in the subsequent decade. The one notable exception was Meantime’s London Porter, released in a 750-milliliter bottle in 2003 as part of founder Alastair Hook’s mission to convert lager-loving Londoners back to classic styles from around Europe.

It wasn’t until 2009 that things really started to shift in Porter’s favor. That year London’s brewing revival kicked off in earnest, with The Kernel, a Bermondsey brewery founded by Irishman Evin O’Riordain, leading the way.

O’Riordain’s story is well known in London beer circles. A cheesemonger by trade, he travelled to New York to teach Americans about cheese, only to discover a passion for potently-hopped American Pale Ale. Returning to London, he began to homebrew, focusing first on Pale Ales and then, inspired by fellow members of a homebrew club called London Amateur Brewers, on darker styles. Another homebrewer, who was also a member of the Durden Park Beer Circle, brewed a Stout recipe from the circle’s hugely influential book, Old British Beers and How to Make Them.

“It was glorious,” says O’Riordain, whose brewery now regularly makes four different dark beers: Export India Porter, Export Stout, Imperial Brown Stout, and Imperial Double Porter, all of them based on recipes from historic London breweries like Truman’s and Barclay Perkins. “Up to that point [in 2007-2008], there weren’t many Porters and Stouts. Meantime was doing one, that was a proper beer, but there wasn’t much else,” he explains.

“But what I took away from that Stout was this: [the brewer] hadn’t bothered with sugar, even though it was in the original recipe, and although you were supposed to age it for nine months, he was serving it at three weeks old. These guys had spent a lot of time figuring out how the recipes worked, but I learned very quickly that what matters is what you want to do. Religiously following the recipe does not guarantee you good beer.”

It’s an approach that raises a key question: If you brew a beer but change a few crucial aspects—in terms of recipe or conditioning, perhaps—can it really be called authentic? To clear things up, we simply need to consult the history of the beer style. There is no single authentic way to brew Porter.

“The flavor of Porter probably changed quite a lot during its great era,” says Martyn Cornell, author of the seminal book on British beer styles, Amber, Gold and Black. “I reckon you can probably look at about half a dozen different types of Porter [from its birth in the early 18th century to when it died out at the time of World War II]. The ingredients changed, and I strongly suspect the color changed, too.”

The timeline makes Cornell’s point. Porter originally sprang out of something called London Brown Beer in the early 18th century (Porter was stronger, hoppier, and aged for longer than its ancestor; it could also ferment at higher temperatures, a big advantage at a time when brewing stopped in the summer months). At that stage, it was made from diastatic brown malt, which, unlike modern brown malts, contained enough diastatic enzymes to convert its own starch into sugar, meaning it could in theory make up 100 percent of the malt bill. After the development of patent malt in 1817, brewers started to use better-value pale malt as a base, although London brewers continued using some diastatic brown malt for flavor.

Meanwhile, aging became more and more common. While the earliest Porters would have likely had a smoky aspect from the smoked malt used to make them (Meantime’s London Porter is brewed with 10 percent smoked malt, a tribute to that era), by 1760 it had become common for the beer to be aged for up to two years in huge wooden vats. This would have given it a more vinous Brettanomyces character and plenty of tartness from Lactobacillus bacteria, albeit diluted by the addition of young beer (Mild), which was the convention at the time.

“There are records of people saying, ‘Pour me a pint of Porter and make it mild, I want more of the young stuff,” says Cornell. “There was a two-part serve [at pubs] that allowed customers to have just enough of that aged stuff, which came in around the 1740s.”

In 1823, Porter’s peak year in London, 1.8 million barrels were produced: “Three out of four pints being drunk in London were Porter,” says Cornell. It declined in popularity throughout the latter half of the 19th century, but the real knockout blow came with World War I, when restrictions on the amount of raw materials that could be used saw the beer’s strength plummet. “It was in competition against other beers,” explains Cornell, “and they started using poorer ingredients. That would have changed the flavor.”

Given the complexity of Porter’s history, it’s hard to pick a single thread that constitutes authenticity, but many of London’s modern brewers have decided to focus on one ingredient: brown malt. “I think that’s the key,” says Keeling. “You smell that brown malt and you smell Porter.”

That’s certainly the view of Greg Hobbs, head brewer at Five Points in Hackney, East London, where the brewery has operated since 2013. Five Points’ Railway Porter is interesting for a variety of reasons: not only does it represent a surprisingly high percentage of the brewery’s output (about 9 percent), it’s available as a cask or keg beer, a demonstration of the brewery’s commitment to reach the maximum number of drinkers in a city where many drink one or the other. And it uses not only brown malt, but Maris Otter pale, crystal, Munich, chocolate, and black malt, too. A single hop variety, East Kent Goldings, rounds out the recipe.

“It’s quite different to a lot of other Porters out there—it’s richer, fuller,” says Hobbs. “That’s part of the style for me. We wash chocolate and black malt through with the sparge; this means we can add a lot more of those dark malts than we could if we put them in the mash, which would make it too astringent.”

Hobbs’ approach, to respect the history without being governed by it, is a popular one in London. Once a year, Five Points produces Derailed Porter, which is Railway Porter aged with Brettanomyces in the firkin for a minimum of six months. “This is directly influenced by the fact that Brett would have almost certainly contributed to the flavor profile of aged Porters,” he says. “It’s directly influenced by London’s great brewing heritage.”

Of course, a passion for history is nothing new in modern beer. Londoners are reaching back across the centuries in the same way that brewers have done since the craft movement began in the 1970s. “History was a huge inspiration to the early pioneers of craft brewing,” says Tom Acitelli, author of the 2013 book The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution.

“The American market at that stage was so homogenized that a lot of stuff was being lost. Those early pioneers had to look back over that gap and pull out inspiration and ideas and technique,” he says. “You saw it time and again with people like Fritz Maytag at Anchor and Jack McAuliffe at New Albion … I don’t think there would be an American craft beer movement without the history at its back.”

During a decade that introduced the world to Miller Lite and the concept of light beer, Anchor and New Albion released dark, complex, full-bodied Porters—beers that influenced countless other men and women to pick up a mash paddle. So for today’s brewers and aficionados, there is considerable romance in the notion of historic brewing. But do drinkers in London feel the same way about the beers? Well, yes and no. Here as elsewhere, pale hoppy beers are ascendant: around 90 percent of what The Kernel sells is pale, hop-forward beer, says O’Riordain, with dark beers accounting for just 6 percent.

But there are drinkers who cherish Porter, its taste, and the history of London’s dark beers. Fuller’s Past Masters series, which recreates beers from the brewery logs, features three dark beers (including 1926 Oatmeal Porter), out of a total of seven. “Every drop we make, we sell,” says Keeling.

Nonetheless, it’s still a niche market. There’s a persistent perception in the UK that dark beers are heavy and less healthy than their pale counterparts, although that’s changing. “Camden Ink [a Stout produced by AB InBev’s London brewery, Camden Town] has done a good job of weaning people off Guinness, and once you get beyond the idea that ‘Guinness equals dark beer,’ it opens up the door to a lot of other dark beers,” says Anselm Chatwin, owner of a string of beer bars in London including The King’s Arms in Bethnal Green.

“They’re nothing like as popular as the pale beers, but the people that like them, really like them. We always have two on now in every bar.”

But Chatwin’s bars tend to attract a more beer-savvy crowd than the average pub, and it may be that the UK market still has some maturing to do. It’s telling that virtually all of Fuller’s annual London Porter output of just over 4,000 barrels is exported, chiefly to the US (which gets 23 percent), Sweden (13 percent), and Russia (12 percent). “I think a number of beer drinkers in the US have a better idea of the history of London Porter than London drinkers,” Keeling declares. “There’s very few people in London who understood brewing, but in America they had this Michael Jackson-inspired quest for knowledge, and Porter was part of that. It was almost like you had to have the badge that you’d tasted Porter!”

A similar feeling clearly exists among a number of brewers in London today, though, even if drinkers are still catching up. And the desire to brew Porter—inspired by the past but tailored to tastes of the present—doesn’t feel like a fad. For Five Points, Beavertown, Gipsy Hill, The Kernel, and several other young beer companies in the British capital, Porter is a core offering, not a limited release or a one-off collaboration. They’re committed to keeping dark beer, Porter especially, in the lineup.

“You can call something a trend if it grows and goes away again,” says O’Riordain. “With something like the dark beers here in London, I don’t think it’s just a trend. There are ebbs and flows. 200 years ago there were loads of dark beers—then people’s tastes changed.”

Could they change back? With a clever name and the right label art, would a can of smooth-drinking Porter seem so out of place in the hand of a future concertgoer at The Old Blue Last?

“People who brew in London want to make it more than a trend, and they can because there is a tradition,” O’Riordain continues. “As long as people brew it in a way that is faithful to that tradition, it becomes more than just another beer. It feels part of who you are.”