American Porter: A Patriotic Beer

Style Profile by | May 2009 | Issue #28

When it comes to classic British styles, the Americans rule the Old World. Our Barleywine is stronger, our India Pale Ale is hoppier and our Imperial Stout is, well, more imperial. Yeah, those are fighting words, and here’s some more: “To say it is equal to any of London, the usual standard for excellence, would undervalue it, because as it regards either wholesome qualities or palatableness, it is much superior …”

That’s physician, scientific thinker and author James Mease, writing 198 years ago, on the eve of the War of 1812, about the most American of beer styles: Porter. Little has changed over the past two centuries; today’s American Porter is roastier, hoppier, stronger and—for those who share Mease’s patriotism—better.

Indeed, for the early part of its history, American Porter was all about patriotism, not to mention the young nation’s distaste for all things English. Porter was a wholly British invention, an aged, slightly sour ale that was brewed dark and strong, earning its name because of its popularity among carriage and train porters.

Its export to the colonies helped define the superiority of our overlords. The professionally trained English brewed with the finest roasted malts; the primitive rabble of the colonies substituted with molasses and licorice. Not surprisingly, Colonial boycotts of British goods only occasionally targeted those luscious shipments of Porter. You can imagine the patriot Samuel Adams eying wooden casks of fine English Ale loaded aboard the ships in Boston Harbor and suggesting, “Hey, let’s dump the tea into the harbor instead.”

Kicking redcoat butt changed things. Complaining shortly after the Revolution that “we have already been too long subject to British prejudices,” George Washington launched a “Buy American” campaign, declaring, “I use no Porter or cheese in my family, but such as is made in America; both these articles may now be purchased of an excellent quality.”

His favorite: the Philadelphia Porter made by Robert Hare, a British-trained brewer who loathed the English.

By most accounts, it wasn’t just patriotism that gave American Porter its reputation for excellence. There are reports of shipments leaving Philadelphia and making it to Calcutta without spoilage. Meanwhile, writes Mease, repressive English duties on malt and hops forced Britain’s brewers to dumb down their famous product with additions of aloe, tobacco, quassia root and sulfates.

By the early 20th century, with Burton Pale Ale on the rise, Porter was all but extinct in the United Kingdom. In America, the style survived largely because German immigrant brewers—whose crisp, pale lagers would eventually dominate—adapted their early recipes to produce a dark Porter made with lager yeast. The hybrid variety is still alive in the form of Yuengling Porter: black, roasty and mildly hopped, but light bodied, like a lager.

In the early ’70s, it was San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing that returned us to the early Porter that quenched the thirst of our young nation. Brown, smooth and robust, it’s a sublime celebration of darkened malts and fresh hops.

Dozens of other American craft brewers followed, and today many of them find that Porter is the perfect palette for more adventuresome flavors. Vanilla, coffee, chocolate and smoked malts often find their way into the barrel, with results ranging from curious to astounding.

Back in Philadelphia where it all began, Yards brews Porter just blocks from Robert Hare’s old brewery. It balances dark malts and molasses with an aggressive but balanced portion of Willamette and East Kent Goldings hops in its nod to the past, George Washington’s Tavern Porter.

To say it is equal to any of London … would undervalue it.

Aroma: Roasty, slightly burnt grains with distinctive hops
Flavor: Strong malt, but less assertive than Stout, with a substantial but not overwhelming hop kick
IBU: 25–50
ABV: 5–7 percent
Examples: Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, Anchor Porter, Smuttynose Robust Porter, Sierra Nevada Porter, Deschutes Black Butte Porter, Rogue Mocha Porter, Avery New World Porter, Stone Smoked Porter, Yards George Washington’s Tavern Porter

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