Published on August 8th, 2012 | by ladyparker0
A Portrayal of Porter
Nothing beats a malty, roasty, toasty, dark beer on a frosty winter’s night. If you are this way inclined and in the cosy situation of finding yourself parked up in front of a crackling fire, a dark beer is a very welcome accompaniment.
Once you’ve poured out your chosen sable sip, fathom that the chances are what you are drinking is a derivation of Porter, ‘invented’ in 18th century London. A profusion of today’s dark beers have spawned from this vexed inky concoction, yet the history of Porter is complex, and very contentious. This makes its genesis and evolution an excellent, erudite pub yarn (or you could skip the pub yarn and scroll down to go straight to the Kiwi craft beer reviews…)
Numerous accounts on how Porter won its name and how it came into being exist. Etymologically the most prevalent root of the beer’s name is that it was insatiably demanded by those workingmen who laboured at the ports. This was grueling work and as such they required adequate fuel for the body and soul. A thick, calorific pint (most likely several) was just the trick. Indeed there are estimations that 18th century manual workers in London were obtaining over 2000 calories a day just from consuming beer.
As to its creation, Porter amazingly was the first real industrial beer. Its popularity was such that it necessitated brewing large volumes of it in enormous vats capable of holding 20,000 barrels of the stuff. The style, which ultimately used dark toasted malt saw it shy away from the norm of the beer being ‘made’ by the pub to being wholly brewed by the free-standing brewery. If you have ever wondered where the hyphenated beer names, such as mild-and-bitter or brown-and-mild came from, you’d be right to hazard a guess that it grew from Londoners’ fondness of ordering a combination of beers at the tavern that was mixed up for them right before their eyes.
Porter amazingly was the first real industrial beer. Its popularity necessitating brewing large volumes of it in enormous vats.
An enterprising Shoreditch individual named Ralph Harwood, so the story goes, created a beer that he named ‘Entire’ or ‘Entire-butt’ sometime in the 18th century. Entire-butt suggested a beer poured just from one cask. This was a significant derivation from the norm – a concocted brew colloquially known as ‘Three Threads’, which intimates vernacular for three thirds. A third each of ale, beer and twopenny (a strong beer unsurprisingly going for 2p) was traditionally mixed by the publican on order.
Where the biography of porter gets contentious is in its approximate date of origin. Regrettably it doesn’t get any more precise than the century. Some have dated generic porter creation as late as 1772, though it has also been mentioned in publications in the early 1700s.
Reading the literature of the time I would suggest that it was a gradual transformation and improvement of the beer which lead to the name, entrenched by common usage to distinguish traditional brown beer, a heavy and glutinous beverage made with brown malt, to a perhaps quite unintentional brewing of a beer with brown malt that had been ruined by over-roasting, and consequently needed to ‘mellow’ for a long period of time in butts. Stronger, thicker and roastier than brown beer, it likely grew exponentially in popularity with the porters of London. The unprecedented need to reduce the smokiness from the burnt malt used in the beer resulted in an aged, entirely brewer controlled dark beer.
It is Harwood and his Entire that is commonly espoused as the beginnings of “porter”. Harwood’s sagacity enabled the capital’s publicans to save time and efficiency, thwarting the need to mix three threads for their patrons. Contemporary publications however, and Ralph Harwood’s documented death in 1760, suggest that it may have been his partner, James Harwood who was credited with at least perfecting the beer into its true porter style. It would seem that it was a beer that certainly needed refining. A brewer rep, writing in the London Chronicle in 1760 under the interesting pseudonym of Obadiah Poundage is the only beholder who codified his appraisal of porter’s birth nearly 40 years prior. Poundage had apprised the London public that when “Porter or Entire Butt” was first brewed, “it was far from being in the perfection which since we have had it. I well remember for many years it was not expected, nor was it thought possible, for it to be made fine and bright, and four and five months was deemed to be sufficient age for it to be drunk at.” For a more in-depth look at the polemical history of porter, try this extract from the Brewer History Society.
Alternative theories such as London breweries inventing porter to compete with the popularity of pale beers from the countryside are also widely propagated. Insanely favoured during the later half of the 18th century for their dry, dark, slightly hoppy notes coupled with the seductive, warming flavours, over 20 chief porter brewers had produced in one recorded instance 1,176,856 barrels in one year. Eventually whole batch brews were sidelined for the preferable and more inexpensive amalgamation of aged Porter with fresh beer, achieving a similar drink.
Porter’s development stumbled over the hurdles of taxation in the 19th century and war during the 20th century. World War II in Britain sparked restrictions and shortages of grain that inherently led to a necessary curtailment in beer strength. However, being less ironclad on restrictions in Ireland allowed Guinness to continue to brew beers closer to the pre-war strength. Porter’s popularity waned during and after this time. Thankfully somewhat of a renaissance in the last 40 years has put porter and its cousins back on brewing minds.
Porter, let’s say as a genus, envelops a spectrum of historical styles: a stronger porter was descriptively called ‘Stout Porter’, shortened to what we know as simply, Stout; strong porter beers were also called Double Porter or Extra Porter; there of course exists the original London Porter style and needless to say the Irish have their Irish porter, Guinness being the classic. Brewers are experimenting with different toasting levels, ageing periods, cask types, malts, hops and flavourings. It’s an exciting time to be a lover of beer noir, and not just because its winter.
New Zealand produces some stellar examples from the original beer seed that was London Porter. Below are some dark numbers worth trying.
Emerson’s London Porter (Dunedin, New Zealand)
At just 4.9% abv this is my kind of craft beer. The description the brewer provides on the label almost frustrates the need to write any tasting notes! No glaring alcohol heat, but with plenty of deliciously warming malty flavours, this beer is deftly balanced. It pours a deep mahogany brown, and the appearance is patently promising. Notes of caramel, malt biscuit and mocha alongside striking roasted notes make the nose symphonic. On the palate, there is a lovely warmth, further roasted coffee and malt flavours and an appearance of earthiness from the hops used. This is certainly not a thick and heavy beer, rather quite elegant and silky with a persisting bitter finish. A favourite of mine this winter, it’s also one of the most value buys in the craft dark beer market.
$6.10 / 500ml
Three Boy’s Oyster Stout (Christchurch, New Zealand)
This dark beer wins my most interesting award. The intensity of flavour is simply amazing in this traditional oyster stout, another modification of stout hailing from historic London whereby real oysters were used to amplify the perceived healthful benefits of the drink. Three Boys, based in Christchurch brew fresh Bluff Oysters from the deep south in with the boil of hops to create a dark beer with staggering richness and flavour. The brewery is focused on small-scale brews that are lovingly tended, unfiltered and not pasteurised. The Oyster Stout pours jet black, and releases beautiful mocha, Christmas fruit mince, dried fruit and roasted chestnut aromas. The malt is well-balanced, roasty and on the palate a definite saline note is present. It can almost conjure up a Talisker iodine note. It finishes with an excellent bitter, dry hoppy finish. It’s so hard to find due to its modest production, so when you find it you are in luck! Picture a slow-cooked beef and oyster pie and you’re in beer matching heaven.
$7.75 / 500ml
8 Wired Brewing Co. ‘The Big Smoke’ Porter (Blenheim, New Zealand)
From the brewery of Renaissance, but the hands of Dane Søren Eriksen, this smoked porter has its roots in Bamberg, Germany where beechwood smoked malt (rauchmalz) is used to make a peculiar smoked porter style. Pouring a very dark brown with a thin mocha head, it channels a smokey tramper’s fire, burnt leather, dark chocolate, and peat. Quite a complex array of aromas exist, including a nutty dark toffee note and on the palate there is a distinctive sweet smokey malt flavour, and an earthy, leafy bitterness. It has a rich and creamy texture, with crisp carbonation and it finishes with an interesting ashy, chalky flavour. An under control 6.2% abv keeps this beer realistic and entertains numerous beer and food pairing possibilities!
$9.25 / 500ml
Epic Brewing Co. Portamarillo (Auckland, New Zealand)
A world first by Epic Brewing Company, the Portamarillo is a collaborative brew between the Auckland based craft brewery and the USA’s Dogfish Head. Marketing department claims it’s a sorta-Porter fermented with New Zealand grown tamarillos which were smoked using wood chips from the New Zealand Pohutakawa tree (the New Zealand Christmas tree, named so for its radiant red flowers at Christmas time). Pouring dark red-brown, with a creamy beige head the aroma is reminiscent of sweet Tamarillo, although it is delicate. A medley of lightly smoked and dark roasted malt, caramel, and malt biscuit notes are exhibited on the nose, and the palate flows through with sweet fruit, smoked malt, coffee, ash and bitter hoppiness. Alcohol-wise it is getting up there, but this is certainly different and just demonstrates how creative you can be with the style!
$11.50 / 500ml