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Porter, the beer that came back from the dead

The UK’s favourite brew in the 18th century survives to delight today

For more than 130 years the most popular beer in Britain was the dark, strong, roasty, bitter brew known as porter. It won a following far beyond its birthplace in London, with porter drunk from the taverns of New York to the palaces of St Petersburg, and the foothills of the Himalayas to the shores of Botany Bay. Then, in Britain at least, it crashed out of favour, until revival in the late 1970s. Martyn Cornell traces its rise, fall and rebirth.

Martyn Cornell

An internationally recognised expert on beer, beer styles and brewing history, a widely travelled beer writer, blogger and speaker. Author of four books and hundreds of articles and blogs at zythophile.co.uk

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Emma Inch

A CAMRA member since 1997, John is volunteer with a keen interest in the technicalities of beer dispense, a GBBF bar manager, editor of Manchester’s Beer Buzz magazine and sits on CAMRA’s Technical Advisory Group.

Introduction

Porter was originally developed by brewers 300 years ago to satisfy the desire of the working classes in London for a cheap, refreshing, rejuvenating, energy-filled beer to keep them going through the day. Sales grew to volumes never seen before, the makers of porter became rich, as was said of one brewer in Southwark, London, “beyond the dreams of avarice”, and the size of the big London porter breweries was one of the marvels of the world. 

From the end of the 19th century, however, porter began to lose sales in Britain, replaced in favour by other styles. The last porter was brewed in Britain early in the Second World War. The style hung on in Ireland, where it was still drunk by workers in the shipyards of Belfast until the early 1970s, but the shutters went down on Irish porter in 1973.

Introduction

Porter was originally developed by brewers 300 years ago to satisfy the desire of the working classes in London for a cheap, refreshing, rejuvenating, energy-filled beer to keep them going through the day. Sales grew to volumes never seen before, the makers of porter became rich, as was said of one brewer in Southwark, London, “beyond the dreams of avarice”, and the size of the big London porter breweries was one of the marvels of the world. 

From the end of the 19th century, however, porter began to lose sales in Britain, replaced in favour by other styles. The last porter was brewed in Britain early in the Second World War. The style hung on in Ireland, where it was still drunk by workers in the shipyards of Belfast until the early 1970s, but the shutters went down on Irish porter in 1973.

“Porter was originally developed by brewers 300 years ago to satisfy the desire of the working classes in London for a cheap, refreshing, rejuvenating, energy-filled beer to keep them going through the day.”

 

— Martyn Cornell

“You get soft, almost wine like aromatics, refeshing… acidity and apple driven, when you try Kent and Eastern style ciders”

— Alison Taffs

Porter continued to be brewed elsewhere: exports of strong London porter to the Baltic in the late 18th century had stimulated a taste for the style in countries such as Poland and Sweden which continues to this day. German brewers had also begun brewing the beer from at least the 1820s, and after the end of the Second World War “deutscher Porter“, “German porter”, remained in production in many of the nationalised breweries in communist East Germany. In the United States, and Canada, a few brewers still had porters in their portfolios in the 1970s: the style had always been popular in the coal-mining districts of Pennsylvania.

However, it was not until the publication by the British beer writer and journalist Michael Jackson of his World Guide to Beer in 1977, in which he called porter “a lost, but not forgotten beer”, that brewers here woke up to what they were missing. The following year, 1978, the first porters to be brewed in Britain for almost 40 years appeared, from the Yorkshire family brewer Timothy Taylor, at an original gravity (OG) of 1040, and from the Herefordshire-based Penrhos, one of the first of the new wave of microbreweries, at an OG of 1050. Today there are probably more than 300 different porters being brewed in the UK, at a wide range of strengths.

Porter continued to be brewed elsewhere: exports of strong London porter to the Baltic in the late 18th century had stimulated a taste for the style in countries such as Poland and Sweden which continues to this day. German brewers had also begun brewing the beer from at least the 1820s, and after the end of the Second World War “deutscher Porter“, “German porter”, remained in production in many of the nationalised breweries in communist East Germany. In the United States, and Canada, a few brewers still had porters in their portfolios in the 1970s: the style had always been popular in the coal-mining districts of Pennsylvania.

However, it was not until the publication by the British beer writer and journalist Michael Jackson of his World Guide to Beer in 1977, in which he called porter “a lost, but not forgotten beer”, that brewers here woke up to what they were missing. The following year, 1978, the first porters to be brewed in Britain for almost 40 years appeared, from the Yorkshire family brewer Timothy Taylor, at an original gravity (OG) of 1040, and from the Herefordshire-based Penrhos, one of the first of the new wave of microbreweries, at an OG of 1050. Today there are probably more than 300 different porters being brewed in the UK, at a wide range of strengths.

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Nullam lobortis vel sapien nec faucibus. Morbi consectetur pulvinar lectus, vitae sodales tellus. Sed sagittis aliquam convallis. Duis mollis libero eu massa luctus, id euismod urna fringilla. Aenean condimentum accumsan leo nec eleifend. Maecenas ullamcorper est non justo pulvinar accumsan. Nam facilisis, lacus a aliquet ornare, metus velit mattis leo, eget sodales quam ligula et nisl. Morbi venenatis tortor libero, id placerat ipsum semper a.

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However, these two changes, more hops and longer storage, also brought about a miraculous improvement in the quality of the beer. The long storage meant that Brettanomyces yeasts, ubiquitous in the wooden vessels and wooden casks used in 18th century breweries, had the time to eat up the higher sugars that ordinary Saccharomyces cerevisiae brewer’s yeast leaves behind. This added flavourful esters to the beer, as well as a small increase to the alcoholic strength. Meanwhile the high hop rate meant that organisms such as lactobacillus and pediococcus, which give a tart, sour flavour to beer, were largely kept at bay. The result was a beer with a riper, roasty, more estery, less sweet flavour, just tart enough to be refreshing, at a price that kept it affordable for London’s working classes.

The name “porter” was in use for this new style of beer by 1721, three centuries ago. Significantly, the mention came in a comment about drinking porter and eating beef and cabbage in a “cook’s shop”, a type of cheap early restaurant, thus associating porter from the start with hearty, filling food. It is a link that we have largely forgotten, but porter goes tremendously well with all sorts of dishes, from roast pork to curry. 

Fresh porter, slightly sweet, was known as “mild” porter, aged porter, more tart, as “stale”, in the sense of “having stood around” rather than “having gone off”, and porter drinkers for many years would drink mixtures of “mild” and “stale”, drawn by bar staff to their preferred proportions.

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