The English Porter originated about three centuries ago in the UK and, like many beer styles, was a product of its time. Unfortunately, the best place to study this style is probably not the United States, but I did my darndest with what was available to me here in Chicagoland. I’ve borrowed heavily from the Cicerone Certification Program‘s information on this beer’s history and profile in describing this beer, but I was also pleased to find that this style makes a cameo appearance in one of my favorite works by J.R.R. Tolkien:
Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, and Gloin were their names, and very soon two purple hoods, a grey one, a brown hood, and a white hood were hanging on the pegs, and off they marched with their broad hands stuck in their gold and silver belts to join the others. Already it had almost become a throng. Some called for ale, and some for porter, and one for coffee, and all of them for cakes; so the hobbit was kept very busy for a while.
–The Hobbit, ‘An Unexpected Party’
While the story of porter doesn’t actually begin with dwarves or hobbits, it does start with a London legend. Hard-working men would pour themselves into the pubs at the close of the workday, thirsting for a pint. In that era, beer was kept in the cellars of establishments to keep it cold, but not necessarily protected from off-favor formation. As beer aged, it became a bit sour, so pubs would mix a “beer cocktail” from old and new beers to manage the flavor profile of the beer and keep it relatively consistent.
The beer’s existence can be specifically dated to 1726, when it was mentioned in a letter written by one César de Saussure, a Swiss living in London who corresponded with his family in Switzerland via letter. On October 29th, 1726, César wrote,
Another kind of beer is called porter, meaning carrier, because the greater quantity of this beer is consumed by the working classes. It is a thick and strong beverage, and the effect it produces, if drunk in excess, is the same as that of wine; this porter costs threepence a pot.
–Beer Mythbusting: The Truth About Porter and Stout, Serious Eats
London-based laborers of the Industrial Revolution were commonly referred to as “porters,” and the beer they preferred was eventually pegged with the same name. Brewers began brewing porters, and their production expanded in leaps and bounds as the Industrial Revolution grew. According to the Cicerone Program, porter is notable for being the the first mass-produced beer that also developed marketing taglines and strategies to sell it.
Finally, at the outset, porter was brewed with brown malt, kilned and dried in a still container over a wood fire. This process burned a considerable about of the malt, giving the resulting porter beer a smoky characteristic. In 1817, a man named Daniel Wheeler forever changed the formation of dark beers when he invented the malt roasting drum. This contraption rotated the malt above the fire (imagine a rotating bingo ball sphere), allowing it to roast to a much darker color without burning. Wheeler’s patented invention directly resulted in the production of Black Patent Malt, a common ingredient in old world porters. However, today’s English Porter, also known as Brown Porter, is brewed without any black malt (otherwise it would be much darker in color).
For this not-very-comprehensive-study, I sampled three versions of English Porter:
Fuller’s London Porter, 5.4% ABV (Fuller’s Brewery)
Brown and clear with ruby highlights, this poured thin with a thick, creamy head of tan bubbles. An aroma of roasted cherries preceeded a medium, lightly creamy mouthfeel.
It was rich sweet up front, but had a roasty finish and was a tad tart. It tasted of roasted cocoa, coffee, very dark chocolate, and crackers. It ended with a clean finish, and a lingering, rich and roasty maltiness.
Entire Butt* English Porter, 4.6% ABV (The Salopian Brewing Company, Ltd.)
Also brown and clear with ruby highlights, this beer’s head dissipated quicky. Tart grapes dominated the aroma, and it had a very light, thin body. Clean-tasting and roasty, this lightly sweet beer displayed flavors of coffee and light licorice. It finished malty and a tad bitter.
* Yes, I laughed … a lot … at “entire butt.” A lot.
However, “butt” is actually a traditional word for a large barrel, so this beer is effectively named “Entire Barrel Porter.” According to the distributor’s website, this name is meant more in the sense of “everything but the kitchen sink” as this beer is made with 14 different malts and 3 hop varieties to achieve the effect of a blend of ales.
Taddy Porter, 5% ABV (Samuel Smith Old Brewery)
Medium to dark brown and clear with red highlights and a frothy head of tan bubbles, this one smelled of sweet malt. It was very noticeably effervescent, with a light-medium creamy body. Sweet & clean, it tasted of cherry, roasted malt, and very dark, bitter chocolate.
Someday, I’d love to visit the United Kingdom and taste porters in the land where porter was first poured. Until then, I’ll enjoy these imports and daydream of a time in which malt was badly burned and beer went sour.