Before exploring the style of Porter, we should take a minute to explore the history of the style.
Early Porter – Work Within Your Means
Before the invention of the cylindrical malting drum in 1817, brewers were generally restricted in what type of malt they had to work with. Without a precise malting mechanism, brewers were generally limited to a loosly-kilned early base malt, and a second malt, commonly referred to as black malt.
This early ‘specialty malt’ was the result of taking the base malt and actually roasting it over a fire. This led to charred, blackened malt that not only added a very prominent smokiness to any brew it was used in, but also changed the color of the beer – anywhere from a mild copper to a deep brown/b lack, depending on the quantity used.
The first Porter is credited to a writer utilizing the pen name of Obadiah Poundage (the greatest name ever), who called for a grist of 50% base malt and 50% black malt. I’ve always wanted to re-create this classic recipe as a homebrewer, but the opportunity has never arisen. Many historical accounts of early porters shift their grist percentages, but they all contain base malt and black malt.
There’s another early factor that influenced the creation of Porter, and for that, we need to shift our focus slightly to the neighborhood pub.
At this point in beer history, we’re talking about pubs that only serve real ale – beer that has been cask conditioned and served at room temperature. Small pubs were rampant and each brewer had their own preference of how to make beer, but were still limited by the lack of ingredients and what we now consider ‘proper equipment’.
In order to maximize their profits and create options for their patrons, beers would be stored and matured for different periods – with some even left open and allowed to go ‘stale’. These alternate maturation methods brought about three to five variants of the same style of beer for the patrons to choose from, or, if they should so choose, mix and blend to create the pint that they want.
So, patrons would create different mixtures and blends across these different cask options, all of which varied in price, but the most important aspect here is actually the bartender. Imagine a pub full of people, fresh off of work, ordering a three-blend pint. The barkeep would be shifting all over, trying to fulfill orders in a timely manner, jumping between casks, filling 1-to-3 ratios, 1-1-1 ratios, and half and half ratios – all night. Every night.
Options at this time included ale, mild beer, stale, “two penny”, brown beer and more.
The Malting Drum & The First Designed Beer
As mentioned previously, the invention of the Malting Drum drastically changed the way the world produced beer. This handy invention introduced one crucial aspect to the malting process – temperature control . Kilning malt over a raw fire is no easy task and led to mixed results – obviously, enough to make beer, but that method didn’t boast the precision and consistency of the new drum. The consistent temperature environment enabled prolonged malting at various temperatures, creating new (and precise) types of malt – most importantly, a proper Pale Malt and the famous Black Patent Malt.
With the introduction of these new, highly efficient malts, brewers had the opportunity to take all of the best aspects of their customer’s blending, and actually make it in one cask.
Could you imagine the shift in efficiency and serving? All of a sudden barkeeps weren’t sprinting around their bar anymore, they could pull one pint from one cask, and be done with the order. The creation of Porter was an immense breakthrough that influenced the future of beer forever.
The First Industrial Beer
With the flourishing of the Industrial Revolution in England during the 18th century, beer flourished as well. As work demand increased, so did the people’s thirst. Brewers took to brewing massive batches of porter and storing them in custom-made wooden vats, that way, when the batch was done, they were rewarded with a massive amount of beer for the time spent occupying the vat.
Breweries took to competition with each other – who can build the biggest vat? A total ‘mine is bigger than yours’ type situation, breweries in England took to one-upsmanship as a sign of production superiority (along with bragging rights). More than one of these massive vessels were inaugurated with a dinner dance inside of the vat.
The competition came to an abrupt end in 1814 at Meux, one of the three major breweries in England at the time, when one of their porter vats ruptured, knocking out another tank and flooding the streets, knocking out a 5 block radius around the brewery, killing eight people.
In light of this disaster, production at the three breweries continued, to the tune of over 120,000bbls a year. The forerunner in England at this time, Barclay Perkins, was producing over 270,000bbls a year.
By the time Stout was introduced to the world in the early 1800’s, the industry was already primed and ready for the next big thing – and what a big thing it was. Even the renowned Guinness, the ‘king of modern industrial beer’ began as, you guessed it, a porter producer.
Porter is alive and well today, thoroughly surviving in Europe, even through the reign of Stout and later, Pale Ale. In America, Porter, along with all other beer, took a major blow with Prohibition, and had to wait until the craft resurgence in the late seventies to find its place in American culture again. Even at that, it took years due to the popularity of Guinness and imports.
There are three styles of Porter today, and they are Brown, Robust, and Baltic.
Brown Porters are the classic English style Porter. Subtle and roasty, this style is accessible and drinkable without boasting too much intensity. The Robust Porter is the American counterpart, featuring bold dark malt tones and a prominent roast.
Baltic Porter is the odd cousin of the family, and can be found occasionally on the shelves or at your local pub. This style stands out, primarily, because it is lagered. This style features all the big, bold flavors of a porter, with with a crisp, clean mouthfeel, sometimes with slightly metallic tones. Personally, I’m a huge fan of this style, but it is a rare one to find around – many smaller breweries don’t have the ability, time, or space to lager, so this style gets forgotten often. When done well, it is one of the most unique tasting experiences in the beer world, there’s just nothing like it. I highly encourage you to explore!
Porter is one of the most well-known styles of beer in the world, and rightly so. Brewers have taken this style and pushed it in many different directions and variations, including fruit, adjunct grains and alternate carbonations. Porter has proven itself capable and adaptable, taking on flavors from all over the world.
There are countless examples of Porter from Michigan, from the shelves down to your neighborhood pub, and I encourage you to explore them all! We do have one world class Porter here in Michigan, and that is Bell’s Porter (BJCP), and that may be a great place to start your journey. Other notable Porters include two RateBeer top 10 Porters in the world, Darkhorse Special Reserve Special Black Ale (10) and Founders Porter (4).
Until next time, enjoy the darker side of beer – cold weather is absolutely perfect for it.