A Primer on Porter

While I haven’t actually seen a copy yet, the Winter issue of TAPS Magazine is apparently available (or soon to be), with my regular “Beer Styles 101” column covering Barley Wine. Those in Canada can look for it on the shelves at Chapters/Indigo and other newsstands.

In the meantime, for those who missed the Fall issue, my column from that edition appears below. It’s on Porter, one of my favourite styles of the beer, and also one of the most misunderstood, at least in terms of it’s history.

[And while I mention it within the column, I’d like to note right off the top that Martyn Cornell‘s excellent e-book Amber Gold & Black was an indespensible source of information for this article, as well as my Barley Wine feature in the newest issue. Many other beer bloggers have already raved about it, and I’ll join the chorus in recommending that you purchase it as soon as possible.]


porterWhen it comes to wars, monarchies, empires, and other major events and institutions that created and changed our world, history texts can generally be considered to be reliable and complete. Even events that happened centuries ago were well-documented at the time, and while we may not always have the full story, historians and researchers usually manage to put enough pieces together to give us a pretty solid idea of what happened at the most important times in our planet’s past.

The history of beer, however, isn’t always so clear. Sure, there are some milestones in brewing that are well-documented and therefore well-known, such as the creation of Pilsner by Josef Groll in 1842, or the isolation of the lager yeast strain Saccharomyces carlsbergensis by Dr. Emil Christian Hansen in 1883. But the vast majority of brewers over the years were simply too busy making and selling their beer to bother writing down every detail about what they were doing, and because of this, the origins of some of the world’s classic beer styles are often shrouded in mystery. A good example of this lack of clarity can be found in what we know (or think we know) about the dark and roasty brown ale known as Porter.

Porter – or rather, the beer that came to be known as Porter – was first brewed in the early 1700s, but how exactly its creation came about has been a matter of some debate. For many years, the accepted story was one written in 1802 by John Feltham in the guidebook The Picture of London. According to Feltham, it was 1730 when a brewer named Harwood noticed the popularity of a drink called “three-threads”, which was made by mixing one part each of sweet and lightly hopped “ale”, more bitter “beer”, and a strong pale ale known as “twopenny”. In order to assist publicans who were tired of pulling beer from three casks, Harwood created a single beer that combined these three styles, and “called it Entire or Entire-Butt, meaning that it was served entirely from one cask.” Harwood’s beer quickly became popular with the many porters who worked carrying goods throughout London, which led to the name Porter becoming a more popular name for the beverage.

More recently, however, a lot of holes have been poked in this story. Beer writer Michael Jackson expressed his doubts about the account in an article he wrote for What’s Brewing magazine in March, 1995, citing sources that found mentions of Porter as early as the 1720s. Beer historian Ron Pattinson has devoted many posts on his blog, Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, to debunking this story, indicating that it is likely based on Feltham’s misinterpretation of parts of a letter regarding beer taxation written to the London Chronicle in 1760 by Obadiah Poundage. And perhaps the best attempt to set the Porter story straight can be found in Amber, Gold & Black, a well-researched and informative e-book by Martyn Cornell that traces the history of numerous British beer styles.

According to Cornell, while there was once a drink called “three-threads”, there is little evidence that Porter was created as an attempt to replicate it. Instead, it’s most likely that Porter was a strong beer developed by brewers blending different mash runs from the same malt, with the resulting beer being called “Entire”. Since strong beers of the time were commonly stored in large casks called butts for aging, the name “Entire Butt” was sometimes used. And while there was a brewer named Ralph Harwood who made Porter, it doesn’t seem likely that he created the style, especially considering the small size and limited success of his brewery.

One part of Feltham’s story that Cornell and others still accept, however, is that the name Porter came from the beer’s popularity with porters and others in the working class, but that popularity soon extended to the more refined citizenry as well. By the mid-to-late 1700s, Porter had become the world’s first truly global beer, as its strength and body made it resilient enough to be shipped throughout Europe, to the American colonies, and as far afield as China and Australia.

As the market spread, so did the breweries. Originally brewed almost exclusively in London, Porter was soon being crafted at breweries throughout the British Isles, including at St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin, where a certain Arthur Guinness brewed his first batch of Porter in 1778. By the end of the century, Guinness had scrapped all other ales in order to brew Porter exclusively, with different strengths being given different descriptors, including Plain Porter, Stout Porter and Double Stout Porter.

By the late 1800s, a number of Canadian breweries were making Porter, including names that remain familiar (Labatt, Molson, Carling), and those who have long since passed (Kensington, Boswell’s). At the same time, the popularity of Porter had started to wane in England. Many breweries that built their fortune on the style added other ales to their line-up, and by the 1900s, most British breweries had abandoned Porter altogether. In Ireland, Guinness Plain Porter remained popular into the 1930s, but by the 1960s, their Stout had become a clear favourite, and in 1973, Guinness brewed their original Porter for the last time.

The style was not forgotten, though, and through the efforts of the British beer advocacy group CAMRA and influential beer writer Michael Jackson, it wasn’t long before Porter was revived. In 1978, two British breweries brought the style back, and within a decade, there were more than 60 being brewed throughout the British Isles. One of the most popular of these, and the one that many beer drinkers look to as a benchmark of the style, is Fuller’s London Porter. Widely available in cans, bottles and draught, Fuller’s version is a very dark chestnut-brown colour with a full body and rich, roasty aroma and flavour holding notes of toasted nuts, caramel and bitter chocolate. Other British imports available in various provinces include Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter, St Peter’s Old Style Porter, Burton Bridge Porter and Harvey’s Porter.

Porter has been a popular style in North America’s craft brewing scene as well, with the version from California’s Anchor Brewery actually pre-dating all of the current UK-brewed Porters, having been created for the first time in 1972. Here in Canada, where many of the early craft brewers tended towards lagers rather than ales, it took a bit longer for Porters to regain popularity, but now there are examples to be found throughout the country.

Out east, London Porter from Halifax’s Propeller Brewery is quite similar to its namesake from Fuller’s, and has become well-loved wherever it is made available. In New Brunswick, the recently launched Man’s Best Friend Porter from Picaroon’s in Fredericton has also been well-received, with drinkers commenting positively on its robustness and flavour notes of hazelnut and coffee. And speaking of coffee, it’s one of the ingredients in the Winter Storm Coffee Porter that is occasionally brewed by Newfoundland’s Storm Brewing.

In Quebec, Porters are quite common at brewpubs, with places like L’Amère à Boire, Dieu du Ciel and Le Bilboquet having versions in their tap rotation. In bottles, you can find Chanvre Noire from Montreal’s Le Chaudron, Frontenac from Au Maître Brasseur of Leval, the excellent LouLou Porter from Hopfenstark, and most curiously, Labatt Porter, which is brewed by Labatt exclusively for the Quebec market.

The most common Porter in Ontario is Mill Street Coffee Porter, a rich and dark beer with a strong coffee character thanks to the infusion of Balzac’s Coffee during the brewing process. Java-hounds in Toronto can also get their fix at popular pub and restaurant C’est What, where the selection of house beers brewed by County Durham also includes a Coffee Porter. John Sleeman Presents Fine Porter is a somewhat thin but still decent ale from Guelph’s Sleeman Brewery, and several Ontario breweries also bring out Porters as seasonal or limited offerings, including a Maple Porter from Burlington’s Nickel Brook, the traditional Black Irish Plain Porter from Scotch-Irish/Heritage Brewing in Ottawa, and the spiced Nutcracker Porter from Etobicoke’s Black Oak Brewery that brings drinkers much cheer every Christmas season.

Heading west, I was unable to uncover evidence of Porter being brewed anywhere in Manitoba, but Saskatchewan makes up for that somewhat with Palliser Porter from Regina’s Bushwakker Brewing, and a pair of Porters – the traditional London Porter, and chocolate-laced Xocolatl Porter – from Paddock Wood in Saskatoon.

In Alberta, Calgary’s Wild Rose does a hefty 6.5% Cherry Porter as a winter seasonal, while on the brewpub scene, Wildwood in Calgary honours the namesake of the Stanley Cup with Lord Stanley Dark Ale, and the Brewsters chain offers a Porter at their various locations from time to time.

Out in BC, Victoria’s Phillips Brewing throws a bunch of chocolate into their Longboat Double Chocolate Porter, while Tree Brewing of Kelowna, Gulf Islands Brewery on Salt Spring Island, and Fat Cat Brewery in Nanaimo stick with tradition with their London Spy Porter, Salt Spring Porter, and Pompous Pompadour Porter respectively.

In the limited space available for this feature, it’s impossible to do more than just scratch the surface when it comes to the rich and murky history of Porter. It may be some time before the definitive history of the style is written, but writers and historians like Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell, not to mention the late, great Mr. Jackson, are helping to clear up the myths and laying the groundwork for what is sure to be an epic work.