The amazing fall and rise of porter

Adrian Tierney-Jones contemplates the history of London’s beer.

Ilustration by Elliot Kruszynski for Original Gravity (elliotkruszynski.co.uk)

Porter is the beer that returned from the dead. It is the beer that rose from the grave in which it had long laid dormant, an unknown grave, as lost as the tomb of Alexander, all that was left was rumour and conjecture. Was it the drink of the men who moved London’s goods in Georgian times and gave the beer its name? Did Mr Pickwick enjoy the odd noggin? And was a dinner party really held within a wooden vat at one of the monstrous London breweries that made their name and fortune with porter?

Yet porter was real enough to me late last winter as I sat in the cool, shaded confines of the Royal Oak, a Victorian-style corner pub that is a few minutes stroll from Borough Market. The Oak is the London flagship of Sussex brewery Harvey’s and a place where its complex Porter can be studied at length, especially welcome on a cold, crisp and introspective winter’s day such as this. 

The beer was sleek and sensuous in the glass, a confection of treacle toffee, chocolate, vinous fruit, saddle leather, tobacco box and even hints of dandelion and burdock.

It was a beer to be studied and appreciated at length, a beer that beguiled. Over several glasses a series of lines from TS Eliot’s Little Gidding swirled to mind: ‘for history is a pattern/ Of timeless moments./ So, while the light fails/ On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel/ History is now and England.’

Ok I wasn’t in a chapel but the light was failing on a winter’s afternoon; I was in England and there was something devotional in the way in which I regarded the beer in front of me. That’s the problem with porter — it is inspirational, but it can also become an obsession as well. 

If IPA (or more frequently a mash-up of IPA) is one of the first beers that a new craft brewer thinks about making when they go pro, you could bet your very last hop sack of Citra that the next beer style/variation/thingy they chance their arm at will be a porter (though some ambitious souls have been known to zoom straight into saison). The beer has an aura about it, a gravitas in the glass, a sheen of heritage and the theme tune of history that makes it so endlessly fascinating. It is seen as the first world beer, the beer of the industrial revolution; it’s London’s beer gift to the world (Burton and London share IPA but porter belongs to the capital). It’s porter. 

However, it’s easy to sit back in an imaginary armchair and pontificate about porter as it was, but what about now? In modern terms porter is Janus-faced as brewers look backwards and forwards as they make it: categories include Imperial porter, Export India porter, London porter, Dublin porter, Baltic porter, table porter, coffee porter, pastry porter (WTF?) and of course just plain porter (which takes us neatly back to London). That’s the exciting thing about what craft brewers (for want of a better word) are doing with beer — they are taking venerable styles and bringing them back to the future. 

American craft brewers first resurrected the beer, adding lots of hops but still maintaining the creamy, soothing centre that in my mind differentiates modern porter from modern stout (though some argue that they are the same beer, the world’s not going to come to an end). I have always enjoyed the lush, smoky, bitter, mocha-like temperament of Anchor’s Porter, perhaps one of the first returnees to the porter fold in 1972; I believe it is one of the best examples of the American style. Then there is Alaskan Smoked Porter, with its rich malt character, peppery hop, stewed fruits and bonfire night smokiness (Stone’s Smoked Porter is an equally smoky ravishment). 

Everyone’s got a porter in the US: some have more hops in them than is decent; others are aged in all manner of barrels, while Ohio brewery Willoughby produce a peanut butter cup coffee porter, which is not just pushing the envelope but setting up the Pony Express and the Post Office all at once. This might not taste like a porter from the early 19th century but who cares?

Sometimes a beer style should be seen as a blank music manuscript with the notes and the order in which they are placed still to be decided.

In the UK, porter was slower to return: the late 1970s saw porters released by both Timothy Taylor and Penrhos Brewery, the latter famously supported by Monty Python’s Terry Jones. Sadly, Penrhos didn’t last too long, while Taylor’s Porter is rarely brewed these days, but this was the first inclination that a venerable beer style was being resurrected. Now the world of British porter is choc-a-bloc with variations on a theme from the likes of Meantime, Kernel, Fuller’s, BrewDog, Elland, Salopian and Burton Bridge, whose Porter has been brewed since the early 1980s (they also produce one with damson juice in it)

History? For a long time it was thought that landlords in the early 18th century mixed up three different kinds of beer in their cellar — the famous three threads — and that a London brewer replicated this in his brewery and hey presto porter was born. Nice story, but it didn’t happen that way — porter somehow emerged, brewers didn’t keep records, there was no Twitter and to be honest the story of beer styles emerging into the world rarely approaches an eureka moment. There are no records of Ralph Harwood (for centuries thought to be the creator of porter), running into the street, Archimedes-style, telling all and sundry what he had just discovered. As for porter’s heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries I haven’t got a clue what old time porter tasted like though the tradition of aging, or staleing, blending and the use of brown malt might suggest an exceptionally characterful beer; perhaps the lion of acridity lying down with the lamb of acidity. 

For the moment though I’m happy to lie down with another glass of Harvey’s Porter and watch the light of the day fade and marvel at the power of porter, the beer that came back from the dead. 


Porter timeline

Early 18th century London brewers start producing the beer that would be known as porter, though it was also called entire — according to Martyn Cornell in Amber, Gold & Black the name porter isn’t used much by London brewers until the 1760s. 

 1760 Whitbread opens its vast porter tun room, which replaces four private houses and whose unsupported roof span is exceeded in size only by that of Westminster Hall’s.

c1780s Guinness starts brewing porter.

1814 A porter vat at Meux’s brewery off Tottenham Court Road bursts and eight people are killed. 

1817 Daniel Wheeler’s method of roasting malt, which would give porter its distinct darkish hue, is patented. 

1890 Pardubický Porter is brewed for the first time, in the style of the dark beers of the Baltic; it is still made today and one of the few of its kind made in the Czech Republic.  

1920 While working out what beers to send for sampling at the Brewers’ Exhibition Watneys decides not to brew any porter for the event — porter is in its death throes. 

1941 Whitbread stops brewing porter.

1972 After the success of Anchor Steam in 1971, brewery owner Fritz Maytag is emboldened to start brewing Porter. 

1973 Guinness stops brewing porter

1978 Penrhos and Timothy Taylor both produce porters

2009 Evin O’Riordian founds Kernel and one of his key beers is Export India Porter.

2013 Elland’s 1872 Porter wins Champion Beer of Britain

2014 Guinness releases Dublin Porter and West Indies Porter.