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Old 02-08-2006, 01:37 PM   #1
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Default a history lesson: porter

For years now I thought I knew the background of the porter style. However, after reading the chapter on porters in Designing Great Beers, I learned that I was completely wrong about it.

I found the whole thing fascinating, and would like to share the knowledge.

The porter 'style' did not evolve as most do. It was created to suite the demands of the masses. At the time, it was popular for people to order beer cocktails; mixing together some sour beer, some brown ale, some mild, some pale ale, etc, etc. There were a number of common blends, all the result of patrons trying to create their own perfect tasting beer at a reasonable price.

Finally some brewers decided to try and create a beer that would have all the desireable qualities that the most common cocktails contained. They suceeded in making a sour, dark, full bodied beer with both pleasing sweet and bitter properties.

It sold like hotcakes.

In fact, it was SO popular that some London pubs served ONLY porter. Also, mass producing the popular product lead to the construction of the largest beer vats in human history. Officially, the largest beer vat ever created was built in 1795, and it's purpose was to age porter. It had a capacity of 20,000 barrels.

If that doesn't impress you, you should know that the largest one in existance TODAY is only 1,572 barrels (Coors/Golden,CO), which just BARELY is bigger than the largest porter vat in 1736 (1,500 barrels). That's right... 210 years ago the biggest beer vat was 13 times the size of today.

Aging the porter was obviously important. This is what provided the unique sour flavor that was a hallmark of the beer. Fresh porter did not have that zing, and wasn't desired. However, because aging the porter required massive resources, some establishments actually served fresh porter after spiking it with sulphuric acid!

The popularity of the beer allowed some people to get away with selling cheaper, evil versions of the beer due to the sheer demand. Some did relatively innocent things like reduce the malt and add sugar or molasses, but others would lighten the malt (lowering alcohol content) and add "other things" to intoxicate the drinker.

Here's a list of these special, cheaper adjuncts that were used to fortify porter:

  • poisonous berries
  • opium
  • hemp
  • strychnine
  • tobacco
  • darnel seed
  • logwood
  • salts of zinc, lead, alum
Yum!

Eventually, the porter brewers gave birth to the stout (originally called a 'stout porter'), and the stout overtook regular porter in popularity. Eventually porter, once the most popular beer style in the UK, became extinct. In 1974, the last maker of porter in the UK (Guinness) stopped making the beer. Porter was dead.

It has been revived recently, largely due to the work of American craft brewers and some smaller UK companies.

Man, I love porter....

-walker
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Old 02-08-2006, 04:10 PM   #2
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I've got a porter in my secondary now. I guess your interesting history lesson makes me want to know will my homebrewed version take a long time to get good? Interestingly when I tasted a bit of it when I racked it to the secondary it tasted better than most of my brews at that stage.

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Old 02-08-2006, 04:18 PM   #3
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the style has changed dramatically over the years, and in it's recent state of revival, the sourness achieved by long aging (6 months) and high fermentation temps (close to 77 degrees) is not as prominant as it once was.

It also originally had a distinct smokey flavor due to brewers making their own amber malt by scorching pale male over a wood fire. That smokiness is now absent from basically all commercial porters.

In short, you probably don't need to age your porter for a half a year. The standard 4 to 6 weeks (or so) will probably be just fine.

-walker

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Old 02-08-2006, 04:18 PM   #4
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but feel free to throw some opium and hemp into it.

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Old 02-08-2006, 04:24 PM   #5
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Default soup is good food...

Quote:
Originally Posted by Walker
but feel free to throw some opium and hemp into it.

ill take a pint of that please! (or a couple of growlers)
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Old 02-08-2006, 04:42 PM   #6
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great history lesson, makes me even more anxious to get started on my porter today

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Old 02-08-2006, 04:50 PM   #7
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I read something similar to your story and it intrigued me enough to make Porter my next brew. I bought a couple of commercial brews from Red Hook and Anchor before deciding and I rather liked it. I am not a big fan of stouts so this seemed like a nice first step. I will be making this up as soon as I fee up the fermentor next week.

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Old 02-08-2006, 04:53 PM   #8
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yeah, I'm with you on that one. I have failed to brew a 'great' porter 11 times already. I'm creating a brand new, fairly generic, porter recipe right now, and I will start tweaking it based on trhe results.

I really REALLY like Designing Great Beers. It not only gives you the low-down on what makes a great beer of whichever style you are interested in, but gives a LOT of background info on the history of the beer and whatnot.

I seriously recommend this book for anyone attempting to create their own signature recipes.

-walker

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Old 02-08-2006, 05:22 PM   #9
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I read similar information about the history of the Porter in Radical Brewing. Interesting read. I was particularly suprised that the darker specialty grains we have today are a fairly recent inovation.

As you mentioned, they would toast their own malts, sometimes lending a smokey flavor to the beer and was often concidered a flaw.

Later, dark malts like Black patent hit the scene, making it easier (ie more economical) to brew Porters; and sparked a debate regarding if Porters brewed with the newer dark malts where "genuine" Porters.

Interesting stuff.

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Old 02-08-2006, 07:22 PM   #10
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Good thread. Now I'm intrigued by porters. What is a good commercial porter to try for the first time?

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