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
- darnel seed
- salts of zinc, lead, alum
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....