Article

Perfect Porter

It is early morning in New Haven, and we are mashing in at the brewpub, brewing a beer inspired by a recipe from 1744. Head brewer Jeff Browning and I sweated last night as we waited for the arrival of the special brown malt we needed. Now we’re sweating again as the mash tun fills. We have to get in 1,000 pounds (450 kilograms) of grain, and the tun has never held this much before. Can we fit it all in, with enough water to obtain a good, even mash? Closer and closer it comes, grain pouring out of the grist case and sweat pouring out of us. Finally it stops, just a few inches short of the top of the tun. We have made it, and Presumptuous Porter is underway!

A beer born and raised in London

Now back in time to 1722 and London. In the previous eighty years, England had had a civil war, executed a king, been a republic for twenty years and then restored the monarchy. In between, of course, there were several wars with countries like France and Holland, not to mention The Great Fire of London and a few devastating epidemics.

By 1722, however, the country was on the verge of a long period of political stability and sustained growth. The Industrial Revolution was soon to begin. And what was invented? Why, porter, the first true English beer style in the modern sense — a nationally-known beer brewed to specific characteristics.

How did it start? The most common story holds that there were several sorts of beer available in each pub, variously known as pale, brown and twopenny. It was common practice for the publican to serve individual pots containing a mixture of three or even four beers, all of which had to be drawn from its own separate cask. In 1722, Ralph Harwood, a brewer at the Blue Last in Shoreditch, East London, came up with a single beer that was supposed to match the flavor of these mixtures. He called it “Entire Butt,” but it soon became known as porter, due to its popularity with the manual laborers of London’s many markets.

We don’t know what Harwood’s secret was, and certainly no recipe of his remains. It was common practice in those days to take three or more runnings from the mash, giving a strong, a middling and a weak beer. What Harwood may have done is to combine these runnings into a single beer, which could explain the name “Entire.”

But the key to porter’s success may also have been the malt he used. His new porter was made entirely from brown malt, produced in Ware in Hertfordshire and shipped down the river Lea into London. Brown malt as such was nothing new, but malting procedures in those days were not well controlled. Kilning was an especially tricky process; burning and charring often occurred on the kiln, so that malts were variable in quality. Perhaps the Ware maltster had developed a procedure that yielded a brown malt of improved flavor and quality.

We do not know just how this first porter tasted. A 1760 letter from a certain “Obadiah Poundage” tells us that it was highly hopped, that it was clear (and so translucent brown, rather than black), and that it required long storage before being drunk (more than four or five months). We know that the brown malt was kilned over a wood fire, and some writers have suggested that this would have resulted in a beer with a smoky flavor. However, I am not so sure. Brown malt was kilned over a very hot fire, so that the grain actually burst and swelled like popcorn; this was why it was sometimes also called “blown malt.” Such a heating method may not have resulted in much smoked flavor in the malt. Aging was carried out in wooden tuns, so that the beer may well have developed some acidic notes in its flavor. However, one of the most successful porter brewers, Whitbread, used ceramic tiled cisterns for storage, rather than wood.

A publication called the Town and Country Brewer gives a recipe for brewing porter in a 1744 edition. It doesn’t say how it tasted, but this did give me the opportunity to try to re-create it, in the form of the Presumptuous Porter I mentioned earlier. Of course, we could not use the original brown malt, since this is no longer made. Instead we used modern, drum-dried brown malt (more about this later), which had to be mashed along with pale malt. The result was outstanding — a beautifully balanced brown beer, with a full-bodied, biscuity flavor, and dangerously drinkable considering its 8% alcohol level.

We do know that porter was cheaper than other beers. (Obadiah Poundage quotes “twopenny at fourpence per quart, and porter at threepence per quart.”) We also know that it rapidly became popular in London, and was soon being produced by brewers other than Harwood, notably Samuel Whitbread and Ralph Thrale. As the population of London grew and the Industrial Revolution got underway, these city brewers grew in size: By the end of the 18th century, for example, Whitbread was producing close to 200,000 barrels a year.

So popular had this beer become that brewers in other towns, notably Bristol and Edinburgh, started to brew porter. Indeed, some of the Scottish brewers deliberately poached brewmasters from their London counterparts, so that they could discover the “secret” of porter brewing. Robert Hare, of Philadelphia, is credited with brewing the first porter in the United States, somewhere around 1776. A little earlier than that, Irish brewers also began producing porter, notable among them being Arthur Guinness. At the same time, there developed a tendency to call stronger porters “stout porter,” as opposed to the regular weaker porter.

As the London porter brewers became bigger, so they became more technical. Towards the end of the 18th century the thermometer and the hydrometer (or saccharometer as it was called) found use in the industry. At about the same time, grain prices were rising rapidly and brewers were looking to improve efficiency. Malts were now sold by the “quarter” measure, and brown was cheaper per quarter than pale malt. But the quarter was a volume measure, and brown malt had a lower density (about 244 pounds or 110 kilograms per quarter) than pale malt (about 336 pounds or 150 kilograms per quarter). So it was not actually cheaper in terms of cost per pound of malt. Bear in mind, too, that pale malt had become less expensive in relation to brown as the maltsters improved their techniques, especially as coke for kilning was now widely available. Add the fact that the hydrometer showed brown malt gave a lower yield of fermentable extract than pale malt on an equivalent weight basis, and brewers realized that brown malt was actually quite expensive!

Through most of the 18th century, brewers had no real idea of the strength of their beers. All they could say was that more malt gave a stronger beer. The hydrometer allowed them to measure the original gravity of porters and see how they related to other beers. In 1784 the first publication on this subject, Richardson’s Statical Estimates, gave average original gravities of five porters as 1.071, while seven samples of Common Ale averaged 1.075. The 1744 recipe I referred to earlier was calculated as having an original gravity of 1.075.

The brewers tried to cut down on the use of brown malt, but could not give it up entirely, because that was what gave porter its characteristic flavor. Some of the smaller and more unscrupulous London brewers resorted to additives to give cheaper beer the “true” porter flavor. Some of these were quite nasty, including things like sulfuric acid and opium, while others, such as licorice, were more acceptable. What finally turned things around was the development of roasted malt by Daniel Wheeler in 1817. His “patent black malt” enabled brewers to use pale malt as the main source of fermentable extract, with a small proportion of roasted black malt to give the desired color and flavor.

Until later in the 19th century, when chocolate malt was invented, black malt was the only alternative to brown. Black malt gives beer a bitter flavor, so porters produced from pale and black malt had a somewhat harsher taste than those produced from brown malt. In effect, beers brewed in this way were a different type of porter, and are now sometimes referred to as “Victorian” or “robust” porter.

Porter’s popularity starts to sag

Porter started losing sales in the 19th century. First, pale ales had grown popular as glass mugs had become common in pubs, and as the Burton brewers developed India pale ale. Second, in their quest for better economics, brewers started to move away from long storage of beers. They began to produce so-called “running” beers, which were shipped out of the brewery only a month after brewing. To begin with, they might add a proportion of well-aged beer to a new one to improve its flavor. In some cases they even provided publicans with casks of new and “stale” porter, which would then be mixed in the pub — a return to the situation when the first porter was brewed!

Of course, porter didn’t disappear quickly; even in 1863 it still represented some 75% of the London beer market. But many of the porter brewers now produced ales as well — and as pale ales became more popular, some of the big London brewers opened breweries in Burton-on-Trent so they could compete with the likes of Bass and Worthington. As porter declined in volume so it declined in strength, and stout more clearly became defined as a separate style, rather than being just a strong porter.

By 1913, porter was quoted as having an original gravity of only 1.040, as compared to mild ale at 1.050! Mild at this stage had become the most popular beer in Britain, displacing porter almost completely. During the First World War there was an acute shortage of roasted malt and gravities declined still further, and porter ceased to be brewed in London around the 1930s. It did continue to be available in Ireland, where Guinness’ “plain” lingered until 1973.

Porter bounces back

Porter began to re-emerge in the 1970s, when Timothy Taylor brought out its version. As the microbrewing revolution took hold there was a revival of interest in the style, and several other regional breweries got into the act. These days a number of breweries offer porter, notably Samuel Smith, with its Taddy Porter, widely available over here, and Fuller’s with a beer titled “London Porter.” One of interest is Nethergate’s Old Growler, brewed according to a 19th-century recipe with coriander.

Oddly, porter was slower to disappear from the United States. The style was quite widely brewed over here in the 19th century, with Philadelphia porter being the most famous. Yuengling’s of Pennsylvania, the oldest brewer in the States, still offers a porter (though it is now bottom-fermented in the lager style). The common wisdom is that pale lagers pushed out ales in general, and porter in particular, especially after Prohibition. That was certainly not true in New England, where a good many brewers continued to offer both porter and ale well after Prohibition had ceased. In the late 1970s, Narragansett Brewery was still producing its porter, and it has the (dubious) distinction of being the first commercial porter I ever drank!

Many new porters were born during the American microbrewing revolution. Two of the most successful micros, Sierra Nevada and Anchor, have both had porter in their portfolios, as do Full Sail from Portland and Wild Goose from Maryland, along with many others. Lots of brewpubs have their own versions, such as the Presumptuous Porter we brewed at Brü-Rm at BAR in New Haven. Quite a few micros have gone for the idea that the original might have had a smoked flavor, and, notably, Alaskan Smoked Porter has achieved a deservedly good reputation. Very early in the craft-brewing explosion, Greg Noonan also came up with an excellent smoked porter at the Vermont Pub and Brewery in Burlington. Porter may not be as popular now as it was in the 18th century, but there is something about the beer that intrigues home and craftbrewers, and they almost all have a go at the style, sooner or later!

Base malt and extract

You can use brown malt if you like, and I’ll discuss that later, but most modern porters use pale malt as a base, and crystal and chocolate or black malts for color and flavor. British pale malts may be most authentic, but U.S. two-row malt will give a result that’s just as good. Although not authentic, some Munich malt (15-20% of the grist) makes a good addition to the soft complexity of this beer. Crystal malt is vital, since it gives a nutty, caramel flavor and color. Porter should have a nice, warming reddish hue, and crystal will help with that. This means you should go with the higher-roasted crystal malts (80–120 °L), at a rate of around 0.5–1 pound (0.23 to 0.45 kilogram) per 5-gallon (19-liter) brew.

For a “brown” porter, add a little chocolate malt, up to 0.5 pounds (0.23 kilograms) in 5 gallons (19 liters). You do not want to overdo it, as you do not want to make the beer too dark, or to have too much of a roasted flavor. For a “robust porter” black malt is the answer, up to a maximum of 6 ounces (168 grams) in 5 gallons (19 liters). Again, don’t overdo it. You want to taste the bitter, roasted flavor of the black malt, but you don’t want it to dominate the beer. And, of course, you can mix black and chocolate if you like, but keep the total roasted malt to a maximum of 0.5 pounds (0.23 kilograms) per 5 gallons (19 liters).

Clearly, this is a fairly simple approach, and it lends itself well to malt extract brewing. Simply use a pale extract as foundation and add the specialty grains (crystal, chocolate or black) discussed above, by the usual steeping method. You can use darker extracts if you prefer, but would then want to adjust the crystal and roasted malts downwards. A number of companies also sell pre-hopped porter kits. For all-grain recipes, there are further options in brown and amber malts that are available over here. Your supplier may not have them as a stock item, but he should be able to get the brown reasonably easily, although amber is a little scarcer. You also can make your own brown malts by toasting them in an oven.

Brown malt will give the beer a beautiful red hue and a biscuity flavor, as well as a feeling of authenticity. As I said, brown malt is drum-roasted pale malt, not wood-kilned green malt as was the original. Remember: This brown malt cannot be mashed on its own, as it still contains unconverted starch, but no enzymes. Therefore it needs to be mixed with pale malt, in a proportion of up to one-third of the total. Amber malt, which is also lightly roasted, gives some interesting toasted notes to the beer. I have made an excellent version of an 1822 porter recipe, with a 1:1:1 ratio of pale, amber and brown malts. (Note that you cannot use brown malt with an extract recipe, because it needs to be mashed; just steeping it in hot water will give you a mess! If you would like to experiment, you would need to do a partial mash along with some pale malt.)

Picking hops for your porter

For hops, the obvious approach is to use the classic English varieties, Goldings and Fuggles. These hops are not traditional as far as the first porters are concerned, since neither variety was developed until later. (Goldings is the oldest, and only goes back to 1785.) So you can use whatever you like.

Porter should be a balanced beer — complex, but with no single outstanding flavor. With that goal in mind, be sure you pick hops with good aromatic character for both bittering and aroma. Typically, you can use Goldings and Fuggles, Hallertauer, Saaz and American varieties such as Willamette, Mount Hood and Fuggles (the U.S. variety are milder in flavor than the English). Be careful with high alpha-acid hops; you want a definite bitterness, but do not overdo it. (One notable exception is Larkins, a small brewery in Kent that uses Goldings to produce a porter with unusually high bitterness. I made my own version of this with 58 IBUs, and it was excellent!) Hop aromatic character is a little more debatable — it would not have been present in the original, as hop chemistry was not then understood, but lightly done can add to the complexity of this wonderful beer.

The right yeast for the job

Porter has to be brewed with top-fermenting yeast. You want a clean fermentation, without fruity-tasting esters. Wyeast 1098 (British Ale) is excellent, as is 1028 (London Ale) or White Labs WLP002 (English Ale). A high ester producer, such as the Ringwood strain, is probably not suitable. For the same reason, you do not want fermentation temperatures to stray too high above 70 °F (21 °C).

Proper porter water

One reason porter was suited to brewing in London is that the city’s water is high in temporary hardness (calcium carbonate). The acidic brown malt could handle this but pale malt could not, since mash pH would be too high for the malt enzymes to do their job efficiently. You could try to match London water, but most homebrewers would rather not mess with water treatments. (If you want to give it a whirl, see “Clear Water” in the January-February 2002 issue of BYO.) So long as mash acidity is in the range pH 5.2–5.5, you have nothing to worry about. If it’s not, add gypsum (1­–2 teaspoons in a mash for 5 gallons or 19 liters of beer).

Making Brown Malt At Home

The following is based on directions given in “Old British Beers and How to Make Them” (Dr. John Harrison, 1991).

Take a large cookie sheet, line it with aluminum foil and cover with two-row pale malt to a depth of about 1/2 inch (a bit over 1 cm). Place the malt in a pre-heated oven at 200–220 °F (93–104 °C) for 40–45 minutes, to ensure it is evenly heated. Raise the oven temperature to 300 °F
(148 °C) and hold for 60-70 minutes to reach the amber malt stage. Remove a few grains for later testing, then raise the oven temperature to 350 °F (177 °C) for 30-40 minutes to obtain brown malt. Remove the cookie sheet from the oven, and allow the malt to cool before use.

You may need to adjust these times according to your own oven’s characteristics; do not go to higher temperatures, as above 400 °F (204 °C) the malt may char badly.

To test the malts, take some of the starting pale malt, some of the amber malt, and some of the brown malt, and slice them in two across the center. Look at the center of each grain: the pale malt should appear white, the amber slightly more brown than the pale, and the brown should be a definite light brown, or khaki color. Remember that brown malt produced in this way cannot be mashed alone; it has no starch-converting enzymes of its own, and must be mixed with pale malt before mashing.

All-grain recipes

Standard Brown Porter

(5 gal/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.058 FG = 1.012
SRM = 55 IBU = 32

Ingredients

7.5 lbs. (3.4 kg) two-row pale ale malt (3-4 °L)
1 lb. (0.45 kg) crystal malt (80 °L)
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) chocolate malt
8.5 AAU East Kent Goldings hops (bittering)
(1.7 oz./48 g of 5% alpha acid)
0.5 oz. (14 g) East Kent Goldings hops (flavor)
Wyeast 1098 (British Ale) yeast or White Labs WLP002 (English Ale)
0.75–1 cup DME or corn sugar

Standard Robust Porter

(5 gal/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1058 FG = 1014
SRM = 50 IBU = 35

Ingredients

6.0 lbs. (2.7 kg) two-row pale ale malt (3-4 °L)
2.0 lbs. (0.9 kg) Munich malt (8 °L)
1 lb. (0.45 kg) crystal malt (80 °L)
4 oz. (112 g) black malt
9.3 AAU English Fuggles hops (bittering)(1.9 oz./53 g of 5% alpha acid)
0.5 oz. (14 g) Fuggles hops (flavor)
Wyeast 1098 (British Ale) yeast or White Labs WLP002 (English Ale)
0.75–1 cup DME or corn sugar

Step by Step

Use a single-step infusion mash at 153–155 °F (67–68 °C) for 1–1.5 hours (lower temperatures will result in a drier, lighter beer). Sparge one hour, with water no hotter than 175 °F (80 °C), until run-off reaches SG 1.010–1.012. Boil 90 minutes, with bittering hops added after the first foamy head subsides. Add flavor hops 15 minutes before the end of the boil. Adjust wort volume with cold water, and cool to about 70 °F (21 °C). Pitch with yeast starter, and allow to ferment. By 5–7 days, final gravity should have been reached; rack into a glass fermenter. One to two weeks later, rack again, prime with DME or corn sugar, and rack into keg or bottles. The beer should be ready to drink after conditioning for a week or so.

Presumptuous Porter

(5 gal/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.075 FG = 1.018
SRM = 127 IBU = 60

This beer is from a 1744 recipe, first translated by Dr. John Harrison of the Durden Park Beer Circle in England. I adapted this to my own 5-gallon (19-liter) brewery, and we then produced it on a 10-barrel scale at Brü-Rm at BAR in New Haven. It violates some of my “rules” discussed above, but it was received extremely well at a public tasting.

Ingredients

9 lbs. (4.1 kg) Briess 2-row pale malt
1.5 lbs. (0.7 kg) crystal malt (80 °L)
0.8 lb. (0.4 kg) black malt
1.5 lb. (0.7 kg) Crisp brown malt (38 °L)
16 AAU Magnum hops (bittering)(1.3 oz./36.4 g of 12.4% alpha-acid)
1 oz. (28 g) East Kent Goldings (flavoring, add at 75 minutes boiling)
1 oz. (28 g) East Kent Goldings (flavoring, add at end of boil)
Wyeast 1098 (British Ale) yeast
0.75–1 cup DME or corn sugar

Step by Step

Proceed exactly as with other all-grain beers; sparging may need to last up to a half-hour longer, because of the large amount of grain. The cooled wort must be well aerated (oxygenated if possible) to ensure a good fermentation.

1822 Porter

(5 gal/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.055 FG = 1.015
SRM = 64 IBU = 38

Ingredients

3.0 lbs. (1.4 kg) 2-row Maris Otter pale malt (2.5 °L)
3.0 lbs. (1.4 kg) Muntons amber malt (40 °L)
3.0 lbs. (1.4 kg) Crisp brown malt (38 °L)
8.5 AAU East Kent Goldings hops (bittering) (1.4 oz./39 g of 6% AA)
1 oz. (28 g) East Kent Goldings hops (flavor, after 75 minutes boiling)
1 oz. (28 g) East Kent Goldings hops (flavor, at end of boil)
Wyeast 1028 (London Ale) yeast
0.5 cup cane sugar for priming

Step by Step

Proceed exactly as with the other all-grain beers. This is an excellent beer, with a lovely, long, biscuity finish that merges into the hop bitterness. The finished beer has little hint of roastiness, lots of full body, and a slight licorice note. This beer is well worth the effort of finding the unusual grains.

Partial mash recipe

Brown Malt Porter

(5 gal/19 L, partial mash)
OG = 1.055 FG = 1.019
SRM = 60 IBU = 30

Ingredients

5.5 lbs. (2.5 kg) plain amber liquid malt
extract (such as John Bull or Muntons)
1.5 lbs. (0.7 kg) 2-row pale ale malt (3-4 °L)
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) Crisp brown malt (38 °L)
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) crystal malt (80 °L)
8.0 AAU US Fuggles hops (bittering)(1.6 oz./45 g of 5% alpha-acid)
1 oz. (28 g) US Fuggles hops (flavor)
Wyeast 1098 (British Ale) yeast or White Labs WLP002 (English Ale)
0.75–1 cup DME or corn sugar

Step by Step

Place all the milled grains in a muslin bag, add to 2 gallons (7.6 liters) of water at 165 °F (74 °C), and keep at 150–155 °F (66–68 °C) for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Remove the bag, rinse with hot water, and combine this water with that from the partial mash. Add the malt extract, stirring well to ensure it is properly dissolved, then bring to a boil. Follow instructions as under the other malt extract recipes for hopping, fermenting and conditioning.

Extract recipes

Standard Brown Porter

(5 gal/19 L, extract and grains)
OG = 1.056 FG = 1.012
SRM = 55 IBU = 32

Ingredients

6.6 lbs. (3 kg) plain pale malt extract syrup (Coopers, John Bull or Muntons)
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) pale DME
1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) crystal malt (80 °L)
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) chocolate malt
8.5 AAU East Kent Goldings hops (bittering) (1.7 oz./48 g of 5% alpha acid)
0.5 oz. (14 g) East Kent Goldings hops (flavor)
Wyeast 1098 (British Ale) yeast or White Labs WLP002 (English Ale )
0.75–1 cup DME or corn sugar for priming

Standard Robust Porter

(5 gal/19 L, extract and grains)
OG = 1056 FG = 1014
SRM = 50 IBU = 35

Ingredients

6.6 lbs. (3 kg) plain pale malt extract syrup (Coopers, John Bull or Muntons)
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) pale DME
1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) crystal malt (80 °L)
4 oz. (112 g) black malt
9.3 AAU English Fuggles hops (bittering) (1.9 oz./53 g of 5% alpha acid)
0.5 oz. (14 g) Fuggles hops (flavor)
Wyeast 1098 (British Ale) yeast or White Labs WLP002 (English Ale)
0.75–1 cup DME or corn sugar

Step by Step

Add specialty malts to 1 gallon (3.8 liters) water, bring to 170 °F (77 °C), and strain off malts. Add water to 3 gallons (11.4 liters), and bring to a boil. Turn off heat and add extracts, stirring well to ensure the extracts are properly dissolved. Return to heat.

Bring to a boil, add the bittering hops, and boil one hour, with flavor hops added for last 15 minutes of the boil. Strain, or siphon off from the hops, and add cold water sufficient to obtain the starting gravity of 1.058. Cool to around 70 °F (21 °C), and follow instructions for all-grain beers for fermentation.