News of the death this week of Porter Wagner, like just about everything else I hear, got me thinking about beer — mmmm, porter …
The origins of the porter are somewhat murky, but it appears that the style emerged in the 1720s in London to replicate the qualities of both fresh-from-the-brewery “mild” beer and aged “stale” ale, which publicans had taken to mixing because of the cost of old ale and the lack of space for aging it. The fact that some people liked the taste of these blended beers encouraged breweries to create a similar taste by aging the ale at the brewery for a time to create a brew that was both “racy and mellow, that is, neither new nor stale” (Obadiah Poundage, 1760).
The resulting ale was initially referred to as Entire Butt to indicate it had characteristics from all the casks in the publican’s cellar, and that snicker-inducing appellation can still be found on the porter offered by the Salopian Brewing Company of Shrewsbury, Shropshire. The style was favored by transportation workers in London — draymen, dock workers, and porters — and soon the name porter was nearly universally used to refer to these hearty ales. Initially, porters were brewed with brown malts, but eventually sweeter pale malts were used along with black patent malt to provide the dark color.
Since porters had all but faded from existence in England by the start of World War II, the question of what a porter is “supposed” to taste like is one of considerable controversy among beer historians (yes, they exist). Like most styles, it has evolved significantly over the years. In the 19th century, when British beers were known for high hopping rates, many of the porters being produced were quite bitter, but the amount of hops and alcohol gradually declined as tastes shifted toward lagers and mild ales. By the 1930s, most English porters were poor imitations of their former glory. Stouts, both dry and sweet, eventually replaced porters as the prototypical English (and Irish) dark beer.
A few small independent breweries in England revived the porter in the late 1970s, but American craft brewers are credited with popularizing the once-dominant style. As is typical of American interpretations, the porters on this side of the pond tend to be a bit bolder and hoppier, although this is not always the case. Both English and American porters tend to have a dry, roasted-coffee bitterness derived from the chocolate and patent malts used in the brewing process, along with a burnt-sugar sweetness. Hop flavor in a porter typically has a fruity, herbal quality and does not overwhelm the malts.
Among English and English-style porters, Fuller's London Porter
may be the finest example. It is perhaps more assertive than a traditional ordinary porter, but it is by no means over-the-top. Geary's London Porter
is brewed in Maine in the English style, with delicate malt flavors and a subtle balance. Another traditional-style porter is St. Peter's Old-Style Porter
, brewed by a small craft brewery in England. It is this week’s beer pick
. Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter
and Meantime London Porter
are also excellent examples of English porters.
There are numerous American-style porters worth checking out. One of the best is Alaskan Smoked Porter
from Alaskan Brewing Company, which uses smoked malts to impart an earthy quality that is said to replicate the flavor of fire-dried malts. Seek it out if you venture west. Anchor Porter
and Highland Oatmeal Porter
have a hint of piney hop aroma characteristic of American hops. Samuel Adams Honey Porter
, Rogue Mocha Porter
, and Sierra Nevada Porter
are all worthy entries in the category, and illustrate the variety American brewers have brought to the style.
Talking Head columnist Jeff Holland can be reached at email@example.com.