What flavour did the first porters have? Empyreumatic, I reckon – a word you can easily work out the meaning of yourself (that “pyre” in the middle is the clue), which basically translates as “the taste or smell of something burnt”.
Henry Stopes, author of Malt and Malting, published in 1885, uses it in his description of the making of “brown, blown, snap or porter malt”, talking about how the porter malthouses of Bishop’s Stortford, on the Hertfordshire-Essex border, and elsewhere burnt faggots of beech-wood or oak under the wet malt to dry it, going slowly at first until almost all the moisture has been driven from the malt, then building up the fire so that the sudden violent heat makes the malt grains pop, growing 25 per cent in volume, and
the nature of the fuel employed communicates, very agreeably, the empyreumatic properties that distinguish this class of malt.”
In other words, it tasted burnt and, probably, smoky as well from the initial drying over wood at a lower heat.
(Incidentally, the fierce heat needed to make blown or porter malt, and the consequent risk of setting the grain, and the whole maltings, on fire meant the makers had to pay high insurance rates, which was another reason, apart from the skill needed to get the heat and the timing just right, why the manufacture of porter malt was restricted to only a few places.)
The smoky taste of wood-dried malt is remarked upon by William Ellis in his London and Country Brewer of 1736, who says it was used by the London brewers of butt keeping beer – strong beer laid down to mature for months – because of its cheapness, and because the smoky taste eventually went away:
Brown Malts are dryed with Straw, Wood and Fern … the Wood sort has a most unnatural Taste, that few can bear with, but the necessitous, and those that are accustomed to its strong smoaky tang … many thousand Quarters of this Malt has been formerly used in London for brewing the Butt-keeping-beers with, and that because it sold for two Shillings per Quarter cheaper than the Straw-dryed Malt, nor was this Quality of the Wood-dryed Malt much regarded by some of its Brewers, for that its ill Taste is lost in nine or twelve Months, by the Age of the Beer, and the strength of the great Quantity of Hops that were used in its Preservation,
(the hops, incidentally, might well be at last a year old, and used for their preservative effect rather than their flavouring ability, which would have been diminished by age)
All this reflection on smoky flavours has been caused by drinking a couple of bottles of Meantime’s new “Winter Time” bottled conditioned beer, a 5.4 per cent abv brew the Greenwich boys calls a “winter warmer”.
To me, a “winter warmer” is a Burton Ale-style beer, that is, dark oak, sweetish, fruity, with a rotund mouthfeel. Winter Time is a very fine beer, but my old gran would have called the colour “black as the ‘obs of ‘ell”, there’s sweetness which is, however, blanketed by 35 units (it says here on the label) of bitterness, the mouthfeel is erring toward thin rather than rich and there’s a definite smoky flavour, which would be the smoked malt also declared on the label.
A lot else besides is going on in this complex beer: there’s lemon curd (that, I think, would be from the Fuggles hops), and traces of coffee and chocolate. But it’s the smoke, stronger that in Meantime’s actual London Porter (also containing a quantity of smoked malt), though much less smoky than a Rauchbier,which made me think as I drank it: “I bet this is what early porters tasted like.”
What would be interesting is to lay some bottles up and come back to them over the next nine months to a year, to see how the smokiness alters, how the beer changes and what sort of “aged” flavours develop.