The three-threads mystery and the birth of porter: the answer is …

A Sot RampantOne of the biggest mysteries in the history of beer concerns a drink called three-threads, and its exact place in the early history of porter. Three-threads was evidently a mixed beer sold in the alehouses of London in the time of the last Stuart monarchs, William III and his sister-in-law Anne, about 1690 to 1714. For more than 200 years, it has been linked with the development of porter: but the story that said porter was invented to replace three-threads was written eight decades and more after the events it claimed to record, and the description that the “replaced by porter” story gave of three-threads early in the 19th century does not match up with more contemporary accounts of the drink from the late 17th century.

So what exactly was three-threads? Well, I now believe that enough people have dug out enough information that we can make a firm and definitive statement on that.

It was a tax fiddle.

To understand what was going on, you need to know that from the time when taxes were first imposed on beer and ale, in 1643, during the English Civil War, and for the next 139 years the excise authorities recognised only two strength of beer and ale for tax purposes: “small”, defined as having a pre-tax value of six shillings a barrel, and “strong”, defined as having a value of more than 6s a barrel. To begin with, the tax represented only a tiny proportion of the retail cost, at less than a tenth of a penny a pint for strong drink and not even two tenths of a penny per gallon for the small stuff. But in 1689, when William III of the Netherlands and his cousin, wife and co-ruler Mary had arrived in Britain and pushed Mary’s father James II off the throne, the need to pay for the “war of the British succession” and the continuing Nine Years’ War against Louis XIV of France saw the duty on beer and ale bounced upwards, from two shillings and sixpence a barrel to 3s 3d. The following year, 1690, the tax was doubled, to 6s 6d a barrel on strong ale and beer, more than a farthing a pint, when strong liquor retailed at a penny-ha’penny a pint, or 3d a quart “pot”. The rise in the tax on small drink was proportionate, to 1s 6d a barrel, but still the total tax on small beer and ale equalled only a half-penny a gallon.

The flaw in the system was that extra-strong beer or ale paid the same tax as “ordinary” or “common” strong beer. Unscrupulous brewer, and retailers, could therefore – and did – take a barrel of extra-strong beer and two of small beer, on which a total of 7s 3d of tax had been paid, mix them to make three barrels each equal in strength to common strong beer, which should have paid tax of 14s 3d in total, and save themselves 2s 4d a barrel in tax. This may have been equal to only a fifth of a penny a pot, or thereabouts, but it was still 6% or so extra profit. (Incidentally, for those of you new to this, “ale” at the time meant a drink with less hops in, and generally stronger, than “beer”.)

The excise authorities were certainly wise to this fiddle, and laws banning the mixing of different strengths of worts or beers were passed by Parliament in 1663 and again in 1670-1, 1689, 1696-97 and 1702, with (in William III’s time) a fine of £5 per barrel so mixed. That certainly did not stop people. Some time between 1698 and 1713, on the internal evidence, a manuscript was written, now in the Lansdowne collection in the British Library, titled An account of the losse in the excise on beer and ale for severall yeares last paste, with meanes proposed for advanceing that revenue. It was probably produced by an anonymous Excise or Treasury official, because he had access to official tax data from 1683 to 1698, and it gives a fascinating account of the prices and likely strengths of beers and ales at the time. “Very Small Beer” retailed pre-tax at 3s a barrel, and paid (since 1693) 1s 3d a barrel tax. “Common Strong Beer and Ale”, made from “four Bushells of mault” – suggesting an original gravity of 1075 to 1085 – sold for 18s a Barrel and paid, at the time, 4s 9d a barrel tax. “Very Strong Beer or ale the Barrell being the Strong from 8 Bushells”, suggesting a huge original gravity, perhaps north of 1160, sold for £3 a barrel, but still paid the same 4s 9d a barrel tax as common strong beer or ale.

The fact that very strong brews paid the same tax as “common standard strong drinke” had “begot a kind of trade of Defrauding”, the anonymous author wrote, and he declared that “the notion thereof and Profitt thereby” of mixing very strong ale or beer with small beer and selling it as common strong ale or beer “has been of late & now is generally knowne”, and “the traders therein have turned themselves more and more to the practice of Brewing it,” “very strong Drinke being now Commonly a parte of the Brewers Guiles, and the whole of many who Brew nothing else.” The result, he said, was that “the Consumption of it is everywhere, which you have under several odd names, as Two Threades, 3 Threades, Stout or according as the Drinker will have it in price, from 3d. to 9d. the quarte.”

A Sot CouchantThat “3 threades” was a mixture of ordinary small ale or beer and very strong beer is confirmed by a publication called The Dictionary of the Canting Crew by “BE” (the “canting crew” being those who spoke in “cant”, or slang), published around 1697/1699. This called three-threads “half common Ale and the rest Stout or Double Beer”: both “stout” and “double beer” meant “extra-strong beer”, while “common ale” was the same as table ale or small ale, and brewed at one and a half bushels of malt to the barrel, giving an OG of around 1045. Mix a beer that was perhaps 10 or 11 per cent alcohol by volume with one that was only 4.5 per cent or so, and you’ll have a beer of around 7.5 per cent or so, of course, about the same strength of common strong ale: but one that gave the retailer a better profit that “entire gyle” strong beer did, because it had paid less tax.

In 1697 a tax on malt was introduced alongside the taxes on the finished product, at the bizarre-looking rate of six pence and sixteen 21sts of a penny a bushel. (My best guess on that odd sum is that it works out to not quite 4s 6d a quarter – but six pence and five eighths of a penny a bushel is 4s 6d a quarter exactly, so why the approximately 2% difference? If anyone has a good answer to this conundrum, I’d be grateful …) For the first time, the country’s very large number of private household brewers had to pay tax, if they bought their malt from commercial maltsters, while brewers were also now paying more tax when they brewed extra strong beer than when they brewed “common” strong beer, because of the extra (taxed) malt used. But even on double beer at eight bushels to the barrel, that only came out to around three farthings per gallon more tax, and it failed to stop brewers continuing to cheat the revenue by mixing small drink with extra-strong. A disgruntled former General Surveyor of Excise, Edward Denneston, “Gent”, who had been involved in inspecting breweries since at least the early 1680s, wrote what amounted to a 40-page rant in 1713 with the unsnappy title A Scheme for Advancing and Improving the Ancient and Noble Revenue of Excise upon Beer, Ale and other Branches to the Great Advantage of Her Majesty and the general Good of her Subjects. It claimed that the brewing profession had become rich solely because of the “Frauds, Neglects and Abuses” practised by the brewers to the detriment of the country’s tax take. Brewers, he said, were “Vermine … that eat us up alive” and he told them he wished them “all boiled in your own brewing Cauldrons, or drowned in your own Gile Tunns”.

Denneston was a man with a grievance: he claimed that when he was a General Surveyor of Excise in London, he had spent several hundred pounds of his own money uncovering fiddles at the royal brewhouse in St Katharine’s, by the Tower, which brewed beer for the navy. One such fraud cost the government £18,000 a year, and he had been promised a reward by the House of Commons for stopping it, which, he said, he had never received. He also claimed that the country was losing £200,000 a year in unpaid tax – equivalent, in relative terms, to more than £4 billion today – because of the wider fiddles practised by brewers and publicans, and declared: “before there was a Duty of Excise laid upon Beer and Ale, it was not known any Brewer ever got so much by his Trade as what is now call’d a competent Estate; but since a Duty of Excise was laid upon Beer and Ale, nothing is more obvious, amazing and remarkable, than to see the great Estates many Brewers in and about the City of London have got, and are daily getting.” This, he said, was because “the Brewers in general, ever since there was a Duty upon Beer and Ale, have been more or less guilty of defrauding that Duty in several Methods,” including bribing the excise officers (in October 1708, “T– J–, Brewer” was put on trial at the Old Bailey for allegedly giving 40s a week to four officers of the excise to ignore his mixing of small beer with strong, though he was found not guilty), illegally brewing with molasses rather than malt , like the brewer “lately and remarkably in Southwark”, who was “fined several Hundred Pounds, for using of Molossas in his Beer and Ale”, and, in particular, avoiding the tax on strong beer and ale by mixing extra-strong drink with small.

One such fiddle Denneston claimed to have uncovered when he was working for the Revenue in London as General Surveyor involved the publican at the Fortune of War in Well Close, Goodman’s Fields, just to the east of the Minories, and on the edge of the City. Denneston said that while visiting Well Close on official business, he spotted a sign outside the pub which said: “Here is to he Sold Two Thrids, Three Thrids, Four Thrids, and Six Thrids.” “My Curiosity up on this Subject, led me into the House,” Denneston said. “I call’d for my Host, desir’d to know what he meant by the several sorts of Thrids ? He answer’d, That the meaning was, Beer at Twopence, Threepence, Fourpence, and Sixpence a Pot, for that he had all sorts of Drink, and as good as any in England; upon which I tasted all the four sorts, and found they were all made up by Mixture, and not Beer intirely Brew’d ; upon which I order’d the Surveyor of that Division to go and search that House, where he found only two sorts of Drink, viz extraordinary Strong Beer, and Small, so that according to the Price he Mixt in Proportion; the same Fraud being more or less practis’d through the Kingdom.”

Denneston must have had an extraordinary palate to detect the difference between mixed beers and “intirely brewed” ones, but ignoring that, “Three Thrids” is obviously the same as three-threads, and Denneston confirms that it was a mixture of extra-strong beer and small beer, sold for three pence a pot, or quart, with two-threads costing two pence, four-threads costing four pence and so on. Why “threads”? One definition of “thread” is “a thin continuous stream of liquid”: the Elizabethan author Thomas Nashe wrote of “thrids of rayne”, while another writer in 1723 wrote of “fat Liquor” that when poured out would “go on in a long Thread whose Parts are uninterrupted”.

Three-threads is mentioned several more times during the 18th century, but by 1760 the practice of retailers mixing extra-strong and small beers and ales had evidently ceased, and “three-threads”, if talked about, had to be explained. In November that year a letter by someone calling himself “Obadiah Poundage” (“poundage” being another work for duty or tax) and claiming to be an 86-year-old clerk at one of the great London breweries, living at Newington Green, Islington, was published in the London Chronicle under the title “The History of the London Brewery since 1688” – “brewery” here being used in the sense “brewing trade”. Poundage was detailing the rise in the tax on beer and ale in the times of William III and Queen Anne, and how the brewers dealt with that. In a passage that was to become famous, he wrote: “Our tastes but slowly alter or reform. Some drank Mild Beer and Stale; others what was then called Three-threads, at 3d per quart; but many used all stale, at 4d per pot. On this footing stood the trade until about the year 1722, when the Brewers conceived there was a method to be found preferable to any of these extremes; that beer well brewed, kept its proper time, became racy and mellow, that is, neither new nor stale, such would recommend itself to the public. This they ventured to sell at 23s per barrel, that the victualler might retail it at 3d per quart. At first it was slow in making its way, but in the end the experiment succeeded beyond all expectation. The labouring people, porters etc. experienced its wholesomeness and utility, they assumed to themselves the use thereof, from whence it was called Porter or Entire Butt.” (“Stale”, here, incidentally, means “matured”, not “off”, and it was the opposite of “mild”, or fresh beer: a mixture of old, matured, sharp beer and fresh, sweet, new beer was a favourite with many drinkers through to the 19th century at least.)

A Sot DormantThis was the first time that three-threads had been linked with the birth of porter, albeit obliquely, and with the two drinks apparently having nothing in common except the fact that they both retailed at 3d a quart. Poundage’s words were quickly plagiarised – they were reprinted, without acknowledgement in The Gentleman’s Magazine the same month, and reappeared in various publications over the next 40-plus years. More recently the pot has been muddied by the former brewer HS “Stan” Corran, who wrote A History of Brewing in 1975 and seems to have had access to a different version of Poundage’s letter, because he printed a lengthy extract from it in his book in which the line “Some drank Mild Beer and Stale; others what was then called Three-threads, at 3d per quart” was replaced by “Some drank Mild Beer and Stale; others ale, mild beer and stale blended together [my emphasis] at 3d per quart.” Corran apparently found this alternative version in the archives of Guinness in Dublin: how it got there is not known and, alas, Guinness’s archivists cannot find it now. It has been suggested by James Sumner, to whom I am grateful for much of the research in this post, that it ended up in Dublin via the private papers of the 18th century Hampstead brewer Michael Combrune. If that alternative version, or another copy, was around at the end of the 18th century, it may have influenced what happened next in the narrative history of three-threads: because suddenly, decades after it disappeared, the drink was given a completely different description to the one Denneston gave it, and it was plugged firmly into the story of the development of porter.

Early in 1802 the Monthly Magazine printed a piece on the history of what was then easily London’s favourite beer which said: “The wholesome and excellent beverage of porter obtained its name about the year 1730 … [formerly] the malt-liquors in general use were ale, beer, and twopenny, and it was customary for the drinkers of malt-liquor to call for a pint or tankard of half-and-half, ie a half of ale and half of beer, a half of ale and half of twopenny, or a half of beer and half of twopenny. In course of time it also became the practice to call for a pint or tankard of three threads, meaning a third of ale, beer, and twopenny; and thus the publican had the trouble to go to three casks, and turn three cocks for a pint of liquor. To avoid this trouble and waste, a brewer, of the name of HARWOOD, conceived the idea of making a liquor which should partake of the united flavours of ale, beer, and twopennyy He did so and succeeded, calling it entire or entire butt, meaning that it was drawn entirely from one cask or butt; and as it was a very hearty nourishing liquor, it was very suitable for porters and other working people. Hence it obtained its name of porter.

There are many problems with that story: porter was actually first mentioned in 1721, and while Ralph and James Harwood were porter brewers in Shoreditch, theirs was a small concern compared to the giants such as Truman, Whitbread and Parsons, and there is no evidence from the preceding 80 years that they had anything to do with the development of the drink, apart from a couple of brief and obscure references which themselves said nothing about three-threads. Porter was indeed also known as “entire butt”, but not because it was a one-cask-only reproduction of a drink that had originally been served from three different casks. It was so called because it was brewed “entire”, the technical term at the time for a beer or ale made from a combination of all three mashes of the malt, instead of the first mash being used to make strong ale or beer and the others standard beer and small beer, as was usual, and it was then matured in butts, 108-gallon casks. There is no evidence at all that porter was brewed to replace three-threads; and most importantly to our story, the description of what three-threads was, a combination of ale, beer and “twopenny” from three casks, is totally at odds with what Denneston described being served at the Fortune of War nearly 90 years earlier under the name three thrids, a mixture of just two drinks, extra-strong and small. Just to undermine the Monthly Magazine‘s narrative some more, “twopenny” WAS ale, according to Obadiah Poundage in 1760, who described it as a pale ale retailed at four pence a quart, or two pence a pint, made by the London brewers in imitation of the beers the country gentry “residing in London more than they had in former times” were “habituated to” at home. So according to the Monthly Magazine, three-threads was a tautological mixture of ale, beer and ale – though, admittedly, if the second was pale ale, the first could have been brown ale.

Unfortunately, within a very short time the Monthly Magazine‘s version of history was being reprinted, first in a guidebook called The Picture of London, also published in 1802, and then dozens – hundreds – of times over the next two centuries. Occasionally there were variations: John Tuck, writing in 1822, in a book called The Private Brewer’s Guide to the Art of Brewing Ale, Stout and Porter, said that “a mixture of stale, mild and pale, which was called three-threads, was sold at four pence per quart as far back as 1720,” which, as we have seen, was wrong on both ingredients and price. But everywhere it became the accepted truth that three-threads was a mixture of three different drinks, and porter was brewed to replace it.

A Sot SaliantI hope I have shown that three-threads was not the drink the Monthly Magazine and almost every other writer on the subject from 1802 has said it was, and also that, fascinating though the story of three-threads is, it has nothing to do with the development of porter. If any beer did, in fact, it was the strong “twopenny” pale ale that the gentry brought a taste for to London. According to manuscript histories of the brewing trade written out by Michael Combrune in the 1760s, this pale ale became “spontaneously transparent” and the established London brown-beer brewers decided to try to match this by ageing their own product much longer than they had previously, adding more hops to help it keep. As it aged, it mellowed, and this mellow brown beer, “neither new nor stale”, as Poundage said, and retailing for 3d a quart, became the beer that porters quickly grew to love above all others.

Not everybody will agree with me. John Krenzke, whose PhD dissertation on the industrialisation of the London beer trade 1400-1750 I have leaned on for much of the information to be found in this post, believes porter to have been brewed specifically to imitate the taste of three-threads. I have the greatest respect for John’s scholarship, which uncovered far more facts about the early history of three-threads than I was able to. But I cannot go along with his conclusion: I see no evidence that porter was anything other than an improved version of London brown beer, and that three-threads was something completely different. No writer until the Monthly Magazine in 1802, in a story demonstrably wrong in many ways, ever said porter was a replacement for three-threads. It looks like my journalistic ancestor missed the true, and much better story – that with every slurp, the three-threads drinker was diddling the tax man

0 thoughts on “The three-threads mystery and the birth of porter: the answer is …

  1. Dear Martyn,

    Very enlightening article, thank you. A Dutch craft brewer wrote a while ago that Porter was invented in the Netherlands ! What is your opinion on that ??
    With thanks and regards,

    Gerard Lemmens

    • Hi Gerard,

      That Dutch craft brewer is probably me. My theory is about the origin of the name itself. Poorter (pronunciation = porter) had been a name for beer on the continent for centuries). I have no proof for my theory other than that the name was around and London and continental harbors where part of the same sphere of influence.
      That may sound rather weak but so is the ‘evidence’ that the name was derived from porters. The article above doesn’t change that at all and I propose to keep both theories in mind as long as we do not know.
      Stuff we do know is that some of the earliest sources (like Daniel Defoe 1724 and William Ellis 1736) suggest that porter was not yet a style by then. It probably became a real style after the London Chronicle article of 1760 mentioned above. So first was only the name, later the name became a style. Porter was not ‘invented’ in the Netherlands, it somehow emerged as a pure London drink and I think the great article above brings us closer to that process again.

      Frederik Ruis

      • Dear Fred:

        I have seen your online publication (in English mostly) about Dutch beer names which were not factored into post-Jackson classifications because not extant in the 1970’s. Very useful indeed:

        The antiquity of the name (at least), poorter, is made very clear here. The fact that the Dutch were so willing to consider the post-English porter part of their own tradition suggests to me that Dutch poorter preceded the English one not just in the name but the type of beer itself. Why would the Dutch in the 1830’s call stout “stout-poorter”, using in part their own spelling that is? It seems too much a coincidence that the Dutch had the same name – same pronunciation – as the English for a beer but it was a completely unrelated beer. Given the trading basin you mentioned, given the old links of Flanders to England – the incoming of the weavers and other Flemings in the Middle Ages to England – it seems much more likely that porter as a beer type was Dutch before it was English. The name may have been preserved in folk language spoken in parts of England after the Flemish influx and become more widespread after the 1710’s to describe a non-mixed Three Threads. And the same explanation may attend the origin of Three Threads if it can be shown much to predate 1700 or so on the Continent.

        (And weavers, textiles again…?).

        And take Pharoah (is this Faro as in Belgium too?). It is mentioned by you as very old on the Continent as well, yet appears as an English beer type in a book by William King in 1698.

        Given too all these were hopped – including koyt if you correct, and beer (vs. ale) was an import to start with in England, it may well be all these beers and their names are of Dutch or other Continental origin, and, incidentally, that A.K. (ankel koyt?) is Dutch too which Martyn has argued in the past.

        Maybe it’s a Dutch beer world and we just live in it…

        Gary Gillman

        • Well, as for the poorter/porter theory: like Frederik says, there is no real evidence to support this idea.
          Mr. Ruis has done some great work promoting Dutch beer history, recreating Medieval kuit beer and participating in setting up a historic beer styles festival (21 June in Utrecht, don’t forget to drop by if you’re interested) but he hasn’t convinced me yet of the porter/poorter connection.
          The main problem is, that poorter never was a beer style to begin with. ‘Poorter’ means citizen (or it did, because by the 18th century it has given way to the current word with that meaning, which is ‘burger’), and so there are various documents about citizens (‘poorters’) being in a different tax category when they brewed beer. A nice example is Antwerp, where from the 16th to 18th century there were city breweries where citizens (again, ‘poorters’) could have their own beer brewed.
          The misconception is, I think, that their beer wasn’t necessarily of a different beer style; and it’s hard to see why it would develop into one. English porter being advertised as ‘poorter’ in Dutch newspapers from the late 18th century is more likely to come from lack of knowledge of the English language than anything else (note how ‘cider’ is misspelt ‘cÿder’ in one of the old ads on Frederik’s site; though admittedly it is odd that the wording also figures in an English phrasebook). Never has anything like ‘poorter’ been advertised in a Dutch newspaper as anything else than English porter, and by the time ‘poorter’ is occasionally used in Dutch to discribe English porter, the original Dutch word ‘poorter’ for citizen had fallen out of use.

          • Roel, thanks for this. I had to smile when I read about (I presume) lower taxes for citizens because three threads seems clearly to have been just such a beer, one which was cheaper due to a favourable tax treatment. The Ned Ward pamphlets Martyn has written about speak about “porter’s liquors” which in my view is porter as such, just a longer term for it (ditto porter’s guzzle and all that type of terminology around circa-1700). So, even if poorter was not a defined beer type, maybe the term hung on in England after the Flemish came in to mean a beer which benefits from a low tax treatment (albeit not legally sanctioned in the English case, rather a case of self-help one might say). I believe porter’s liquors and the various thread drinks were the same thing, one just a term for the other. The term just got transferred to the brewers’ entire butt beer aka entire when it came onstream (methinks).

            Gary Gillman

  2. I personally have always felt that the Dutch “poorter” (citizens’ beer) may be connected to English porter at least in etymology. The first time I tasted some, in a stone crock about 20 years, I thought it actually tastes like 1800’s-style porter, too.

    Martyn’s work in this area is just great and always thought-provoking. I don’t think there is any question the thread drinks were a tax dodge, which I inferred as well from Edward Denneston’s essay a few years ago, see (This was kindly published by Ron Pattinson as a guest piece).

    Still, there are so many avenues of research that it is too easy to end in a blind alley. I feel the textile terminology area which I explore a bit in those notes cannot be lightly ignored.

    And just the other day I was thinking of the nursery rhyme, Pop Goes The Weasel, the variation that goes, “a penny for a spool of thread, a penny for the needle”. Maybe the spools, perhaps pawned to gain dosh to buy pots of beer, became a cant for money. Pop meant to pawn, some say. Thus, two threads was a two-penny beer, three-threads a three-penny one. Possibly these terms had a punning origin, as well.

    Finally, I do feel Poundage in the authentic version of what he wrote did state porter replaced three-threads, true it was an improvement but an imitation can also improve. If people turned to the new beer, porter, when before the drank various mixtures as Poundage said, that is similar to saying what Feltham did, in my view. Where Feltham went wrong probably is assuming the origin of three threads was purely for palate. I don’t think it was originally, it was to regulate strength probably for tax saving reasons, but in time people may have appreciated the mixes for palate reasons. Beer and ale mixed can be seen to have this effect, it is a trimming of the “extremes” mentioned by Poundage.


  3. Another fine post! But I think you have the two strengths switched in “the tax represented only a tiny proportion of the retail cost, at less than a tenth of a penny a pint for strong drink and not even two tenths of a penny per gallon for the small stuff.”

  4. Hi Martyn, this is my first post on your very informative site which I have been following for a while. I’m currently writing about various ‘lost’ Dutch beers, though only in Dutch for the moment.
    What I wanted to add here is that, interestingly, there was a beer called ‘driedraad’ or ‘dry-draed’ made in Belgium in the nineteenth century. Driedraad means, you guessed it, three-threads. Information on it is sparse, but it seems to haul from the area north and west of Gent and was also produced right across the border in The Netherlands.
    For instance, there is an ad for the Hontenisser Welvaren brewery in Hontenisse (the Netherlands) in the NRC newspaper in 1850, where they sell Oud bruin (old brown), besneden bier (cut beer), driedraad (three-thread) and uitzet or gerstebier (barley beer). Or a description of a hangover in the Gazette van Lokeren in 1849: ‘the three-thread was still celebrating carnival in his brains’.
    A coincidence? Derived from the English term? Your guess is as good as mine. I hope I will be able to tell you more later.

    • Very interesting and potentially significant. My guess is it is derived from English practice.A lot will depend on far back this term can be traced in Belgium and Holland. If it and poorter go back to the 1500’s and 1600’s, the English terms and beers may derive from there though having being brought by Flemings to England.


  5. From where I’m sitting there are two readings of Poundage: one is that he doesn’t say anything at all about three-threads, but simply lists it alongside other types of beer – three-threads itself could have been strong or weak, dark or pale, or bright green and flavoured with celery for all the information he gives us. The other reading is that he implies (or assumes, or assumes his readers will already know) that three-threads was a mixture of mild and stale beers. But even on that reading he says nothing about how three-threads compares with porter, as he contrasts porter with all the styles he lists (‘preferable to any of these extremes’).

    • When you compare both versions of the letter though, I conclude that three threads was as meant by Poundage was mild beer, stale (beer) and ale. The author of the letter, rather than use a cant, in effect defined a term the intended audience would better understand in another version of the letter. Maybe the Corran one was simply a later draft of the one letter.

      I believe these beers were meant as young brown beer, old brown beer, and pale ale. Feltham said “ale, beer and twopenny”, probably brown ale, stale (aged brown beer – maybe) and pale ale, this is different but not by much to Corran’s Poundage. Both share the fact of using 3 beers which may well be historically wrong but capturing the point of mixing malt liquors of different character and strength, as does the dictionary definitions for three threads starting (apparently) with the Canting Crew dictionary circa-1700.

      It makes sense that writers from Poundage’s time (of writing) onwards forgot or never knew that the numerical thread designations likely had nothing to do with the number of beers used, but the core of what they say ties into Denneston’s 1713 essay if not the rationale. Poundage is “all over” mixing, as Feltham, and mixing is all about evening out Poundage’s extremes as aging a brown beer its proper time would achieve too. That’s why I think porter did imitate the mixtures. It produced a beer neither too fresh nor too lactic/sour, not too bitter and not too sweet. Porter’s alcohol level in the later 1700’s was at a mean a 3p-the-pot threads drink would likely produce. (How exactly the entire or porter was produced is a different matter, but really a separate question).

      After 1721, date of first mention of porter, one doesn’t read about the thread drinks anymore. Why? Porter “drove them out” as Martyn wrote earlier, yes I agree, but IMO because it produced a similar evening out of tastes and strength in a more efficient manner (entire brewing vs. mixing the “waste” (Poundage) inherent in mixing finished beers). The part about the trouble of drawing from three casks per Feltham is almost certainly a fiction but that is neither here nor there, that was a retrospective interpretation of beers which clearly were mixed at brewery or in the pub cellar. Personally I believe entire butt/porter may have coincided with increased surveillance by the revenue men, it was probably too risky to keep the mix game going so it was abandoned in favour at least of giving the drinker the kind of evened-out taste and hit he was accustomed to at 3p the pot.

      Gary Gillman

  6. Hi Martyn,

    I did some more research into driedraad (‘drijdraad’, ‘drydraad’ or ‘drydraed’ in Flemish dialect) and this is what I found so far. It is important to note that driedraad was also a common term for a kind of rope or yarn.

    In a poem dated as early as 1692, published in Amsterdam in 1716, a François van Bergen, born in Sluis (the Netherlands, near the Belgian border) speaks of various drinks, inluding beer, wine, brandy, gin and ‘driedraad’. A poem by Jan de Regt (died 1715), published in Amsterdam in 1733, mentions ‘a glass full of driedraad’ in a context of feasting and drunkenness. However, it’s not clear whether the driedraad mentioned in these sources is supposed to be beer or another kind of alcoholic beverage.

    A century later, in 1829, Jean-Baptiste Vrancken, doctor of medicine at Leuven, writes a treatise on the brewing of beer in various Belgian and Dutch cities. According to him, at Mechelen the beer made from the first mash is called ‘dry-draed’, though ‘usually the first mash is mixed with the second, and this mix forms the Mechelen brown beer’. From then, there are several Flemish sources mentioning driedraad, up until the First World War. (In Holland however, it remains unknown except for the Zeeuws Flanders area near Belgium.)

    It seems that driedraad was considered to be quite strong. In 1850 for instance, across the border at the Hontenisser Welvaren brewery in the Netherlands mentioned previously, driedraad was the most expensive beer type:
    1 Old brown beer, per vat of 150 litres: 9,00 guilders
    2 Cut beer, per vat of 150 litres: 8,40 guilders
    3 Driedraad , per vat of 150 litres: 12 guilders
    4 Uitzet or barley beer, per vat of 100 liters: 4,70 guilders

    Unfortunately, driedraad goes unmentioned in Lacambre’s 1851 book on Belgian beer brewing, even though he does describe the brewing of Gent’s uytzet and double uytzet (a clear, blonde-amber barley beer), brown beer of Mechelen and many other Belgian beers. Flemish-French dictionaries of the time translate driedraad only as ‘fil à trois’, or rope made of three threads, without mentioning the beer.

    A 1865-1870 dictionary of Flemish words (‘Algemeen Vlaamsch idioticon’) describes ‘drijdraad’ as: ‘the best sort of Mechelen’s brown beer. In the Land of Waas it means: strong beer, also bland coffee’.

    Though driedraad was most associated with Gent, the Land of Waas (around Sint-Niklaas) and Mechelen, driedraad seems to have been brewed in Alveringem (West Flanders), Hulst (Netherlands), and Antwerp as well.

    Interestingly, in a series of 1904-1906 beer ads from Ypres drijdraad is identified as ‘Vieux-temps’, though according to wikipedia the current beer of that name was developed much later, in 1930.

    An interesting 1921 article by chemist A.J.J. Vandevelde sums up the strenghts of several beers as they were in 1913:

    Single uitzet from Gent 3,21 % ABV
    Double from Gent 3,78 %
    Driedraad from Gent 4,8 %
    Brown, Zottegem 4,43 %
    Brown, Oudenaarde 4,14 %
    White, Leuven 2,37 %
    Lambiek, Brussels 6,09 %
    Faro, Brussels 4,68 %
    Saison from Liège 1,82 %
    Gerst (barley) from Antwerp 3,13 %

    From these figures, it may follow that driedraad was, at that point, the strongest beer type produced in Gent, or even simply a ‘triple’ version of uitzet, which was then Gent’s most popular beer type. (Also interesting to note that saison here is almost a kind of table beer at only 1,82% ABV, but that’s another story)

    I found an ad for brewery De Leeuw at Temse in 1923, in which they announce that will be brewing their pre-war beers again, ‘like: normal beer, double beer, drijdraad etc. made of first quality malt and hops.’ But after that, driedraad seems to have died out.

    That leaves us with a few questions: what sort of liquor was the driedraad mentioned in 1692 and 1733? Is there a connection with the driedraad of Belgium that surfaces in 1829? And is there any connection to the English three-threads? It would seem quite odd if English three-threads was ever exported to Holland or Belgium, since it was illegal and moreover taxation in Belgium (the Austrian Netherlands, at that point) and Holland was probably different anyway. It is even possible that the Belgians copied the term three-threads from early 19th century English brewing books like Tuck’s.

    Unfortunately I don’t have as many sources on Belgian beer history as I woud like to, because I’ve been concentrating mostly on Holland until now. There are quite a few ‘lost’ beer styles in Belgium that don’t seem to draw a lot of attention nowadays: the uytzet mentioned above, the peeterman from Leuven, and the Caves of Lier. Driedraad is another one.

    Final thought: a ‘Drydraad’ beer label of the Van Velsen frères brewery of Bornhem, probably dating from 1880-1900, sold on ebay in 2013. Interestingly, it is also labeled in English as ‘Threethread’. One wonders why they did this?

    • Excellent, and that label is an outstanding find. It seems clear from this drydraad and similar spellings was a strongish brown beer, which is what porter is and what three threads in London was (because the basic beers and ales of London were brown or darker). I think they are clearly the same type of malt liquor. The only real question is which came first. If drydraad proves to be as old in usage as poorter then I think the Dutch beer must come first. And then all the theories of origin similar to what has been speculated for English thread drinks would arise except as pertain to parts of Belgium and Holland and the languages or dialects in use there.

  7. Excellent. Now I need to find a book called “The history of brown beer in Europe: 1550-1800” to clear out my head! 😀

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  9. Fascinating as always, Martyn, but I’m still a bit uncomfortable about the etymology of ‘three threads’ and the link to Denneston’s ‘three thrids’.

    When Denniston asked about the meaning of “Two Thrids, Three Thrids, Four Thrids, and Six Thrids”, he was told they simply referred to beer at 2d, 3d, 4d and 6d. That doesn’t seem to relate in any obvious way to the explanation of ‘threads’ as streams of liquid. Yes, ‘thrid’ was indeed an archaic alternate form of modern ‘thread’ and seems to have had more or less the same literal and figurative uses — I found a reference online to resuming the ‘thrid’ of a discourse. But why did a ‘thrid’ correspond so exactly to a penny? It seems very odd.

    When I first read the Denniston quote, I misread ‘thrid’ as ‘third’ which made me wonder if in this context it might have been a misspelling or metathesis of ‘third’, particularly in the context of mixing proportions of different beer…?

    I don’t think we can read much into the Dutch spelling of ‘poorter’. If its use as the name of a beer style was a borrowing from English then this was simply assimilating the word to standard Dutch pronunciation and spelling. But the Dutch beer style might simply have been named after the archaic Dutch term ‘poorter’ meaning ‘citizen’ as from the English term meaning a carrier. Incidentally both derive from Latin ‘portare’, ‘to carry, transport’, by different routes. The noun ‘porta’ came to mean a port to which things were carried and eventually a gate or entrance (cf French ‘porte’). According to nl.wikipedia, a ‘poorter’ was someone who lived behind the ‘stadpoorten’, or gates of a walled mediaeval town.

    I’m more intrigued by ‘driedraad’ as, just as with its direct English cognate, I can’t really see why people would talk about ‘draden’ in relation to beer. Dutch for ‘third’ is ‘derde’, so the metathesis explanation wouldn’t work (though apparently there was a Middle Dutch form ‘darde’).

  10. The streams of liquid would mean two pours of beer, one very strong, one much less – were blended to form one beer. Two types of beer only found in the Fortune of War’s cellar. Two threads would mean tuppence beer which was relatively weak, three threads, thruppence beer which was stronger, and so on. Why two threads of beer for two pence, three threads for three pence, etc.? The thread beers may have been named from the pence price. “Gents, you are drinking tonight by the thread system and will pay less, so for weak beer at 2p, it’s the 2-thread one you want, for the ordinary, 3-thread one, etc.”.

    But I think weaving terminology may explain the term thread and quite possibly porter too. In addition to what I said in my notes published in 2010, this might be noted:

    This is from a 1957 book on packaging by Frank Paine, apparently a Scot, so quite late, but presumably jute was still made the old way. (Jute is burlap to Americans).

    For this jute, four thread numbers are specified, each for a kind of jute, corresponding exactly to the threads the Fortune of War offered: 2, 3, 4 and 6. There is no 5. The threads together make up splits which form a porter. As Paine explains, some cloth seemed actually to have been called that in trade, he says Calcutta cloth. I don’t know for sure but I’d think the more threads, the stronger the jute, the more weight the sack could hold. One can see how perhaps a metaphor from this technology was applied to beer mixing.

    It is true that “porter” in weaving is a Scots term, the English equivalent is “beer” (gulp). But who knows what some people in London, especially those connected to exporting jute and other cloth, would have called it. And you couldn’t use beer for the mix term since that already meant other kinds of malt liquor.

    Gary Gillman

  11. Sorry, Gary, that doesn’t really explain it either. If you just had two beers, surely there would be only two pours no matter what the strength — you’d just pour more of the stronger and less of the weaker for a stronger blend etc.

    • Des, I think you are saying, why didn’t they call all these beers two threads? But in fact there is some evidence they did. In London Inns and Taverns by Leopold Wagner (1924) he states at p. 179 that drinkers called for half- and-half or “two-thirds” and he then explains two-thirds is a mix of strong ale and weaker beer or even 3 beers. For the two-beer mix, clearly two-thirds can’t mean a partly-filled glass, so it may have meant two pours of beer mixed. As to why the numbers went higher for the stronger types, you would need another name I guess for those, plus, it is easy to see that two threads, corrupted to two thirds, connoted the idea for some that it was two-thirds normal strength (say 5%). Maybe then three thirds was selected for a 6% mix, and so on up the chain, which tied in to the pence pricing.

      By the way in rope technology using woven jute, the more threads used the stronger the rope was.

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