I gave a talk at the Victorian Society’s “Beer and Brewing Study Day” yesterday in the Art Workers’ Guild building in Bloomsbury on “The Decline and Fall of Heavy Wet”, “heavy wet” being a 19th century slang expression for porter. I described how in 1843 the Scottish journalist William Weir called porter “the most universally favoured liquor the world has ever known,” and declared that “porter drinking needs but a beginning: wherever the habit has once been acquired, it is sure to be kept up.” But even then, the dark, hoppy, bitter beer that had been a favourite of everybody from dockers to dukes for more than a hundred years was in decline, losing sales to mild ale, a sweeter pale drink. Within 40 years mild ale had completely eclipsed porter as the favourite style of most beer drinkers, and mild was to remain number one until the 1960s – when it too, was turfed off the throne. The beer that replaced it, however, bitter, had barely three decades at number one before falling to the growing popularity of lager, which became the biggest seller in the 1990s. And I finished with this question for the audience: is there any reason why Big Lager should not, one day, follow Big Porter – and Big Mild – into oblivion?
Big Porter really was big. Those who brewed it became astonishingly wealthy. Samuel Johnson was talking about the opportunities available to the purchaser of a London porter brewery when he spoke about becoming “rich beyond the dreams of avarice”. Samuel Whitbread, who ran one of the capital’s biggest porter breweries, in Chiswell Street, was “said to have been worth a million at least” when he died in 1796, according to the Gentleman’s Magazine, a fortune equivalent to perhaps £1.5 billion today. The porter brewers’ wealth brought them considerable influence: all seven of the biggest London breweries had multiple members of parliament among their partners.
In 1823, porter output in London hit 1.8 million barrels, after a continual rise that had lasted 50 years. But this was its peak: by 1830 porter production would be down 20 per cent on its 1823 level. What was replacing it was mild ale, made for quick consumption, slightly stronger than porter, pale in colour, unaged and therefore sweeter, less acid than porter. A House of Commons select committee on the sale of beer in 1833 was told that the London drinker “will have nothing but what is mild, and that has caused a considerable revolution in the trade, so much so that Barclay and Perkins, and other great houses, finding that there is a decrease in the consumption of porter, and an increase in the consumption of ale, have gone into the ale trade; nearly all the new trade is composed of mild ale.”
In the early 19th century, ale brewers and beer (that is to say, porter and stout) brewers were still different concerns in London, with the ale brewers much smaller than their rivals. But as the demand for ale grew, so the ale brewers grew too, boosting companies such as Charrington in the Mile End Road and Courage at Horsleydown on the south bank of the Thames, almost opposite the Tower. Charrington’s trade increased almost 2 1/2 times between 1831 and 1851, for example. In 1814 it was producing just 16,510 barrels a year, all ale, when Barclay Perkins. then London’s leading brewer, was making 257,300 barrels of porter: by 1889 Charrington’s output had risen to more than 500,000 barrels a year, level with Barclay Perkins.
The porter brewers responded by moving into the ale market, particularly after the Beerhouse Act of 1830 dramatically increased the number of available licensed outlets. Whitbread, then the third or fourth biggest brewer in London, whose production was entirely porter up to 1834, started brewing mild ale in 1835. Ale quickly rose from nowhere to more than 10 per cent of Whitbread’s production by 1839, and more than 20 per cent by 1859, when Whitbread’s porter sales had dropped by almost 30 per cent compared to 25 years earlier. At Truman’s, then fighting with Barclay Perkins to be London’s biggest brewer, the swing from porter was stronger still, with ale making up 30 per cent of production by 1859.