Tag Archives: porter

Mixing Fuller’s porter

I like most of the beers produced by Fuller Smith & Turner, my nearest big brewer, but I’ve never got on with their London Porter. I know, from recent comments on Stonch’s blog that it has some big fans, but I’m not one. Too sweet, too often: not just too sweet for the style (though I’d believe someone who told me it’s from an authentic recipe: there are hints porter became quite a sweet beer in the 20th century) but too sweet per se.

Some sweet beers can work very well: Cain’s, for example, produced a Bonfire Night beer a few years ago that was hugely caramelly and quite delicious. But sweetness in beer needs careful balancing, and to me Fuller’s porter, certainly when new, doesn’t have the balance. And I don’t like that much chocolate front and centre, either.

Give it a little time in cask and it gets better: I went into the Fuller’s pub close to the Tower of London, the Hung Drawn and Quartered, early in November, when the London Porter arrived, and confirmed to myself, as I sat surrounded by homeward-bound bankers, that it was just as sweet as I remembered it. However, on a return visit last week the sweetness had died down and a pleasing hint of tartness was coming through. All the same, it still fell far short of knocking me out.

My visit was actually to see what the London Porter tasted like as a mixed drink. Despite what you will read elsewhere, porter itself was not born as a mixed beer. However, way back in the 1830s it was common to mix ale (pale, strong and “mild”, that is, unaged and quite sweet) with porter as a “half and half”. I wondered what a “half and half” of porter with other Fuller’s beers might be like.

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Three-threads get more unravelled

James Scarlett, the world’s greatest expert on Scottish tartans, who died in May this year aged 87, once said: “I never believe anything I see in print, even though I wrote it myself.” I know how he feels. James Sumner, another historian, who knows, probably, more about the origins of porter than anyone else, has been in touch to point out that in my piece on three-threads, the drink that was claimed to be one of the early 18th century precursors to porter, I made one of the worst mistakes anybody with any pretensions to being a historian can perpetrate: I failed to go back to the original sources.

The problem was that I was contrasting the famous letter that appeared in the London Chronicle in November 1760 from “Obadiah Poundage” that gives the earliest details of porter’s origins with the version of Poundage’s narrative that appeared soon after in The Gentleman’s Magazine, and quoting from the copy of the London Chronicle letter that appears in HS Corran’s A History of Brewing. The point I was making is that the Gentleman’s Magazine version mention’s three-threads, whereas the version quoted by Corran doesn’t.

But Dr Sumner, who is lecturer in history of technology at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester, did what I should have done and went and read the London Chronicle. There he discovered, the version Corran quotes isn’t the one that actually appears in the Chronicle. In fact, the Chronicle‘s version does mention three-threads, whereas Corran’s version substitutes the words “ale, mild beer and stale”.

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The Hunting of the Stout

In February 1961, 47 years ago, Guinness paid the London brewer Watney Combe Reid £28,000 – equivalent to more than £400,000 today – to discontinue brewing its Reid’s Stout. It was part of the Irish firm’s drive to put its newly perfected nitrogen-serve Draught Guinness into as many pubs as possible: Watney’s also had a draught “container stout”, presumably using the keg system that powered Red Barrel, and the Dublin boys were happy to pay to eliminate this potential rival.

Reid’s, whose original brewery was in the aptly named Liquorpond Street, near Hatton Garden, before it merged with Watney and another London firm, Combe’s of Covent Garden, had been one of the great stout brewers of the 19th century, The journalist Alfred Barnard wrote in 1889: “Who has not heard of Reid’s stout? And what better accompaniment to a dozen of oysters could be found?”

With the demise of Reid’s, and all the other once-famous stout brewers of England’s capital, such as Meux, which once brought a beautiful aroma of malt and hops to delight passengers on the tops of buses at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street, the title of “sole big stout brewer” fell to Guinness.

Effectively, the only sort of stout still brewed in England was the sweet Mackeson-style version that had become popular in the 20th century. London’s formerly enormous role as a centre for brewing the original, 19th century-style, stout became forgotten, so that Michael Jackson could assert, in his first Pocket Guide to Beer, published in 1982,

English stouts are sweet … Irish stouts are dry.”

Surviving English stouts were, in 1982, pretty much in the sweet Mackeson-type style only. That certainly hadn’t been true 20 or 30 years earlier.

But if Watney’s had turned down the Irish brewer’s money in 1961, and Reid’s had continued as a rival to Guinness, a living example of the beers once made by all the biggest London brewers, would we, today, be talking about “Irish stout” as the synonym of not-sweet stout? Is there actually such a thing as “Irish stout”? Would Guinness and Reid’s not be known as two examples of “stout”, geography unstated? If a tighter description were needed, to differentiate the Mackesons from those stouts not made with unfermentable lactic sugars, should it not be the retronym “dry stout”, to include all the English versions alas, no longer with us?

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Stout v Porter: a northern perspective

What does it tell you about the world that if you want to access the electronic archives of The Times, owned by Rupert Murdoch, one of the planet’s great campaigners for raw capitalism, you can do so for free, via your local council’s website; but if you want to access the electronic archives of The Guardian, spiritual home of soggy left-wing whingers and anti-enterprise social workers, you have to pony up £7 a pop?

I was doing some research for a piece I was being paid for the other day, however, so that £7 could be claimed as “expenses”, and in the 24-hour window The Guardian allows you to rummage around in its archival drawers for the equivalent cost of three pints of ale I ran some searches on beery terms in pre-1850 editions.

The paper then, of course, was the Manchester Guardian, and its advertisements reflected its Manchester base and the demands and availabilities of the Manchester market. Burton ale, for example, which could be shipped from Staffordshire to Lancashire by canal from 1771, is advertised from the beginning: in June 1821, just a month after the newspaper was founded, Nightingale and Worthy were advertising on the front page “excellent SCOTCH and BURTON ALES, in bottles and small casks, for families”.

This is, incidentally, the year before the Burton brewers had their Russian market taken away from them by the introduction of prohibitively high import duties. The move by the Russians prompted the Burtonites to turn to the Indian market instead, by imitating the pale ale then being successfully exported to the East by Hodgson’s brewery in Bow, Middlesex; it also forced them to pay more attention to the home market,

According to J Stevenson Bushnan, writing in Burton and its Bitter Beer, published in 1853, the collapse of the Russian market led Samuel Allsopp in March 1822 to advertise the beer he could no longer sell to the Baltic in a circular delivered around the UK, and “the effect of this circular was the introduction of Burton Ale to the London and English market … immediately after the issue of this circular ‘Burton Ale houses’ sprang up.”

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Legal smoking and drinking

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.

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Arthur Guinness’s true genetic roots

Rarely (but thrillingly) a book comes along that makes everything else ever written on the same subject instantly redundant.

There must have been more books written about Guinness, the brand and its brewers, than any other in the world. I’ve got 14, now, four of them written by people called Guinness. But the latest to be published, Arthur’s Round, by Patrick Guinness, is the first to concentrate on the patriarch himself, the founder of the concern at St James’s Gate in Dublin, and it uses everything from proper, evidence-based historical research to genetic analysis to debunk more myths about Arthur Guinness and the early years of his brewing concern than you could shake a shillelagh at.

The biggest myth Patrick Guinness destroys, using modern genetic techniques, is the claim that Arthur Guinness and his father Richard were descended from the Magennis chieftains of Iveagh, in County Down, Ulster, in Irish Mac Aonghusa. The last-but-one Viscount Iveagh, Bryan Magennis had fled abroad after James II’s defeat at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, about the time Arthur Guinness’s father was born, and the Magennis lands in Ulster were confiscated in 1693.

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Bristol-fashion Guinness and the roast barley question

Where and when was the first Guinness brewery opened in England? If you answered “Park Royal, 1936”, whoops, the loud noises and flashing lights have gone off, that’s the WRONG answer, by more than 100 miles and just under 100 years.

In 1838 John Grattan Guinness junior had been sacked from the brewery business in Dublin started by his grandfather for drunkenness and “mixing with degraded society”. His uncle, Arthur Guinness II bought him a brewery in Bristol to try to give him another chance. Unfortunately John Grattan Guinness does not seem to have been a businessman, and the Bristol brewery went under in 1845. Much later, after he fell into poverty, John G tried ungratefully and unsuccessfully to sue his cousin Benjamin Guinness for wrongful dismissal from the Dublin brewery.

While John G was still running the brewery in Bristol, however, he was evidently visited by the brewer and writer George Stewart Amsinck, who was shown several different brews, all apparently based on St James’s Gate originals. Amsinck eventually printed the recipes for the beers as part of Practical Brewings, a manual of 50 different brewings published in 1868.

Their interest comes from their being the closest we have to genuine Dublin Guinness recipes of the late 1830s, showing us brewing methods and, in particular ingredients and proportions of different grain types.

Guinness had been among the first porter brewers to seize upon Daniel Wheeler’s “patent” malt for colouring porters and stouts when it appeared in 1819. This was the first properly legal beer colouring (because tax had been paid on the malt before it was roasted into Stygianity) to let brewers make really black beers, which is what the public expected in their porters and stouts, while using almost entirely pale malt, which gave a much better extract of fermentable sugars than the high-dried and “blown” malts the original porter brewers had used. An advertisement for Plunkett Brothers, the Dublin makers of patent malt, dated 1873 quotes a letter from Guinness saying the St James’s Gate brewery had used its products for “over fifty years” – in other words, since at least the very early 1820s.

The recipes Amsinck recorded at John G Guinness’s Bristol brewery included a Dublin stout of 1096 OG, using 96.8 per cent new pale Suffolk malt and 3.2 per cent “black” (that is, roast) malt; a Country Porter (the name Guinness at St James’s Gate gave to the beer delivered outside Dublin) of 1067 OG, brewed with the same ratio of black and pale malts; and a Town Porter (the name Guinness gave to the beer brewed for sale in Dublin) of 1061 OG, ditto for the grain bill but with half the hops of the Country Porter. This last, Town beer was kept for only a day after fermentation was finished, before being mixed with 10 per cent fresh wort (a technique called gyling) and put out into the trade for consumption within a fortnight, making it truly a mild porter, in the proper sense of mild as fresh beer made for quick consumption.

The particular point to note today about all these beers is that they used roasted malt, not the roasted barley that commentators such as Roger Bergen, writing in Brewing Techniques in November 1993 say is “critical” to the Guinness palate. In fact Guinness could not have used roasted barley when John G was working there, because it was illegal: no grains could go into the brewing of beer that had not been malted, and paid the malt tax.

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The forgotten story of London’s porters

It’s a mark of the low status given to working class history that the role in London’s life and economy played by the city’s thousands of street and river porters, the men who gave their name to the beer, is almost completely forgotten, only 70 or so years after the last of the porters died.

Almost no modern books on the history of London mention the Ticket Porters and their rivals the Fellowship Porters, not even Weinreb and Hibbert’s 1,000-page London Encyclopedia (which does, however, manage to mangle a nonsensical story about ale conners and the Tiger pub at the Tower of London).

The exception is Peter Earle’s A City Full of People, subtitled Men and Women of London 1650-1750, published in 1994, which leans for its scholarship about the subject on Walter Stern’s The Porters of London, written in 1960.

This lack of general knowledge about the people who played an irreplaceable role in London’s economy from the 17th to the 19th centuries, one that was the equivalent of white van delivery driver, motorcycle courier and postman rolled into one, meant confusion for beer writers in the 1970s when they came to write about porter the drink.

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