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.

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The origins of porter (and a bit about three-threads)

I realised recently that I’ve never properly blogged about the actual origins of porter – except to counter the claim that it was invented as a substitute for “three-threads” by someone called Ralph Harwood, and to point out that it wasn’t named after market porters, but river and street porters. And I don’t seem to have written about the latest discoveries on three-threads, the drink that has (wrongly) been mixed up in the porter story.

Fly back, then, three centuries, to the time of Queen Anne (1702-1714), when the drinks you’d be most likely to find in a London alehouse would be (according to a contemporary “good pub guide”, the Vade Mecum for Malt Worms) mild beer and stale beer (both made from brown malt); amber beer (made from pale malt); ale (including strong Twopenny pale ale, Derby ale, Burton ale, Oxford ale, Nottingham ale and York pale ale); and stout.

Remember, those names don’t mean what they do today: “mild” beer was fresh and recently brewed; “stale” beer wasn’t off, but the “mild” beer aged and matured; ale meant very specifically a less hopped drink than beer, while stout could be any colour, as long as it was strong. In addition, the ale brewers and the beer brewers were still two different groups of people.

London’s drinkers, then and for centuries later, liked to mix their brews: one tranche of pub-goers would order stale beer, which cost four old pence a pot (or quart), but stale beer and mild beer together was a popular drink: and others, according to a by-then elderly brewery worker calling himself “Obadiah Poundage”, writing in 1760 drank a mixture called “three-threads”, costing three pence a pot.

A great deal has been written about three-threads, because a man called John Feltham, writing in 1802, claimed (with no evidence that I can find) that three-threads was a popular drink made up of “a third of ale, beer and twopenny”, for which “the publican had the trouble to go to three casks and turn three cocks for a pint of liquor.” According to Feltham, porter was invented to taste like three-threads, but because it came from one cask, it saved the publicans the trouble and waste of mixing the drink afresh every order from three separate casks. There is no evidence at all for this claim. But Feltham’s description of what went into three-threads, and his statement that porter was designed to copy it, but as a single beer that would not need to be served from three different casks, has been repeated by almost every writer on beer for two centuries.

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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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