So you think you know what porter tastes like …

I am always alert for any comments about how beers tasted in the past. They don’t appear very often, but they’re fascinating when they do. So I leapt upon a line out of a recent blog by Ron Pattinson, in a description from 1889 of an obscure style called Adambier, which Ron had translated from German: “… the beer was perfectly carbonated and tasted sour, porter-like.”

Now, this is from a German source, the Zeitschrift für Angewandte Chemie (Journal of Applied Chemistry), so its opinion might not hold outside the lands controlled by Kaiser Wilhelm. Did English porter in the 19th century have a sour taste? Well, not sour, I suggest (although one man’s “sour” is another’s “nicely tart”), but the evidence says that for a long time there was a definite acid component to the flavour of 19th century porter.

In 1899 a senior employee in one of the big London breweries, a man called John Kibble, gave evidence to a parliamentary inquiry, the Home Office committee on beer materials. During his lengthy and fascinating evidence, Mr Kibble, talking about the porter brewed 36 years earlier, in 1863, said that it was “principally vatted beer, and brewed entirely from English barley, and it had a certain acid character with it.”

To show that Mr Kibble’s memory was good, here’s a quote from Charles Dickens’s magazine All The Year Round, September 19, 1868: “Porter owes much of its tart and astringent flavour to a high, rapid fermentation which carries down the density without diminishing the high flavour drawn from the materials.”

Tart, astringent, acid: these are not words you will find in the descriptions of porter in the latest Brewers Association beer style guidelines. But Dickens was wrong, I believe, in attributing that tartness to “a high, rapid fermentation”. As Mr Kibble said, this was vatted beer, well-aged. Here he is being questioned in 1899 on just that subject:

[Q] “The old beer and the porter in the year 1863, I suppose, had to be kept by the brewers for some considerable time before they were consumed?[A] “It was generally brewed in the winter. The supply for nearly the whole year was brewed in the winter months, and then they brewed more in the summer, up to perhaps about June; they missed July altogether and two weeks of August perhaps, missed six weeks in the summer, and up to that point they would blend the other beer with it. It was really sent out as a blend, a blend of the old beer with some of the new beer.”
[Q] “But there was a good deal of beer and porter kept by the brewer for some weeks, or possibly months was there not?” [A] “Quite so; it would be in his vats six to nine months stock, say.”

There’s a lot in that passage to absorb: no summer brewing, notice, this was still the pre-refrigeration era, when it was too hot to brew safely in July and early August. Mr Kibble was saying that in the 1860s porter was mostly brewed in the winter, kept for between six and nine months, and then generally sent out by the brewers pre-blended with fresher beer, presumably to give it some condition. The porter had a tartness that came, presumably, from being stored for half a year or more in vats. But it wasn’t, it appears, an overwhelming tartness of the sort that characterises certain long-aged Belgian beer styles, or, say, Gale’s Prize Old Ale, another vatted beer, judging by a comment from the Quarterly Review in January 1855: “… the foaming tankard of Meux’s entire … smooth, pleasantly bitter, slightly acid, and bearded with a fine and persistent froth.” Meux, pronounced “mewks”, was one of the “top 10” London porter brewers, and ran the brewery that stood on the corner of Tottenham Court Road and what is now New Oxford Street, where the Dominion Theatre now is.

That the tartness did not include sourness is confirmed by a publication called Dr Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia, Vol III, on “Domestic Economy”, published in 1830, part of a 133-volume series on every subject under the sun: “The qualities which constitute good porter in the present day are perfect transparency, a light brown colour, fulness on the palate, pure and moderate bitterness, with a mixture of sweetness, a certain sharpness or acerbity without sourness or burnt flavour, and a close creamy head instantly closing in when blown aside.” Is that your porter? Then ur doin it rite, at least by mid-19th century standards. (Incidentally, if that quote looks familiar to readers of old brewing texts, that will be because William Loftus, writing a decade or two later, looks to have borrowed it almost word for word for his description of porter: it may be that Loftus was the writer Dr Lardner used for his passages on beer and brewing. As an aside, Dr Dionysius Lardner was a fascinating character: an Irishman, he ran off in 1840 with the wife of Captain Richard Heaviside of the 1st Dragoon Guards, who pursued Dr Lardner to Paris, subjected him to a flogging (but failed to persuade his wife to come back) and later won £8,000 compensation from a jury in England because of Lardner’s “criminal conversation” with Mrs Heaviside.

However, in its 300-year history, porter has changed constantly. Here’s another lengthy quote from Dr Lardner’s work in 1830, one which avoids the rubbish promulgated by John Feltham in 1802 about porter being invented by Harwood, and also correctly credits the name porter to its popularity with street porters:

About the beginning of the eighteenth century a malt liquor called entire butt was much in use; and afterwards a variety called brown stout: these were heavy, strong drinks; and about the middle of the eighteenth century they began to give place to a liquor the brewing of which was then much improved, and which happened to be, as Malone informs us, in great request amongst the street porters of London; hence it obtained the name of porter. In some years after it became one of the necessaries of life, and has continued so ever since. The manufacture of porter has been subject to all the changes which the capricious taste of the public could devise. At first it was requisite that it should have a heavy taste, and a blackish colour; but this kind being reported to be unwholesome, and apt to occasion dyspeptic symptoms, it was conceived that to give it age was the remedy: but the liquor being not strong, age was sure to produce sourness in a slight degree, or hardness, as this is technically called. The secret of inducing sudden old age on an infant brewing of porter was soon found out; and the method of making best old London porter in a fortnight, was to mix porter that had become sour, in a certain quantity, with fresh drink. At length the publicans were let into the secret, and they were furnished by the brewer with two separate hogsheads, one of sour, and the other of fresh drink. Finally, so notorious was this practice, and so bare-faced the imposture, that in all public-houses hydraulic engines were fitted up, through the pipes of which, by the combination of two or three pumps, drink of any age required could be brought out of the cellar ready made. At present the public taste has undergone a new revolution, and nothing but a full, sound, fresh, dark-coloured porter will be relished.

Lardner’s remarks about beer engines echo a passage from John Mason Good’s Pantologia: A new cyclopaedia, published in 1813 (and which itself was nicked by several later writers, including Rees’s Cyclopedia of 1819 and Frederic Accum in 1820). Apologies if you read this recently but it fits in to this narrative:

The flavour of the draught porter in London is almost universally obtained by compounding two kinds, the due admixture of which is palatable, though neither are good alone. One is mild, and the other stale porter; the former is that which has been lately brewed, and has rather a bitter mawkish flavour; the latter has been kept longer and is in some degree acid. This mixture the publican adapts to the taste of his several customers; he effects the proportion of mixture very readily by means of the beer pumps described under that article (see pl. 24). These will be found to have four pumps, but only three spouts, because two of the pumps throw out at the same spout. One of these two pumps draws mild, and the other the stale porter; and the publican, by dextrously changing his hold to the next handle works either pump, and draws both kinds of beer at the same spout; and an indifferent observer supposes that since it all comes from one spout it is entire butt beer, as the publican professes over his door, and which vulgar prejudice has decided to be the only good porter, though the difference is not easily distinguished.

Want to see pl.[ate] 24? It’s fascinating: note the overflow trough, which apparently drained any excess beer into a cask in the cellar (and I wonder what happened to that beer  subsequently … no, all right, I don’t wonder at all.)

A quick word on terminology for new readers: “mild” meant new, or newly brewed, “stale” meant old, not “stale” in the modern sense of “off”, and “mawkish” looks to have meant sweet. Lardner and Good suggest that in the early 19th century bitter-sweet “mild” porter and older, more acid “stale” porter were mixed in the pub by the publican drawing from two different casks, though Dr Lardner indicates that by 1830 public taste had changed again and drinkers wanted their porter to taste “fresh”: Kibble says by the 1860s old and new beer were mixed by the brewers before sending out.

The apparent alteration in practice from mixing old and new beer in the pub to mixing it in the brewery may have been because of this swing in public taste from wanting a more acid flavour in porter to wanting a milder, sweeter beer. Jonathan Pereira’s A Treatise on Food and Diet in 1843 confirms this change and points to the unsavoury way that, according to him, brewers used to make new porter have the sharp flavour of the aged variety:

Porter is much better adapted for table use than strong ale. It agrees with many individuals on whom the latter liquid acts injuriously .When new, as generally prepared at the present day, it is called mild; by keeping, a portion of acid is developed in it, and it is then denominated hard. Formerly, when hard porter was in request, publicans were in the habit of rendering new beer hard, or, as it was called, of bringing it forward, by the addition of sulphuric acid. To render old beer mild, carbonate of lime, or of soda, or of potash, is used to neutralize the acid.

In fact, as we have seen, brewers seem to have “brought on” their mild porter where necessary simply by adding a quantity of already aged porter to it, rather than tipping in the H2SO4.

The swing in mass taste towards sweeter beer continued throughout the 19th century, coupled, in the second half, with a move in fashion towards lighter (in gravity and colour) beers. Let’s have some more of the evidence that Mr Kibble gave to the 1899 inquiry:

“In 1863 about 70 per cent of the whole trade was porter or brown beers … Then it dropped down in 1873 to 50 and in 1882 to 30 per cent … the public taste went in almost, you may say, successive steps. First of all the public wanted a sweeter beer, then they wanted a brighter beer, and a lighter character of beer generally, so of course we have been obliged to follow the public taste right through. By ‘we’ I mean London brewers, and brewers throughout the country generally … the ale that was produced in 1863 and up to 1873, say, was a much heavier, clammier beer than the one the public now call for.” [Q] “You do not brew that sort of beer now?” [A] “Oh no. Our light ale that we turn out now is quite of different character to what it was in my first experience … they like a sweet beer, a sweet light beer now, as against in the old days, when they preferred a sweet clammy sort of beer.”

We’re moving away from the theme now, and I’m in danger of drifting into speculation about why the public wanted sweeter beer (a speedier food chain, meaning fresher-tasting food, and less of a requirement for strongly flavoured, tart drink to stand up to the taste of riper meat and the like, is my guess). But I hope what I’ve shown here is that if you are after an authentic porter from, let’s say, about 1800 to about 1875, you should probably be looking to have some tart, acid quality in it, most easily achieved by ageing a quantity of one brew and then mixing it with a younger version. What about Brettanomyces as well? Well, I suspect that any vatted beer in a 19th century British brewery was going to have a Brett infection, and the beer some hint, at least, of Brett character, so yes, probably.

But I also suspect that leaving beer hanging around for six to nine months to get the right character to blend is going to make any cashflow-aware modern brewery accountant express rude comments on your sanity. I also suspect that the ancient London porter breweries had been doing this for so long – maybe a century and a half, even in 1863 – that their brewers had all the skills to bring the trick off, while their vats, their walls and ceilings were impregnated with all the right families of yeasts and bacteria, like a good lambic brewery, to bring ageing porter to a successful maturity. Any modern brewer, either amateur in kitchen or new professional in a lock-up on a trading estate, is doubly lacking there.

0 thoughts on “So you think you know what porter tastes like …

  1. It was Michael Donovan who wrote the volume on Domestic Economy in Lardner’s Cyclopaedia.
    There are several letters from Donovan to Lardner relating to the circumstances of it’s creation which are in the Wellcome Institute Library.

    1. Thank you for that contribution, Anna, extremely welcome – and good luck with finding a publisher for your Lardner book. Have you tried the publisher of my own Amber Gold and Black, The History Press? It sounds like something that would be up their street.

  2. I feel blessed to have, in my home town, a brewery that understands the beauty that tartness from “vatting” can contribute to a beer. For some of us, the pendulum is swinging back, and we’re happy about it.

    Just in the past few weeks, Jolly Pumpkin released “Biére de Mars”, followed by “Biére de Mars Grand Reserve”. The regular Biére de Mars spends a few months in barrel, and has a light tartness, perhaps similar to the “entire butt” porter. The Grand Reserve is aged in oak for 18 months and is “hard”, with a nice acidic bite, definitely dryer and suitable for sipping, not gulping. I imagine this is what aged porter might have been like, back then.

  3. As usual a great post Zyth.. especially intrigued with the idea of bringing old beer forward or alternatively rendering old beer mild. I might be curious to experiment with using potash to control the acidity of some of my old stock.


  4. One of the handy things about beer analyses is that they often contain the acidity. Even after WW II, some of the stronger beers, such as Colne Spring Ale, had relatively high levels of acidity. Probably produced by brettanomyces.

    In 19th analyses, beers like Guinness also had a greater level of acidity than Pale Ales. I really should have a look through them properly sometime. I’ve only seen a couple of examples of Adambier, but these were more acidic than Porters.

  5. Mr. Cornell,

    I have done a fair amount of research on vatted porter of late and would like to try and recreate such a thing, if it is possible. I have already made my own pseudo-historical brown malt (kilned over a hornbeam fire) and brewed a batch of porter with it – St. Stephens 1834 Porter – courtesy of Ron’s website. However, I am still unsure of the best way of treating the porter in the secondary and the level of acidity I should be aiming for. Some sources seem to indicate that both brettanomyces (anomalous and/or claussenii) and lactobacillus would have been present in the vats, the lacto in particular giving the beer the level of acidity so mentioned, and the brett producing the vinous character. Also, another source I came across seemed to indicate that the same yeast responsible for sherry flor, may have been found in vatted porter. Therefore, would it be appropriate to inoculate the porter with both lacto and brett for extending aging and then mix it with fresh (mild) porter closer to the time it would be served? If so, there are still a few bits of info I need. First, do we know any specific beer analysis’ that give the amount of acidity found in vatted porters? If I can get a number to work on, I can try and replicate it. Also, how long exactly were the London vatted porters of the mid-19th century aged for? I’ve found sources indicating everything from a few weeks to two years. And lastly, were there differences in the recipes used for those porters to be vatted and those served mild? I’ll be making another batch of brown malt in the spring to brew another porter for mixing with the aged version. If you have any info that could help me with my venture, I would be very much appreciative. Thanks.

  6. this is an excellent post!
    Like Will who posted above me, I’m planning to try and replicate a historic variety of porter.
    Please correct me if my information is incorrect, as I’m certainly no expert, but I think I may have found some of the information Will is looking for on Ronald Pattinson’s blog:

    Will wrote, “…I am still unsure of the best way of treating the porter in the secondary and the level of acidity I should be aiming for… ….do we know any specific beer analysis’ that give the amount of acidity found in vatted porters?”
    On Mr. Pattinson’s site, in an article on 1861 Guinness XX Porter, he gives some data on the acidity levels of Guinness, “With an acetic acid content of 0.36%, Guinness’s XX porter must have been quite a tart beer. Analyses of Guinness Porter and Stout from 1870 also show quite high levels of acetic acid: 0.24%, 0.20% and 0.26%. In another sample from 1888 the acidity was as high as 0.52%.”
    He has another entry, just about acidity (a response to this very post, if I’m not mistaken), where he gives a chart about porter acidity:
    Like I said I’m no expert, and as such, I don’t know whether or not Irish Porter would be consistent with what you are brewing (for instance, I’ve read they were early adopters of Black Patent Malt and therefor were not brewing with wood kilned malt as you are), but hopefully this is helpful.

    Will, you also asked, “were there differences in the recipes used for those porters to be vatted and those served mild?”
    I came across the answer to this recently, but I can’t find it again. The basic answer, I believe was that the lower gravity porters were to be served young, while the higher OG, served older. If you want to try and find the post, I think it was on this sight, and the article was on one of the Guinness family who’s uncle gave him a brewery which subsequently failed, in which time someone else recorded some of his old recipes. Hope that helps,

    Best of luck with brewing one of these, hope it turns out as well.

  7. […] An interesting piece if you haven't seen it yet. Looked for the topic after tasting my first "vatted porter" at Cambridge Brewing Co. Not my style, but lambic lovers might like it. Ray googletag.display('div-gpt-ad-1360174805302-3'); __________________ Zymotechnia Fundamentalis Ask not for whom the beer twangs; it twangs for thee. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.