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.

However, at least two dictionaries written long before Feltham was born describe three-threads as something rather different. The (admittedly obscure) Dictionary of the Canting Crew by “BE” (the “canting crew” being those who spoke in “cant”, or slang), published around 1697/1699, and mentioned here, called three-threads “half common Ale and the rest Stout or Double Beer” (both “stout” and “double beer” meaning “strong beer”.) This definition was repeated in Nathan Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dictionary of 1737, which again said that three-threads was “half common Ale and half Stout or double Beer”.

Since “BE” and Bailey were writing at the time when three-threads was being drunk – you can find references to it in books and magazines from 1698 to 1757, but after that it disappears – and Feltham wasn’t, I think we can believe their definition of three-threads, as a mixture of two different malt liquors, rather than his more complicated recipe. And if three-threads was actually only a combination of two drinks, and thus no more complicated to serve than mild-and-stale, or any of the other two-beers mixtures all the way through to mild-and-bitter in the 20th century that British pub-goers have enjoyed ordering, that makes Feltham’s idea that porter was invented to replace three-threads massively less likely.

The truth is that porter was not actually a “new” beer, or a beer designed to imitate any other, but ordinary London brown beer, the stuff previously sold as “mild” and “stale”, revitalised and improved under the pressure of the competition it was receiving from other ales and beers. One threat came from the growing popularity of “Twopenny” pale ale, originally introduced to the London market, according to Poundage, by the country gentry, who were spending more time in the capital, and retailing for four pence a quart, two pence a pint. Another pressure on London’s brown beer brewers, Poundage revealed 40 years later, was that middle-men were buying the “mild” beer cheaply from the brewers, storing it, and then selling it to the publicans and alehouse keepers as more expensive “stale” beer – depriving the brewers of profit.

The London beer brewers worked on their brown beer, hopping it more, lengthening the storage times, improving the ways they stored it, surmising, according to Poundage, 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 improved brew sold at three pence a quart, the same price as three-threads and less than stale beer or Twopenny, and although “at first it was slow in making its way … in the end the experiment succeeded beyond expectation,” Poundage declared.

That porter was London brown beer by another name is confirmed by several writers in the 18th century: an advertisement in a Sheffield newspaper in 1744 used “London Brew’d Porter” and “brown Beer” as synonyms; Michael Combrune, in his book Theory and Practice of Brewing , first published in 1762, continually referred to “Porter or Brown Beer”; and in 1768 the anonymous author of a book called Every Man his Own Brewer talked about “London Brown Beer”, which was “usually called Porter”.

The improved brown beer found an eager market among London’s working classes, many of whom worked as porters, either informally or for the two main organised portering groups, the Fellowship Porters and Ticket Porters. From the improved brown beer’s popularity with the porters, who numbered thousands, and who did most of the fetching and carrying that took place in the City of London, “came its appellation of porter”, Poundage wrote in 1760.

The earliest known mention of porter by name is in a pamphlet by the political journalist and poet Nicholas Amhurst dated May 22 1721, which talks about dining at a cook’s shop “upon beef, cabbage and porter”. In November 1726, the Swiss traveller César de Saussure, describing London in a letter home home, said that “nothing but beer is drunk and it is made in several qualities. Small beer is what everyone drinks when thirsty; it is used even in the best houses and costs only a penny a pot. Another kind of beer is called porter … because the greater quantity of this beer is consumed by the working classes. It is a thick and strong beverage, and the effect it produces if drunk in excess, is the same as that of wine; this porter costs 3d the pot. In London there are a number of houses where nothing but this sort of beer is sold.”

32 thoughts on “The origins of porter (and a bit about three-threads)

  1. The story about porter being drawn from one cask to replace a pub-made mix seems almost certainly wrong since entire clearly meant a blending of the mashes of a brown beer, using all the extract from one set of grains. Non-technical writers such as Feltham did not appreciate, I believe, the technical meaning of the term entire. This way of brewing,and lengthy maturation (aging), seem the hallmarks of porter. It probably produced a 5-6% ABV drink similar in strength and palate to three threads. I believe porter did replace three threads – king of the thread drinks but we know there were others, e.g., a two threads and four threads. This was not so much to deliver a custom-made flavour, but because of the excise laws against mixing beers. Casks of threads called three, noted in one of the malt worm publications you have written about, must have been sent by brewers or middlemen to the pubs. If excise cracked down on bulk mixing, which it had an incentive to since such mixing reduced the revenue paid on strong beer, that practice must have slowed a lot, and needed replacement. It’s an inference, but I think porter was designed to deliver a similar result in palate and strength.

    True, mixing never stopped, but entire butt porter seemed a product unto itself for quite a while in the 1700’s before blending re-emerged in order to save costs. Poundage and Feltham, as I read them, basically say the same thing. I don’t think it matters if two or three beers were mixed although two was probably the norm. Feltham may have confused three threads with three beers when in fact it was really a measure of alcoholic strength, or primarily was. But mixing was the key to these drinks and porter took over for a long time in my view from them, as shown e.g. by the disappearance of the term three threads in daily usage after Queen Anne’s era. You read about mixing up to about 1720 and then again from the last years of the 1700’s. In between, not so much, although to be sure mild porter and stale porter were mentioned in this period and some mixing never stopped. But entire butt beer was something and the improvement so many wrote about was introduced I believe to minimize the excise-related and practical problems (e.g., consistency) of mixing beers as the staple drink of Londoners.


  2. Another excellent post, Martyn. Thanks. I’ve forwarded it to our homebrew club and posted it on FB.

    Could you address the origin of the term “entire butt.” Is it a term contemporaneous with the origin of the term porter? I think I’ve always read that it was, as Gary writes, a beer made from all of the runnings of the mash, either combined early or after fermentation and possibly maturation. Was this different from earlier practice?

    1. “Entire” was the standard term for any brew made from the complete run of mashes on one piece of “goods”, or malt, all mixed together, eg “entire small beer”, small beer made from all the mashes off one mash-tun full of grain, and “butt beer” was beer matured in butts, so “entire butt” was a brew made from a complete set of mashes, and matured in butts. This certainly seems to have been how porter was brewed, and “entire butt” does seem to have been used as a synonym for porter.

  3. The whole three-threads myth seems to derive from Feltham not understanding brewing vocabulary.

    When he states this:

    “the publican had the trouble to go to three casks and turn three cocks for a pint of liquor.”

    it’s because he’s totally misunderstood this passage from Poundage:

    “They began to hop their mild beer more and the Publican started three, four, sometimes six butts at once . . ”

    He’s incorrectly assumed that starting a butt means tapping a barrel. Whereas in fact it means laying down a barrel of beer to mature. It’s a mistake that’s been endlessly repeated since.

  4. It’s interesting that Poundage refers to three, four and six buts, which may be a reference to the three threads, four threads and six threads referred to in Edward Denneston’s early 1700’s excise essay cited in Peter Clark’s The English Alehouse, and in other sources from around 1700. No reference to five threads in Denneston or Poundage or these other sources (that I have seen). However, Poundage in turn may have misinterpreted what these threads were too, since the implication of having that many butts is so many beers to mix – yet the Denneston essay suggests only two beers were mixed but in different proportions to attain a set strength.

    Martyn has written elsewhere that the Poundage account is “slightly confused” and that is a keen observation. Another example of this, and one more worrying, is Poundage’s comment that brewers used more hops than malt when the latter became more expensive. That doesn’t make sense to me, unless he meant gravities dropped when malt was reduced and to disguise this the brewers used more hops, but that is a stretch.

    Of course, there are differences in the accounts of Feltham and Poundage but at bottom I believe they are saying the saying the same thing, that mixtures of beer were common before about 1720 and porter took over from these drinks and was not a mixed drink. Also, that porter was intended to offer a balance of characteristics (strength and flavour) that had been represented by the separate beers. This is the “extremes” in Poundage and Feltham conveys a similar idea by referring to three types of beer, ale, beer and twopenny. (But Poundage also referred to various, similar mixtures). Bailey’s and the earlier definition of three threads are close enough to Feltham’s description of the beers used to mix.

    George Watkins 1760 brewing text is a good example in my view to show the aged, unblended nature of entire butt as it was until about that date in fact. Read carefully I believe Watkins is saying that the best porter was aged up to two years and that it should not be made by blending fresh drink and stale drink because the taste is not the same (Frank Faulkner said the same thing more than 100 years later) but nonetheless the large brewers were starting to do this in particular. It is interesting that Watkins states it is the large brewers who were doing, the implication is smaller ones – Harwood included? – were not or had not done this. Watkins also states that 3 or 4 mashes were made and combined to make entire butt.


  5. Slight correction: George Watkins (in his Compleat Brewer, first edition 1860) did not deprecate mixing old and new beer per se, although he did suggest the practice was more an adjustment than anything else. It was in Every Man His Own Brewer that I read specifically that mild beer and stale shouldn’t be mixed even though large porter brewers were doing so.

    This is important in my view to whether porter replaced three threads.


  6. For info on porter in America, see . It has the usual errors about porter’s origin, as well incorrectly claiming that near beer was 1.5% abv (it was 0.5%), but otherwise it’s informative.

    Porter in post-prohibition (1933) US before the craft-brewing movement was typically just a light-colored beer colored with Porterine, a very dark caramel syrup, as mentioned in the article above. No dark malts were harmed in their production.

    1. “Porter in England also began to feel pressure from its two close relatives – mild ale and stout. Because of the British excise tax system, which taxed beer according to its original gravity, the strength and gravity of porter decreased over time. Porter had remained a keeping (high-gravity) beer into the late 19th century, but by 1913 the specifications for porter in England were as low as 1.040 (9.9 °P), while mild was 1.050 (12.3 °P) (2). Stout seems to have remained more resilient in gravity through the 19th century (at about 1.070 [17 °P]), but the tax system would affect all British beers in the end. ”

      This paragraph is mostly bollocks. Mild Ale a close relative of Porter? You what? And that stuff about the tax system only applies after 1880.

      1. I keep on wanting to write a snarky(but funny) reply about dictionary writers and brewery sellers. It just doesn’t work and makes me look like an intellectual snob. This reply does no such thing!

  7. The 2nd google books link cited contains the following quote:
    “Half common ale mixed with stale and double beer”, and not
    “half common Ale and the rest Stout or Double Beer” as you indicate.
    The former does imply 3 components. Can you please clarify?

    1. And the definition below it is “a mixture of three malt liquors[…]”

      You appear to be citing a reference that contradicts your claims.

      1. No, again the definition you’re looking at comes from the end of the 19th century, long after three-threads had disappeared and after Feltham’s article on the alleged origins of porter had completely confused people: I’m referring to Nathan Bailey’s definition from a time when three-threads was still a drink you cluld order in an alehouse..

  8. I’m seeking info on history/development of ‘Baltic Porter’,
    as I’ve agreed to do a talk for my homebrew club on this intriguing but elusive style. It’s starting to look like this term is an oversimplification.
    Does it refer to traditional beers from countries bordering the Baltic Sea, or were English porters imported there first, which influenced later Baltic region brewers?

    thank you,
    Mike Persinger
    Santa Rosa, CA

    1. Mike, the original “Baltic porters” (so called, although this is a name invented late in the 20th century) were stimulated by the desire to imitate English porter brewers such as Barclay Perkins of Southwark in London, who were exporting porter to the Baltic lands from at least the end of the 18th century.

  9. Just when I thought I’d found the history of Porter I find this blog. Makes you feel better about being unsure of it’s origin when the original drinkers of it seem to be of assorted opinions. I’m an avid home brewer that likes a touch of the old fashioned. I’ve wanted to do a traditional porter where I brewed and blended an “aged” brew and a lighter newer one. But it seems that’s not much different than having a “black and tan” when I go out.

  10. […] With the brewery’s third birthday in just a few weeks time, Jack is pleased to inform me that they have re-brewed their Three Threads beer for the occasion. Based on a traditional brewing method than involves using the grain much like a teabag, the beer is created from three worts of different gravities coming together, and is thought to have inspired the birth of the porter (although this claim has been disputed by some beer historians). […]

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