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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

19th Century Porters

One nice thing about doing research for a book: it forces you to absorb information that would otherwise just wash through your brain. For example, although I have read Martyn Cornell's great history of porters, it didn't sink in until this morning what he was actually saying. Porters have been around for nearly 300 years, but the ones we drink now don't taste the same as ones brewed in London in 1800. Why? It's the malt.
"It also used highly dried brown malt, which gave a roast flavor to the beer. Henry Stopes, a nineteenth-century malting expert wrote in Malt and Malting, of the making of 'brown, blown, snap, or porter malt,' talking about how the porter malthouses .... 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 firs so that the sudden violent heat makes the malt grains burst like popcorn."
Porters throughout most of the 1700s were brewed entirely from brown malt. From about 1790 on, the recipes called for a declining percentage of brown malt, but it was still a key to the character of porter. In 1817, Daniel Wheeler invented a method of roasting malt at 400 degrees to make a black malt; he took a patent out on the process, and that's where we get "black patent" malt. This made it possible to stain a beer black with only a tiny amount of dark malt--the balance could be made up in brown and pale malts. The percentage of brown malt used in the grist continued to decline over the 19th century as mild ale began to supplant porter.

So, forget that silly recent news about Washington's porter. If you wanted to brew an actual Victorian porter, you'd need to track down some of that funny old brown malt (different, I assume than this brown malt). Or make it. And you'd also need to find a cask somewhere and put the beer in there with some brett* for about a year (or more) if you wanted the really authentic stuff.

*As Osh points out in comments, this is an unnecessarily oblique reference. I've been swimming in this stuff lately, and I forget not everyone is looking over my shoulder and absorbing the same things. This refers to the wild yeast brettanomyces, which was resident in wooden vats of British beer until sometime in the 20th century. It actually takes the name from Britain ("brett"), where scientists first isolated it. It takes awhile to kick in, so beer aged briefly or not at all ("mild" or "running") would have been unaffected.


  1. Can you expand on what 'brett' is?


  2. I did a Porter based off of one of Ron Pattinson's charts, from 1856. It used only pale, brown and black malts. It was very roasty! I didn't add brett to that one, it was a runner. I did to a Stout based off a Guinness grist from the 1880s. That one used pale, amber and black malts. Not roasty, but I learned later that 19th century Irish black malt wasn't kilned as long as English black malt, so it was more roasty, rather than charcoally. Next time I'll dry roast some brown malt on my grill and see if I can get a black malt with more roastiness!

  3. I had a similar beer from Pretty Things that just used Brown, Amber, and Black Patent with a base of Maris Otter. It reminded me of a roastier and hoppier modern porter. (Fun fact: there was twice as much porter than pale ale shipped to India during the 1800s.)

    @Beervana: If you'd like a bottle let me know, I'd be glad to trade for some Oregon brew.

  4. @osh: Brett refers to brettanomyces which often gives belgian lambics + flander/flemish oud bruin/reds their funky taste. I imagine 1700's porters to taste something like a roastier Gale's Old ale which is to say like a roastier oud bruin/flanders red

  5. Osh, I updated the post with effectively the same info MC adds below.

    MC, email me about the Pretty Things.

  6. mc,

    I have a recipe for an Export India Porter from 1821. I haven't done it yet, but it looks good.

  7. What's interestng about Martyn's research is that it points out that the notion that porter and stout are distinctly different is a recent idea. Historcially the grists were very similar (in fact at Whitbred they were the same - only the yield per batch was different). In our style crazy time, we've got separate definitions for porter and stout but for 270 years of brewing this wasn't the case. The only difference was strength. The grists were very similar and the brewers themselves used the terms interchangeably. Our definition of the differences from stout and porter are thoroughly modern ones. We think of porter as less roasty and "softer" than stout, but in mid-19th century London, porter generally had about 3% black malt, while stout used only 2%. We also forget that modern porter is essentially a revival style since they had died out in the UK.

    It's another good example of how styles change over time.

    I brewed one of the Barclay Perkins East India POrter recipes from 1856 down at Green Dragon a year and a half ago. Just pale, brown and black and a boatload of hops. I'd love to see it rebrewed.

  8. Is it possible that Porter was a precursor to Stout? In other words, REAL Porter was made with brown malt comprising the vast majority of the grist prior to the invention of Black Patent (hence the softer roastiness). And once Black Patent came to be, the switch-over to Pale+BP to save money gave birth to what we know as Stout. Just a thought.

    Also, Randy Mosher discusses the subject of Brown Malt and making it at home in "Radical Brewing."

  9. Since no one else has chimed in yet, I'll go ahead and confirm Jeff's presumption that you cannot make a historic porter using 100% modern brown malt. Modern brown malt has no enzymatic activity, no diastatic power.

    I believe Kris England attempted a 100% brown malt ale a few years ago, using amylase to force conversion. He said the results were horrible.

    Coincidentally for last week's Let's Brew Wednesday, Ron and Kris tackled a 1877 Whitbread Stout, comprised of Pale, Brown and Black malts. The recipe is a good example of the shift in brown to black malt ratio happening in the late 19th century.

    I used this base as a rough guide for a Black Strap Porter/Stout I brewed over the weekend (The recipe will be up on my site later this week).

    Oh, and a final note about historic brown malt: the 'blown' process of quickly heating the malt after the moisture has been removed kills the diastatic power. I don't believe this was being done when porters were 100% brown malt. So, it may not have been the advent of black malt alone that killed brown malt. Newer kilning techniques that both created a more flavorful brown malt and the need for a diastatic malt may also have played a role. Mmm...speculation.

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