Ale Through the Ages: Colonial Porter

Brewing A Colonial-Style Porter

A large crowd was on hand for the fifteenth brewing session of Ale Through the Ages at Discovery World on December 8th 2010, when the historic porter brewing traditions of Britain and Northeastern United States in the 18th-19th Centuries was the topic of discussion and recreation.   Once again Northern Brewer generously donated a traditional English Ale for all to enjoy during the brewing session.

This Colonial Porter recipe is derived from several written sources that recount the methods and ingredients for London-style porters that would have been available in New England during the late 1700s.  Therefore the grains, hops and yeast all pay tribute to their English origins with a distinct twist of colonial enterprise using molasses, corn and maple syrup for bottle conditioning.

Origin of London Porter

The invention of porter as a distinct style of ale is often credited to a Mr. Ralph Harwood, when instead of constantly mixing three types (“three threads”) of cask ales together (strong, medium and weak); he formulated a recipe combining all three types in east London in 1722.  Sparging (grain rinsing) was not commonly practiced in the 18th Century; therefore, brown malts were mashed several times and drawn off separately, resulting in “strong”, “common” and “small” ales. By combining the mash running’s into one batch, this new ale became known “Mr. Harwood’s Entire” or “Entire Butt” and soon found favor with the dock workers (porter’s) along the river Thames in London. (A Butt is a British cask/vat containing 126 U.S. gallons, whereas an American Barrel = 31 gallons). A rhyme written by a J. Gutteridge around 1750 recounts Mr. Harwood’s claim to fame:

Harwood my townsman, he invented first Porter to rival wine and quench the thirst. Porter which spreads itself half the world o’er, whose reputation rises more and more.  As long as porter shall preserve its fame, let all with gratitude our Parish name

Whether Harwood was indeed the progenitor of porter remains open to speculation, due to the fact that porter had widespread popularity across Britain by 1720s, meaning it either exploded with popularity within a couple of years, or its antecedents are older.

Take for instance the following description of porter’s popularity in England in 1726.

“…In this country 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 the pot.  Another kind of beer is called porter, meaning carrier, 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 threepence a pot….” (Cesar de Saussure, October 29th 1726)

Therefore, if porter was so widely enjoyed across Britain less than four years after its supposed invention, then perhaps it was being produced earlier than is commonly accepted.  Nevertheless, these original 18th Century porters were likely not black, rather they were probably mahogany in color, well hopped, with an original gravity between 1.060 – 1.070 (6-8% ABV). However, by the late 19th Century the ABV decreased to 1.040 due to the British excise tax on beer, that taxed beer based on alcohol content.

A particularly useful account of how porters were made in London during the early 1800s comes from a German chemist named Frederick Accum in his book Treatise on the Art of Brewing, which was published in 1820.

“The porter grist used by the London brewers is usually composed of equal parts of brown amber and pale malt. These proportions are not absolutely essential.  An eminent establishment in this metropolis (London), the grist is composed of one-fifth of pale malt, a like quantity of amber coloured and three fifths of brown malt.”

Beyond London Porter

From the earliest days of porter, it was being exported across England, Ireland and eventually to the English Colonies in America. It was being brewed in Edinburgh Scotland in 1760 and by 1773 there were three porter breweries operating in Dublin, Ireland.  Beer brewing in North America can be traced to the earliest days of European settlement (ca. 1580s) in the Virginia Colonies, where corn and molasses were used as supplement fermentables.  William Penn describes how beer was made in the 1680s.

“Our drink has been beer and punch, made of Rum and water. Our Beer was mostly made of Molasses which well boyld, until it makes a very tolerable drink, but note they make Mault, and Mault Drink begins to be common, especially in the Ordinaries and the Houses of the more substantial People. In our great Town there is an able Man (William Frampton), that has set up a large Brew House, in order to furnish the People with good Drink, both there and up and down the River.”

It took nearly one hundred years after Penn established his brewery for porter to be brewed in Pennsylvania.  That credit is given to two London expatriates, Robert Hare Jr. and J. Warren, when they began brewing porter in Philadelphia in 1774. This was likely the first porter ever made in America and soon became favored by George Washington.  He writes the following in 1788 “I beg you will send me a gross of Mr. Hairs best bottled Porter. If the price is not much enhanced by the copious droughts you took of it at the late procession.” Unfortunately, the original brewery was destroyed by a fire in 1790, yet, this brewing lineage lived on and evolved into the John F Betz & Son Inc. which survived until 1939.

George Washington wasn’t the only president with a pension for porter. Thomas Jefferson favored Philadelphia made ales and porters, particularly from the Henry Pepper Brewery (Heinrich Pfeiffer). In order to maintain a steady supply of ale and to generate revenue at his estate in Monticello NY, he enlisted the help of a shipwrecked English brewer, Captain Joseph Miller, to establish a brewery there in 1818.

At the dawn of the 20th century, East Coast breweries continued manufacturing porter, in addition to breweries across the country.  Anheuser-Busch, Coors and at least 22 other breweries regularly produced porter west of the Mississippi by the early 1900s.  Milwaukee’s own  Schlitz Brewing Co. regularly made porter.  So too did Brandon & Beal (Leavenworth, Kansas), Imperial Brewing Co. (Minneapolis, MN), August Buehler Brewing Co. (The Dalles, OR), Seattle Ale & Porter Co. (Seattle WA), Robert Witz Brewery (Sitka, Alaska), among others.

Therefore, as porter’s popularity waned in England during the 20th century, America maintained the tradition, where by the end of the century thanks to the micro brewing revolution of the 1980s, nearly every craft brewery offers at least one version of a porter. Meaning, we can all be thankful this distinct style of ale will be with us for generations to come.

Colonial Porter

In all, 12 gallons of Colonial Porter were brewed.  Tipping a hat to the traditional method of combining the mash runnings, one 6gallon carboy contained the first running, with an original gravity of 1.080 (20 Plato) {recent final gravity of 1.022}.  The second 6 gallon carboy contained 3 gallons of the first running and 3 gallons of a second mash rinsing, to produce a moderate strength porter, with an original gravity of 1.060 (15 Plato).  After adding one ounce of oak chips to the fermenters in the secondary fermentation stage, the resulting oak flavor should come through in the flavor profile as the porter ages in the bottle.  This ought to be a very nice porter indeed and ideally an accurate rendition of the first porters brewed in North America, when the yoke of English colonialism was thrown off!

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One response to “Ale Through the Ages: Colonial Porter

  1. A great site of beer brewing history.

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