While visiting the newish Hammer & Stitch brewery in Portland, Oregon, earlier this year, I stumbled across a rare specimen in today’s taproom ecosystem: a porter.
I don’t mean a Baltic porter or a cold-pressed triple-chocolate tiramisu porter, but rather a no-frills, 5.7 percent ABV pub porter.
When the brewery revival came to the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, many of the first breweries—Anchor, New Albion, DeBakker—made a porter. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a porter or its cousin—the slightly stronger American stout—was an almost-mandatory brewpub offering. That has changed, to the delight or consternation of different kinds of dark-ale fans. For those who love their stouts bourbon barrel–aged and/or brewed to taste like liquid confectionary, these are the salad days. Traditionalists may grouse that these indulgent newcomers are further evidence of craft beer’s excesses. In this case, however, they’d be wrong. Dark ales have been in constant change since the Lincoln administration.
The first porters were born almost exactly 300 years ago in London. They were the world’s first great international beer, fueled in part by their incomparable quality, but also by industrial innovation and a globe-encircling fleet of British ships. It took a bit more than a century before the next conquering beer, pale lager, swept around the globe.
Yet in these two examples we see radically different evolutions. Pilsners replicated more by cloning than by natural selection. About 180 years later, they are still roughly the same strength, still made with roughly the same malts and hop types, and they even use only barely updated brewing techniques. We can talk about the “debasement” of mass-market lager, but is it really all that different from Josef Groll’s original pilsner?
By contrast, porter and stout have spent the centuries in constant reinvention. The only thread connecting them is color and name—nothing else of those first examples survives. When they took root in Poland, they became lagers. In Ireland, their grists morphed, and eventually their strengths and preparation. In the country of their birth, they went through countless permutations, even experiencing—around the turn of the 20th century—a sugary moment not so distant from today’s pastry stouts.
Porters and stouts are a canvas on which brewers can exercise their wildest experimentation. Seen through this window of history, the evolution from pub porter to pastry stout looks less like the excesses of craft brewing, and more like another chapter in a thick, entertaining book.
Three Hundred Years in a Few Paragraphs
In their first century, porters didn’t evolve much. At their debut—which Martyn Cornell pegs to around 1720 in his indispensable history, Amber, Gold & Black—porters apparently were rough beasts. Brewed entirely with brown malt, a cheap variety dried quickly over wood, they were noted for their smoky flavor. Initially, they were matured only a short time in oak vats. However, brewers soon learned that a longer maturation would transform the beer. Wild yeast resident in the staves slowly snacked on the smoke-tinged malt and transformed it into a celebrated beer famous for its sophisticated, wine-like flavors. That accomplished product, which brewers perfected by the mid-18th century, was the one that took the world by storm.
Development followed different tracks within and outside Britain. Within the country, porters eventually branched into different styles. Stout—once a term that merely designated stronger versions of porter—graduated into its own styles, and porter gravities were drifting downward by the mid-19th century. In 1880, a new law freed brewers to use sugars, adjuncts, and non-barley malts in their grists. This produced a weird era of experimentation. Now-classic styles such as oatmeal and milk stouts emerged, but they sparked a fad of “nutritional” stouts, purportedly great for the ill and convalescing, nursing mothers, and the “enfeebled.” In at least one case, a brewery took the trend to its natural conclusion and added meat solids to a stout. (Eww.) Following the world wars, milds were the dark ale of choice, and porters eventually went extinct in Britain—at least for a while. Stouts existed in both sweet and strong forms, but only barely.
Meanwhile, porters and stouts followed different trajectories outside Britain. They would become the national beers of Ireland, and those were distinctively different from London porters as early as the 1820s. The success of Guinness, which opened a brewery in London between the world wars, was surely one reason other porters and stouts declined in the second half of the 20th century. (Disclosure: Guinness is a sponsor of my blog, Beervana.)
Periodic import bans spurred Polish brewers to start brewing porter around 1815, with great fidelity to the London originals. Decades later, however, Bavarian and Czech brewing became popular, and porters there morphed to become lagers. Breweries in South Africa and Australia also made porters and stouts. In a political irony, it was London porter (and not tea) that gave courage to Americans who plotted revolution against the Crown—and at least a few examples have always been brewed here. Guinness helped stout become a mainstay in Africa and the Caribbean, made to different preparations than those popular in Ireland. Seemingly every country brewed porters—even the Germans and Czechs.
The Bourbon Revolution
When the revivalist Americans started making their porters and stouts 40-plus years ago, they were nothing like the old vat-aged London porters of the 18th century. They were weaker and made of entirely different grists, and brewers fermented them cleanly and quickly. Americans may think of those as “old school,” but they’re anything but. Except for the Saccharomyces yeast used for primary fermentation, literally nothing about American pub ales and London porters was the same.
However, an experiment in the mid-1990s redefined dark ales for the American audience, and it actually brought them a lot closer to those original London porters. That was the famous 1994 beer event jointly hosted by Jim Beam and Goose Island, in which master distiller Booker Noe suggested aging beer in some of his cast-off bourbon barrels (by law, he could use them only once). Greg Hall decided to put a strong stout in them, and the rest is history. They are now kissed by whiskey rather than Brettanomyces, but they’re very strong, oak-aged, and among the most prized ales available. And—like those old London porters—they are now widely imitated across the globe.
The bourbon-stout phenomenon was a bit slow off the blocks, but 15 years later, barrel rooms were the norm rather than exception. Bourbon’s sweetness and culinary elements naturally led to more experimentation. Stouts are commonly chocolaty, and that makes them perfect substrates for the pastry-stout movement that followed. This is essentially what London brewers discovered 140 years ago; while today’s dessert stouts are quite a bit different from the sweet stouts of the 1880s, it’s hard to miss the historical echo.
Thirty years seems like a long time, but it’s only the last 10 percent of porter’s long history. In that time, it has been a strong and smoky ale, a vat-aged wild ale, a weak and nitrogenated pub ale, a strong lager, and a ponderous liquid into which brewers feel empowered to toss everything from licorice and lactose to meat solids and maple syrup. Select any 30-year period in the past century and a half, and you’ll see noticeable—and occasionally explosive—evolution. In light of all of that, our experience with them in the modern craft era looks pretty normal.
The Next Evolution?
Back at Hammer & Stitch in Portland, I hold my glass of porter up to the brightest spot I can find in the cloudy sky. This brewery has chosen to highlight updated versions of beers popular in the United States 30 years ago. It seems like a quaint approach, but cofounder Ben Dobler says that people under 30 haven’t encountered many amber ales or porters—and they form some of those beers’ most avid fans.
So, could pub porter make a comeback? With porters and stouts—who knows?