Beer 101: A look at the origins of porter

Porter is a bit of an enigma. It’s dark, yet not heavy. It’s slightly sweet, though not fruity or cloying.

Its origins date to the early to mid-1700s. Brewers learned early on that you get a darker color if you roast those malts. Most beer in England was produced in brewpubs at the time. But for economical and brewing reasons, porter is believed to be one of the first styles to be made in a brewery and then delivered to pubs.

The late, esteemed beer writer Michael Jackson proffers that the workers who delivered the beer “may have announced themselves with the word ‘Porter!’ “

Jackson writes that porter came along about the same time the transportation system evolved – a perfect marriage between product and people. And it might be why some people say porter became the first nationwide style of beer anywhere in the world.

Robert Hare, who immigrated to Philadelphia in the 1770s, specialized in brewing porter. On several occasions, his friend George Washington placed orders with him. So George apparently had important things on his mind other than preparing to lead a young country.

Earliest origins regarding brewing specifics are sketchy. A brewer named Ralph Harwood garners some credit, though to what extent is unknown. Writes Jackson:

“Most accounts of British brewing in the 1700s say that Porter was a ready-made blend of three different styles previously available, sometimes known as “ale,” “beer” and “twopenny.” Because it was a combination of all three, it was also known as “Entire.”

In the beer family, you might say porter and stouts are cousins. Porter would be the slightly leaner, more thoughtful cousin, while stout would be the one who fires away, then asks questions later.

Both can take on the roasty flavor from its malts, so coffee notes or even a hint of toast often come through.

The style’s popularity declined for some time, in part because of restrictions on making roasted malts during World War I and later because of light beer coming of age. But it has seen a creative resurgence, thanks to the craft-brewing world.

It has evolved and morphed considerably over the years, with several brewers (Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing Co. and Portside, along with Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, Calif.) making smoked porters – an acquired, intriguing taste.

It has come a long way from its English denotation, which refers to a person who hauled loads on his own for a living.

Local examples: It’s versatile. Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Edmund Fitzgerald Porter gets mentioned in many beer books. Willoughby Brewing Co. makes a Peanut Butter Porter that is oddly refreshing.

Sources: “Great American Craft Beer,” Andy Crouch; “The Naked Pint,” Christina Perozzi and Hallie Beaune; “Short Course in Beer,” Lynn Hoffman; “The Complete Beer Course,” Joshua Bernstein; “World’s Best Beers,” Ben McFarland; “Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion,” “Beer Hunter,” Michael Jackson; “The Origins of Porter,” Oliver MacDonagh.

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