By Gregg Smith
"I'll have one of those dark beers." said John Wayne in the movie "The
Quiet Man." But his request wasn't for stout, it was porter.
Originating in London, Porter has one of beer's more unusual stories; it
was developed to follow a trend in drinking. It was a mixed beer drink
comprised of equal parts of ale, beer and two penny. Immensely popular, it
had one unfortunate characteristic; it required the barkeeps to blend
tankards of the stuff from three separate beer taps. In the early 1700's
the patrons of London bars were ordering a mixture called alternatively
either "three threads", or "entire." Despite misconceptions, the term
'three threads' did not refer to the threads on the tap (there were none)
it was merely a case of using the vernacular in which threads equalled
thirds. The next popular name came from the fact that it was from three
separate kegs. In those days the ends (butts) of the kegs faced the patrons
and they began calling it a draw of entire butt, meaning it was from all
Not wanting to miss out on the profit to be made, but weary of the constant
mixing, it was only a matter of time until someone devised a means to
replicate the traits of "Entire" in one keg. Recognition as first brewer of
the style goes to Ralph Harwood and the Bell Brewery in London's Shoreditch
section (on the wast side of High Street ) during 1722. He was credited by,
among others a Mr. Gutteridge who put his testimonial into verse...
"Harwood, my townsman, he invented first
Porter to rival wine and quench the thirst;
Porter, which spreads its fame 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.
Apparently Harwood and his fellow brewers did a good job in duplicating
"entire", and it was soon the rage of London. Indeed, it was immortalized
in the words...
"When treading London's well-known ground
If e'er I feel my spirits tire
I haul my sail, look up around,
In search of Whitbread's best entire"
- unknown; A pot of Porter, Ho!
As evident in that admiring bit of verse the name evolved soon after its
debut. It's impossible to pinpoint the first use of the term porter but two
versions are frequently cited. One is that it was popular with the porters
of London's markets. More likely it came from porters who would deliver a
new keg to the pub. The arrival would be announced with the enthusiastic
call "Porter's here!"
Regardless of the name, the new style made a huge impact on the beer world.
Soon the style even jumped the Atlantic to the "New World" where it became
a favorite of George Washington.
As with other beers, the popularity of Porter also faded and by the time of
the aforementioned movie it nearly disappeared. Fortunately, the craft brew
movement and return to older styles, brought back a recreation of porter
and a variety of substyles.
Typically, Porter's characteristics include a dark color of deep brown with
reddish/garnet hues, and a creamy head. The full mouth feel is highlighted
with notes of chocolate and undertones of roasty flavor. Hop bitterness is
noticeable but balanced with the malt. From there the style branches into
versions of English (traditional), Robust, and American. English Porter's
are softer, malty and more balanced than the other two. They have low hop
aroma and subdued bitterness. Robust and American Porters are more roasty
than the traditional style and, of course, the American rendition has
Thanks to the beer revival Porters are once again popular and widely
available. Match them with red meats (that's where the name Porter House
steak came from) or try them with heavier desserts. Best of all you don't
have to wait for the bartender to mix one from three different kegs; the
brewery's done that for you.
© Gregg Smith