Break out the blankets and crank up the space heaters folks, the winter months are here! And no cozy night indoors is complete without a nice dark porter to set the mood, so grab a few and get ready for hibernation season. A few nights ago I was sitting nice and warm with a porter in my hand and I got to wondering about the history of these great beers. I did some research on the subject, and here’s what I figured out about these dark delicacies.
Birthed in the early 18th century, some folks claim that the creation of the porter beer was the fuel to the fire of The Industrial Revolution. A lot of legends and myths are out there about the inventor of the porter, with most of the prominent and accepted ones leading back to a guy named Ralph Harwood. The story goes that in 1802 a man named John Feltham put out a guidebook to London, something pretty similar to those pamphlets you see in hotel lobbies for “rainy day activities.” Basically this book covered everything worth seeing and doing in London, including the porter beer scene. In the book, Feltham says that porter beer got its name in 1730 because before that time, the malt liquors being used were ale, beer and twopenny, and a regular request from customers was a little of each of the beers in one pint, a drink that became known as three-threads. Feltham claimed that one brewer in particular, Ralph Harwood, got a little too tired of opening three casks for one beer; so he created what he called Entire, or a cask with all three common styles of beer in one. Since the beer was so full bodied and nourishing, it supposedly became the favorite beer of porters and other hard working folks, and boom, the name Porter was born.
Unfortunately that ain’t quite the truth, people. Ralph Harwood was real, he was a brewer in 1700’s London, and he was tied to the perfection of the porter, but not how Feltham portrayed. It turns out that Ralph Harwood actually ended up in the brewing business with his brother James, who got no mention in Feltham’s book. However, when James died in 1762, thirteen years after his brother Ralph passed, his obituary, not Ralph’s, read “an eminent brewer in Shoreditch, and the first that brought porter to perfection.” That’s about as close as the story gets to the actual creation of the beer. There are a few other “eyewitness” accounts of the creation of porter beer and about a thousand stories of people mixing this and that and trying one thing and the other, but none of them are associated with any names, leaving the true originator of porter a mystery.
What we do know is that porter beer originated in London, and its popularity soon spread over all of Europe, and even into the American colonies. In the 19th century, an Irishman you might have heard of, Arthur Guinness, began to only brew porters, creating the now internationally known Guinness. Of course, Guinness ended up becoming more popular for its stout porter, which was just a stronger version of the porter, but that’s for another story. By the end of the 18th century, the porter was quite arguably the most demanded style of beer, and it is also generally believed to be the first mass-produced commercial beer.
The popularity of the porter peaked in the early 19th century due to the sheer difficulty in production, and the shifting of tastes to more bitter beers. Because it was so difficult to make porters at the time due to the space needed for the gigantic aging vats, only the largest breweries were able to produce porters, giving them a monopoly on the market. With any market that is cornered by a few companies, the competition gets ruthless. In what I think can only be described as a good old fashioned pissing contest, the largest breweries started to make the biggest vats they could, each time one-upping each other, and I’m sure you can guess what happened.
On October 17th, 1814, a vat holding over 3,500 barrels of porter beer (around 320,000 gallons) exploded on the premises of The Horse Shoe Brewery. The explosion and the sheer amount of beer was so intense, it broke through brick walls and crushed houses; some reports even say there was a fifteen foot high wave of beer! Eight people were killed in the flood, including four people in the basement of a house where a wake for a two year old was being held. I guess I should say that eight people were killed initially. With so much beer in the streets, people did exactly what you and I would do: start scooping up beer! Of course there’s always that one guy that takes it too far, and some poor soul ended up dying from alcohol poisoning, but at least he died doing what he loved. The courts ended up ruling the flood an Act of God, and no one was held responsible.
Though the true origin of porters remains a mystery, there’s certainly a lot of great tall tales and legends about it, not to mention historical accounts of pure craziness associated with the brew. Whether or not we ever discover who exactly created these dark beauties, we can still drink and savor the warm wintery taste of porters while snuggled like a bug in a rug through the snowy months.