To study the origins of porter and stout, we need to transport ourselves back to the turn of the eighteenth century. This was a time when London was beginning to transform itself from a series of small villages into what was soon to become one of the world’s largest and most influential cities. It was during this point in history when many people were driven into London from the surrounding areas due to land enclosures. These impoverished people were part of the reason for the drastic increase in the consumption of beer, not just to quench their thirst but to also drown the sorrows of being part of the poor urban masses.
This increased consumption of beer led to the drastic reformation of the way beer was being brewed in London. Commercial brewers were springing up all over in order to supply the rising demand in the inns and taverns of the area. This was soon to lead to the demise of the integrated inn/tavern/brewery setup of the past.
To compound matters, the government was strongly encouraging brewing beer in order to help combat the growing problems associated with gin drinking. Gin was literally killing many men, women, and children and the government was turning to heavy taxation in order to make gin making very expensive. This cost was being passed on to the gin consumer and beer drinking was beginning to look like a much more cost effective alternative to the city’s poor laborers.
The taxation of beer dictated, in some ways, the manner in which the beers of the time were brewed and it was this taxation that eventually led to the style that was to become known as porter. Most beers of this particular time were brownish in color due to the fact that the primary form of kilning grain occurred over wood fires. As time progressed and the use of coal became more prominent, maltsters were able to more accurately control the temperature of the kilning process. This led to the discovery that paler malt contained much higher levels of starch and enzymes than the brown malt of the past. More starch and enzymes meant it was possible to make more alcohol using considerably less malt. Unfortunately, coal was taxed by the government. This meant that the new malting process made the paler beers of the time more expensive. Because of this, it was only the large country brewers who could afford to produce these paler beers especially since coal burning was very limited in urban areas. This left many small London brewers still making brown beers.
Since brewing during this time period was a seasonal activity, due to the difficulty of clean fermentation during the hot summer months, and the small London brewers were unable to age their own brews due to space restrictions, the large country brewers often bought brown beers from the London brewers and allowed it to mature in large vats. This aged or “stale” beer was then sold back to the London brewers later at an enormous profit. Because the aging of the beer took place in large oak vats, the beer was attacked by wild yeast strains which would give it a very sour flavor that was demanded by local drinkers. The freshly brewed young brown ales made by London brewers were often very harsh tasting and needed to be blended with these older mature beers to make them drinkable. These blended brews became the mainstay beverage of the hard-working London laborers.
The London brewers were forced to buy the pale ales and stale beers from the country brewers in order to make the popular “three threads” blend that their customers demanded. This consisted of beers blended from three different casks. It was usually comprised of pale ale, young brown ale, and mature stale ale. This blend of beers is what was eventually to become known as “porter” due to its popularity with the local working class of the time.
As time progressed, the London brewers began to make attempts to break the connection with the rich and powerful country brewers. They began to attempt to find ways to duplicate the flavors of porter without having to resort to using beer aged at other breweries. Heavy use of hops, increased use of brown ale, and attempts to use underground aging tanks slowly allowed London brewers to become more and more successful in their attempts. Eventually, the porters of the time became essentially two different beers: porter, and “entire butt.” Entire was a matured, ready to drink beer and porter was a young beer that was mixed with the older, aged brew. Samuel Whitbread, a notable London brewer of the time, is reputed to have brewed beers in this manner.
These London porters were soon to become popular in different parts of the world. It traveled by boat and became a part of the lucrative trade of the time. One particularly notable businessman named, Philip George, played a large part in this beer trade. His exports were largely due to the fact that his brewery in Bristol would never be able to sustain itself on local sales alone. He is often credited with being a key player in the introduction of porter to Ireland.
Irish ales of the time never experienced the fantastic reputation of the London porters. The Irish brews, including beers from the small Arthur Guinness brewery established in the mid eighteenth century in Leixlip, were sweet, heavy, and unhopped. The damp climate made it very difficult to grow this bittering herb and the British made it very expensive to import it due to heavy taxation. Other herbs were often used in the beers to counteract the sweetness of the malt.
In 1759, Arthur Guinness moved to Dublin from Leixlip where he signed a 9,000 year lease on a no longer used brewery in St. James’ Gate. The annual rent for the property was 45 pounds a year and it was in a serious state of disrepair. Despite the efforts necessary to make this a functioning brewery, Arthur fell into the deal of century. The introduction of porter to Ireland eventually caught local beer drinkers by storm and around 1787, Arthur Guinness was brewing porter along with his standard ale which was eventually phased out. As Guinness’ business rapidly expanded, he attempted to stave the influx of Bristol porters into Ireland. His use of Ireland’s extensive canal system made it possible for him to distribute his product on a countrywide basis. He became the official supplier of porter to Dublin Castle, the seat of British power. His system of distribution allowed him to ship immature porter and by the time the barges reached their destination, his porter would be mature and ready to be consumed. His stronger “stout porter,” or Double Stout, was reserved for the export market to Britain. The plain stout was reserved for local consumption. When Arthur Guinness died, his son Arthur the second took over the family business. It is this second Arthur that is credited with the creation of the distinct “dry Irish stout” style.
Due to the taxation of the time, the second Arthur Guinness changed the family recipe to incorporate some unmalted roasted barley into his porters in order to decrease his tax liability. The acrid, bitter flavor of the heavily roasted barley left behind a very dry character to his now distinct stout style. By 1840, this new style of beer comprised 82 percent of Guinness’ annual production. Most of this was designated as beer to be exported to Britain. The term porter eventually began to fall into disuse and stout now took over.
Between the years of 1855 and 1880, sales of stout grew to sixteen times their previous quantities and by 1864, Guinness’ breweries produced more beer than the rest of Dublin’s breweries combined. Guinness controlled half of Ireland’s beer exports and three-quarters of the country’s consumption. Towards the end of the 1800’s, Guinness was the largest brewery in Europe and by the end of World War One, the largest in the World.
Now, Guinness breweries exist in over 51 countries and the beverage is enjoyed in over 10 million glasses every day. Several of the other early porter and stout breweries still exist. Beamish stout and Murphy’s Irish stout are still enjoyed all over the world. However, it is because of the inventiveness of Arthur Guinness that the stout beer style is recognized in all parts of the world.
Classic Stout and Porter — Roger Protz
A History of Guinness — www.guinness.com
Alpha Bits — Newsletter of the Tennessee Valley Homebrewer’s Association (March 2004)
Designing Great Beers — Ray Daniels