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A dark brew that is enjoying a renaissance.

Many stories have been told about the origin of porter. Most beer historians date the emergence of porter as a distinct style of beer to 1720s London. One often told, but possibly suspect, story is that the first porter was called Entire Butt, brewed by Ralph Harwood of the Bell Brewhouse in Shoreditch, East London, in 1722. The tale explains that in the early part of the 1700s drinkers in London's pubs would often ask the barman to blend a pint from three or more different taps; perhaps the blend would be of pale, brown and old (or strong) ales.

These customized mixtures were known as Three Threads or Entire. (To this day, some pubs in England still have etched in stone over their doors the words, "Ale and Entire Served Here.) Harwood, so the story goes, decided to capitalize on this custom and provide drinkers and pubs with a ready-made 'Entire," saving the barman the trouble of blending and the customer precious seconds in receiving his pint.

Another story of porter's origin tells that as porters (the laborers who carted goods through the streets) delivered the kegs of this new, and then unnamed, beer to the pubs of London, they would announce their arrival with a hearty shout of, "Porter!", thus establishing the beer's name. Whatever the true story is of porter's origins, the style became associated with London and its many porters and was popular throughout the 1700s and early 1800s, before undergoing a slow, steady decline in popularity until the 1930s and 1940s. By this time, certainly after WWII, porter was not to be found in England. The style held on to life a bit longer in Ireland, however, where porter was popular as the working man's drink. One source states that in 1803 Guinness brewed nothing but porter, only later to brew a "stout" porter that evolved into today's dry stout. Guinness continued to brew porter (and sometimes blend a stout with another beer at the taps to create a porter, just as was done in the early 1700s) until 1974. When that last keg of Guinness porter was emptied, the company, in true Irish custom, held a wake for the beer.

In the U.S., the love of porter in the Colonies came from the mother country. There are accounts of George Washington ordering porter from England in 1760 and later brewing his own when English goods were boycotted. The English troops sent to fight during the Revolutionary War were frequently supplied with porter. But by the late 1800s, lager was becoming ever more popular, and porters and other ales began to lose favor with U.S. consumers.

Porters re-emerged in British microbreweries in the late 1970s when several English micros and brewpubs revived the style. Today in the U.S., porter is back with a vengeance. At the 1999 Great American Beer Festival, 104 porters were entered in competition.

Contemporary British and American porters are dark, top-fermented ales, ranging from brown to black in color. They are typified by rich, malty flavors, balanced with the full taste of roasted grains (such as chocolate and black patent malts) which impart a coffee-like dryness, but not to the extent of stouts. A strong hop character is also fairly common along with fruitiness from the use of ale yeasts. Porters usually range in body from medium-light to medium-full and their alcoholic content is between 5.0-5.5 percent by volume.

Just a few porters make it to our shores from the U.K. these days. Among these are Samuel Smith's Taddy Porter, Fullers London Porter and Marston's Porter. There is also a Swedish porter, called Carnegie, made by Pripps. Some of the best-known names of U.S.-brewed porters are those from Yuengling, Sam Adams, Catamount, Sierra Nevada, Deschutes, Anchor, Stegmeier, Redhook, Otter Creek and Great Lakes, just to name a handful.

Gregg Glaser is a beer writer and educator who makes his home in Wilton, CT. His writings are a regular feature in Modern Brewery Age.
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Author:Glaser, Greg
Publication:Modern Brewery Age
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 31, 2000
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