Porter is a English beer style that has become very popular in the United States. This week we will look at the origins of Porter, how to brew Porter at home and provide a collection of sample recipes. When I started brewing back in the 1980’s, the microbrewery revolution was still in its infancy, and it was difficult to find anything beyond the classic American lager in the stores. Yet dark beers were a passion of mine, and Porter was a perennial favorites.
Porter is first mentioned in writings in the early 1700’s, and the name Porter is derived from its popularity with London’s river and street porters. There are many stories surrounding the origins of Porter, such as one about it being a blend of three other beers, but more likely Porter was derived from strong brown ales of the period. Original porters were substantially stronger than modern versions. Wikipedia mentions that hydrometer measurements on 18th century Porters indicate original gravities near 1.071, or 6.6% ABV – about twice the alcohol of a modern beer.
Taxes during the Napoleonic wars drove the alcohol content down to modern levels. Porter was also the first large scale beer to be entirely aged before delivery, often remaining in vats or casks for 18 months before shipment to pubs. As the 1800’s started, breweries mixed aged porter with new porter to reduce storage times. Stouts started as a stronger, darker version of Porter, with most including the name “Stout Porter”. Eventually the “Porter” tag was dropped giving the modern style of “Stouts”. (Re: Wikipedia)
In another interesting side note, Porter’s popularity was so high that it was stored in huge vats in the late 1700’s, and there was an arms race of sorts between major breweries to see who could build the largest vas. According to Ray Daniels book (below), the largest vats approached 20,000 barrels (860,000 gallons) at the end of the 1700s. This compares to the largest in the world today which clocks in at around 1600 barrels, less than 1/10th the size. In October of 1814, a huge vat at the Meux brewery ruptured and reportedly wiped out an adjacent tank and devastated the neighborhood in a 5 block radius. In the ensuing chaos at least 8 people were killed.
Designing a Porter Recipe
Designing Porter recipes can be a lot of fun as the Porter style includes room for experimentation. Porters have an OG of 1.040 and up, color of 20-40 SRM and bitterness of 18-35 IBUs for Brown Porter, or up to 55 IBUs for higher gravity Robust Porter. The color is brown to black, and they have low to medium hop flavor. They are almost always brewed with a full bodied mash schedule (higher mash temperature of 154-156F) to give a full body taste. They have low ester, fruitiness and diacytl, are well balanced and have low to medium carbonation.
Traditional porters start with a Pale malt base, and typically add a mix of Crystal, Brown, Chocolate and Black malts to achieve a dark color and taste. Roasted malts are used only in Robust Porter styles. Pale malt makes up 40-70% of the grain bill (60-80% for malt extract brewers). Dark Crystal/Caramel malts are used for color and body and provide at least 10% of the grain bill. Chocolate and Roasted malts each average around 5% of the grain bill, with roasted malt less common in Brown Porter.
A variety of grains including Munich malt, Roasted malt, wheat and additives are also used. I will occasionally brew “kitchen sink” Porter which consists of whatever malts I have laying around over a pale malt base. Traditional Porter also made heavy use of Amber and Brown malts, though these are less commonly used today. Ray Daniels recommends a mash temperature of 153F, though I often go a bit higher (156F) to provide a full bodied beer.
Traditional English hops are the appropriate choice for Porter, with East Kent Goldings being a favorite of mine. Other good choices include Fuggles, Northern Brewer, Northdown and Willamette. Light dry hopping is appropriate to the style, though hops aroma should not be dominant. English ale yeast is traditionally used for Porter for its fruity flavors, though other high attenuation yeasts are appropriate. Irish ale yeast is also occasionally used by homebrewers. Adjuncts are only rarely added to specialty Porters. A London water profile (high in carbonates) is best.
Sample Porter Beer Recipes (All Grain) from our recipes archive:
- Borders Porter – (Baltic Porter Recipe)
- Brown Porter
- Nothing but Wheat Brown Porter
- Porter 2
- Thunderhead Porter
- Robust Porter
- Smoked Porter – (Partial Mash)
- Smoked Molasses Porter
Sample Porter Recipe (Extract) from our recipes archive:
- A Mild Porter
- Playa Porter
- Viscious Kiev Porter
- Bumble Pig Honey Porter
- King Kong Porter
- Prestidigitation Porter
- Run of the Mill Porter
- Tom’s Godwingin’ Porter
We hope you enjoyed this week’s discussion on porter. Thank you again for reading our weekly blog – please keep your comments, bookmarks and ideas coming. If you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing to our blog or drop a guest vote on BrewPoll using the button on the right.
- “Designing Great Beers“, a book by Ray Daniels
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