The story of London Porter

The story of London Porter as told by Flack Manor’s Head Brewer, Terry Baker.

Pre-industrial revolution

London Porter has a story that stretches back three centuries to before the industrial revolution. This beer emerged in London in the early 1700s and at one time was the most popular beer produced anywhere in the world.

With the lack of accurate recorded data from the 18th century, the origins of Porter are unclear. There are several romantic stories about brewers’ accidently burning malt and selling the resulting beer off cheap to ale houses frequented by Billingsgate roughnecks, which are partly based in fact.  The beer certainly gets its name from its popularity amongst London’s market porters. It does, however, seem that the beer was originally brewed quite deliberately.

The process
London's Porter

By Lewis, G P Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

London Porter seems to be the first beer brewed as an “entire butt” meaning that the mash was used to produce only one batch. Prior to the emergence of porter, beer in Britain was made using different strength of runnings from the mash tun to produce different beers of varying alcohol content.  Sometimes these different beers were blended after fermentation to create a more rounded and drinkable ale, one of the most famous of these was a beer called “Three Threads” and it maybe that the first porter was brewed to be similar to this.

Because Mash tuns were large enough to produce three different beers from one mash, when producing only one beer (entire butt) it had to be brewed in very large batches. This led to the manufacture of very large fermentation and maturation vessels made of wood and held together with metal straps.

Disaster strikes in 1814

The Meux brewery in London housed the world’s largest fermenter holding 134,000 gallons. On October 17th 1814, a slightly smaller maturation vessel burst and the resulting wave of porter caused other vessels to give way.  The beer flood of 323,000 gallons caused considerable damage as well as taking the lives of eight unfortunates, seven from drowning and one from alcohol poisoning.

London Porter falls out of favour

The popularity of porter began to decline as the population’s taste changed in favour of pale ales and lagers. By the mid-20th century production had ceased completely and it was not until the re-emergence of smaller more niche breweries that porter started its comeback.

Porter’s comeback

These days you will find a porter brewed by most of the nation’s 1300 breweries albeit in much smaller batches and very often as a seasonal beer, therefore there are hundreds of interpretations of the style.

There are many sources to include this account by the Social Historian