Porter: A Brief History

Porter was first mentioned 300 years ago.

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Porter was first mentioned 300 years ago.

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The Porter, The Roaster and The Nine Thousand Year Lease

Farthings, florins and shillings; pins, firkins and kilderkins. Looking at the history of porter requires us to not only turn back the clock three hundred years, but re-awaken bygone words. George I was King of England when porter was first mentioned as a drink in 1722. Beer was very much the drink of the day and London taverns generally served mild (freshly brewed, mildly hopped beer), stale (mild that had been matured for a few months), ale (sweetish, unhopped, malt liquor) two-penny (a pale ale sold at two-penny a quart) and stout (which simply means stouter, i.e. stronger). Pubs brewed their own beers and landlords often blended the beers on pouring as per the customer’s request. This meant old stock could be moved through and inconsistencies from barrel to barrel could be negated and of course, the punter received a customised drink; hence the phrases half-and-half, or if a blend of three beers, ‘three-threads’.


A sign for the historic Simpsons Tavern, established in 1757, in London.

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The Porter

Historical references point to Ralph Harwood, a London brewer who made a single mash from the concept of three-threads. It is certainly true that porter is based on brown malt and was the first beer to be made and aged by breweries and released when ready to drink. Previously, taverns either had to age their own mild or buy stale from an intermediary who had aged it in their cellar. It was also the custom to have beer with virtually every meal, and porter was very much a drink of the working classes, so it is more likely its name comes from the men that barrowed the fruit, fish, veg and indeed barrels and tankards of beer to and from the markets, warehouses and inns of East London – the porters.

The Roaster

Basing a beer on flame-roasted grain to make brown malt was haphazard to say the least – many of the fermentable sugars were lost in the process. In 1817 Daniel Wheeler invented a cylindrical metal device that could be rotated over an open fire. At 180-200°C the pale malt inside did not burn but turned black. Wheeler had invented a roaster and with it black malt, or patent malt as it became known. This was a game-changer for porter as the brewers could use cheaper pale malts and colour them with patent malt. This new, darkly coloured beer could only brewed by large establishments as it required huge vats to store the beer whilst it aged; Meux Brewery in London had a vat that could hold 32,500hl of porter.


This English brewery was built in the 18th century.

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The Industrial Revolution

By the 1820s, porter beers were booming. Brewers quickly made the most of the new ideas from the industrial revolution; British chemist William Nicholson invented the hydrometer in 1790, steam engines were used in breweries within months of them being patented. Porter became the world’s first mass produced food product and one of the most widely exported, to markets in America, Russia, the Baltic countries, China and Ireland.


The steam engine helped porter become one of the world's first mass produced food products.

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The Nine Thousand Year Lease

Ireland was one of the earliest export markets for this new, mahogany coloured, hoppy, bitter drink. Thus, in 1759, one Arthur Guinness took out a 9,000 year lease on a disused brewery in Dublin. Ten years later, Arthur was exporting his beers back to England, so successful was his product that by 1799 he had stopped producing any other beers, he just brewed porters.


The Guinness brewery in St. James‘s Gate, Dublin.

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My Goodness! My Guinness!

There followed a dynasty of Guinness members who went on and grew the family business; by the 1830s St James’s Gate was the largest brewery in Ireland, in 1862 the Guinness label and livery were trademarked and are still used today and just 24 years later, Guinness was the largest brewery in the world and the first such business to be floated on the London Stock Exchange. By the end of the 19th century Guinness sales had reached 1.2 million barrels a year, and the brewery covered over 60 acres, 15 times larger than in 1759. Two hundred years after the lease was signed, Draught Guinness was launched, the mixed gas pressure system used in bars that resulted in the distinctive creamy head that we still see today. And the rest, as they say, is history.