The Origins of Porter and Stock Beers

Maybe things aren’t as complicated as it seems? What is the origin of aging beer and ale? (I’ll leave lager out of it, but its shadow may reach far).

Most look at it from the point of view of palate. Aging confers a certain taste people like. Hence the development of porter, from inception a matured beer, to impart special flavours from aging. Finally it extends to charred malts, amount of hops,  wild yeast (“horse blanket”). Later such beer was mixed with newly produced porter. Today porter can be new or old, but the romantic image endures of groaning wood vats in smoky Georgian and Imperial London.

It is doubtful though that calculations of taste, especially the much bandied but largely mythic “public taste”, had much to do with it. Historians of porter, especially with economics training, look at things more analytically. Some years ago in the journal Brewery History Alan Pryor had a long series on porter. It is very valuable and really should be packaged in a book.

One of the themes he developed was how barley hence malt prices encouraged the storage of beer. When barley was cheap brewers bought large amounts of malt and stored the beer away until it could be sold. This was impacted as well by the malt tax. He explained his framework:

The most comprehensive work on the early brewing trade is undoubtedly The Brewing Industry in England 1700-1830, published in 1959. The author, Peter Mathias, had a clear aim, to provide a largely economic account of the brewing trade in that period, the first such study of its kind. Although the title indicates a nation-wide remit, it is predominantly concerned with the London brewers’ development of porter. Mathias deals exhaustively with problems of production and supply, but those of demand are not investigated. It is the intention in this study to build on Mathias’s work by using digitised eighteenth-century literature that has become available, including newspapers and magazines, to investigate the factors which affected the market for beer.

(From pp. 55 et seq. of Alan Pryor’s The Industrialisation of the London Brewing Trade – Part I).

After an impressive analysis he concluded:

London brewers were finding it increasingly difficult to evade the duty on beer or could no longer contemplate the social disgrace of a conviction for fraud. These brewers had found that the best method of containing costs within a fixed price regime was to brew large quantities of beer when the price of malt was cheap. This entailed the use of additional hops to preserve the beer in butts until it had matured and for when it was needed. They also found that the storage of beer for such a long period meant that they could use the cheapest of the brown malts, which had been dried by a wood fire in the kiln. This had the adverse effect of giving the beer a peculiar taste which was ameliorated by its long term storage. As described by Ellis, ‘its ill taste is lost in nine or twelve months, by the age of the beer, and the great quantity of hops that were used…’.

Earlier in the study he states when malt prices were high brewers brewed large quantities of pale ale, not intended for keeping. In other words, present use beer as termed in the 19th century.

And now in a mundane business feature of an 1874 New York newspaper, I see validation of that view. The February 25, 1874 issue of the New-York Daily Tribune contained price quotations for numerous agricultural commodities. Hop prices were included for an impressive range (1874) of national and international hops. I think the pricing code meant for so many bales (the first number), hops were x cents per lb. (second number). So e.g., 40 bales of Californian hops @ $0.45 /lb.

New York (“State”) and new Californian hops fetched the highest prices, even over English and German hops. A pause for thought there, but bitterness yield – ‘alpha’ potential in modern brewery parlance – probably had a lot to do with it. Perhaps too after the long unrefrigerated shipment and handling the European hops didn’t much resemble what stayed at home.

Here is the part of real interest, in a passing reference to current barley prices:

It is thought that the high price of barley will prevent brewers from manufacturing stock ale largely, and for some time to come sales will be mainly to supply wants for early use.

The statement is particularly noteworthy because there was still a good month left in the season to brew stock ale. In the 1870s American stock beers (top-fermented) were brewed from October to March, as in Britain whence the tradition came. See this article of March 14 in the same year, in the same newspaper, for confirmation.

So we see what is really happening. Stock ale was made when barley prices were low, because brewers had stock later to sell at a higher profit than new beer made from more costly malt. True, it cost money to lay away beer, hence the development of large kettles and Bunyanesque storage vats – economies of scale – to minimise the extra cost. Hence the use of cheap brown malt as Pryor noted. More hops too, yes, but clearly it paid in the final analysis. Ergo porter and fine old vatted ale.

In time the flavours imparted by such necessities of business became epicurean delectation. Necessity is the mother, not just of invention, but gastronomy. Of course tastes do result from custom and long habit. It’s not exactly a one-way street, but it’s always good to remember what really drives things. Maybe Pryor will study next how porter tapped out so to speak later in the 19th century. The malt pricing structure had something to do with it, I’d guess.

With apologies to A.E. Housman: price does more than palate can to explain the ways of malt to man.*

Note re image: above image was sourced from Christopher Klein’s (excellent, recommended) article on the London Beer Flood at the history.com website, see here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*We speak of the general market here. Niche markets always existed and always will, with different drivers, not all economic in nature. The presence in particular of sociological factors – markers of social status and such – plays a larger and often decisive role here.

McSorley’s Ale House – no Tin Lizzie

McSorley’s Old Ale House is one of the most chronicled American taverns in modern memory anyway. Apart from Joseph Mitchell’s landmark 1940 essay in the New Yorker, there are:

  • many shorter journalistic treatments
  • a recent, full-length history by Rafe Bartholomew, Two and Two: McSorley’s, My Dad, and Me
  • a solid Wikipedia essay that cites the key sources.

Many beer writers have written about McSorley’s although more in the early days of micro/craft beer. I’ve referred to the place numerous times, usually in connection with 19th century hand pumps not in use since Prohibition.

In recent years, craft brewing has, or so is my impression, largely ignored McSorley’s. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the decor, if we can use that term, is old school to the max and does not attract a beer aware, hip crowd. Second, but related to the first point, McSorley’s has not gotten on the craft beer bus. It still offers, AFAIK, the old binary of “light” and “dark”, decent enough but mass market-type more or less. So apart from the history and louche atmosphere there is no reason to go, or write about it, although I suspect most beer scribes have made the pilgrimage when in striking distance.

That said, is there anything about McSorley’s that hasn’t been reduced to print? I think there is, in particular viz. news accounts from the 1920s and earlier that seem to have escaped notice. The onset of newspaper digitization makes it easier to find them. I’ll deal with a couple of these. I’ll start with a later one although an 1890s gem shows (I’ll get to it) that tavern hagiography, nay myth, had already embraced McSorley’s before 1900.

A sketch from 1922 is unusually well-written for the always-harried Fourth Estate, perhaps contributed by an associate of the Smart Set. Don Marquis, who wrote well on beer and New York ale houses, is a candidate surely. The writer was decorous to state that the place retained its old allure even though near beer was now served. Mitchell wrote that real beer was brewed by an ex-brewery worker in the basement, sometimes mixed with near beer, and served upstairs until Repeal. It may simply be the writer didn’t want to tattle on McSorley’s since it was early days after Volstead. Lawbreakers faced real risks. So there may have been some (rather literal) tongue in cheek here, but the mystery remains.

A Jazz Era piece, it makes a point applicable today if we substitute the beer hipsters of 2019 for the “Young Intellectuals”. By the way the term degenerate as used here is a period expression, it didn’t mean what many readers may think. It was a reference to changing mores in the form of the Flappers and jazzers. As ever, the old guard looks askance at new ways to have fun and design clothes, watering holes, cars, whatever it be. McSorley’s was the post-chaise of its day, let’s put it that way – no Tin Lizzie.

The story appeared in the New York Evening Post on March 21, 1922.

… we dropped in at McSorley’s, that gallant old saloon on Seventh Street. Alas, we have been untrue to our higher aesthetics; we have not been to McSorley’s nearly enough in recent years.  We know of no other place in New York with such genuine tavern atmosphere; with a pleasing whiff of the fine old-time saloon manners and self-respecting relaxation. In that dark, sawdusted, picture-lined taproom they serve the thin legal potations of Volstead with a dignity and manly courtesy that make them seem as rich and heavenly as tawny port or golden moselle. The Young Intellectuals never heard of McSorley’s; but to us it is the shrine of Literature and Art. It is a great happiness to us to see “The Old House at Home” go on quietly and legally flourishing in this degenerate era; and if this paragraph should even lure thither any of the younger set who know how to behave themselves in front of a glass of near-beer and a raw onion, we shall not have lived in vain.