A Victorian Meets London Porter

“For The Amusement and Instruction of Amateurs in Beer…”

George Augustus Sala, 1828-1895, was an English journalist and writer, the son of Italian immigrants. He had a vivid manner of description, intensely visual and sensory. It’s a style less encountered today, especially for journalism and topical writing, due to the sophistication of colour photography and imaging. He is remembered as a master of “ephemeral journalism” and the extract below typifies his talent.

Of the many subjects he broached, pubs and beer were not exempt. I have seen most of his writing in this area, but his comments on porter below had escaped me, probably because he doesn’t use the term porter as such. The extract is from his full-length work Gaslight and Daylight, With Some London Scenes They Shine Upon (1859) (via HathiTrust).

It was almost mandatory in “ephemeral” discussions of London’s beer to allude to the possibility it was doctored: it was a Victorian preoccupation. In truth, little of it probably was, at least by brewers. Brewing was a regulated business and most of the porter in London was brewed by sizeable concerns. They had a lot to lose from a prosecution for adulteration. In contrast, publicans sometimes added salt or water to beer, or sugar of some kind, to enlarge their profit margins.

It is unclear from Sala’s remarks whether the gin mill profiled really fooled with its beer. The key part of the description, “half-sweet and half-acrid”, could apply to many porters and stouts today. And Sala’s reference to fining shows the limits of his knowledge, as fining was not and is not adulteration, but merely a clarification of beer – a benign, if not salutary, practice.

In other parts of the book he refers to porter as “mild” or “treacly”. I infer from the term half-sweet that the gin mill’s porter was mild, too. Aged, or stocked, porter would be dry and wine-like in comparison. Most porter consumed in town then was mild.

“Acrid” is consistent with astringent, bitter, sour, smoky, or burned. Porter, especially at that time, certainly could be one or more of those. Could the beer have been doctored? Yes, or maybe it wasn’t.  Clearly he didn’t like it, but that doesn’t mean it was bad. Still, his description is of some assistance, even the brown-tinged foam part, which once again can characterise beer today.

Sala may well have drank something rather like Tenfidy Imperial Stout, or, more pertinent to London, one of The Kernel’s impy stouts. Maybe he needed another 10 years to accustom. When writing the words subjoined, he was a mere 31, and perhaps a “mild ale” man.