From “Oak and Alder” to Porter

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An ostensibly enigmatic note from 1823 on porter’s history is known by some who mine the seams of the black drink’s byzantine history.

It was published on pg. 28 of Volume 7 of The Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, Etc., edited by John Jephson and George Fitzclarence. This was one of those learned compendiums of political, scientific and literary thought so characteristic of the 1800’s. The anonymous writer, clearly of a certain age, explains that when he was young, different strengths of beer were served “in Town”, meaning London. These were Single, Two Threads and Three Threads.

The Literary Gazette contributor states that porter was introduced by Felix Calvert – a leading porter-brewer in the 1700’s – to supply the “general palate” of the thread beers mentioned. This is saying that porter copied the flavour of the thread drinks, of which three threads was always the best known.

This is a variation of the theory, expressed by John Feltham some twenty years earlier in The Picture Of London, that Ralph Harwood, another London porter-brewer, introduced porter to replace the mix of beers called three threads. Calvert may have been a more plausible source for the new, unmixed porter than the comparatively small operator, Harwood. Whether so or not, the really interesting part of the note in the 1823 Literary Gazette is this: in Norfolk, an agricultural area then noted for barley and malt, the thread beers were called “Oak and Alder”. The entry described this as a beer from “two sorts” and, presumably because Oak and Alder would strike most English readers as delphic, said it was a “mixed Nogg”. A nog was and is an alcoholic drink compounded in various ways: egg nog has survived notably in North America and soon will be consumed across the land as Christmas is almost nigh.

Oak wood and alder wood, both commonly found still in Norfolk, are hardwoods. Hardwoods (various types) were used in English malting practice as a fuel to kiln barley malt to a deep brown hue and crispy consistency. Brown malt was the basis of porter in the 1700’s and a component of all London porter until the drink left the scene in the mid-1900’s. The wood was burned in a way to reduce its smoke output but that some entered the malt and finished beer is undeniable based on numerous well-known sources.

Oak-and-Alder aka mixed Nogg aka Two Threads and Three Threads were brown, porter-like beers – how can we infer this? Because the 1801 Annals of Agriculture and Other Useful Arts contains a discussion on barley cultivation in Norfolk (anonymous contributor) which states sub-standard barley was used locally to make “brown malt” for “Norfolk nog”, a beer suitable for “porters and coal heavers”. So poor in starch yield was this grain that treacle was added to ensure the necessary sugar to make sufficient alcohol. So we know that around 1800, Norfolk nog, or one commonly known type, was a dark brown, somewhat smoky beer due to its brown malt. And movers of goods – porters and other workmen – liked it due to its cheap cost, just as they liked porter in London, the drink supposedly named after them.

A variant name for this Norfolk tipple, the 1823 Literary Gazette tells us, was Oak and Alder. The words oak and alder could only have referred to woods used to make the brown malt in these beers, as opposed, say, to being a kind of rhyming slang or having some other origin. It would be too coincidental for the words not to mean this. One beer in an oak-and-alder may have been brewed from malt kilned only from oak and the other, only from alder. Or, either wood might have been used indifferently at times in two beers of different strengths or ages. The point is, the smoky notes of these woods were noted by local drinkers in their nog, hence the provincialism, Oak and Alder.

The 1823 author likened his mixed nog/Oak and Alder to the London two thread and three thread drinks, which latter – the “admixture” – were finally replaced, he said, by porter. It is obvious all these forms of beer were dark brown and smoky because it is known porter was from its 1720’s inception. The only difference was, porter was brewed “entire”, in keeping with its original brewhouse name of entire or entire butt beer. This meant porter was not mixed with other beers on its journey to the drinker’s glass. It was made from brown malt though, as the mixes had been, and aged to a gravity of about 6% ABV (1700’s), as three threads was since both were sold after porter’s introduction (1720’s) for the same price, 3d.

Any suggestion that three threads is unconnected to porter in palate and hue is simply unsustainable in this light.

What this shows too is, the thread beer terminology wasn’t used in Norfolk, but rather in London, which supports a local (London) origin of the terms for mixed brown beers.

I have argued these last months that this London origin was weaving terminology in Spitalfields, and the thread beers were all porters due to the common origin of these terms in that trade. That theory would suffer damage if a drink the same as three threads, albeit called by another name in Norfolk, was completely different to our understanding of porter from its inception. But no, the thread beers had to be very dark smoky beers since mixed nog, which used cheap brown malt very plausibly kilned by oak and alder wood, was the same thing.

Norfolk nog has been revived as a regional specialty and a beer is marketed under that name by the classic English revivalist brewer, Woodforde of Norwich, Norfolk. Lo, it is a dark, porter-like beer – something rather odd as an old country specialty, since country ale originally was pale and where dark, it was not usually a dark brown approaching to black. Yet, in Norfolk, a malt producing area, it was. Now we know why. To boot, Woodforde’s Norfolk Nog tastes a lot like London porter, see various reviews on Beer Advocate. I don’t know what sources Woodforde used to create its nog, but the taste notes on “BA” remind me a lot of a London-style porter. They tie in nicely, too, to the Annals of Agriculture’s 1801 account of Norfolk nog. To cap it, Woodforde’s own taste notes, remarkably, refer to a treacle flavour…

Perhaps in time porter research will show that London porter and the thread beers derived from mixed beers consumed locally in brown malt-producing areas such as Norfolk. Maybe London got the idea to sell cheap mixed brown beers from country makers who had figured out how to make the most of the leavings of local agriculture. The final refinement, entire butt beer aka porter – no blending – of course was a London innovation.

Even apart from Woodforde’s Norfolk Nog, this isn’t dusty old history: an alder-smoked porter is available today, Alaskan Smoked Porter.

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Note re images used: the first image, a rural scene in Norfolk, was sourced on the web here and is believed in the public domain. The second image was obtained from the website of Alaskan Brewing Co.