The lore of the black or very dark brown beer style known as porter or stout is that it replaced a mixed beer drink called three threads. Three threads was a mix of beers in Georgian England, in London mainly, probably beers of different strength (primarily) but also possibly different styles of beers, such as ale and beer, or ale, beer and twopenny. Ale and beer had separate connotations in the 1700’s and for quite a time after in Britain, at any rate. The beer historian Martyn Cornell has written extensively about porter history in his excellent books and website. So has the academic historian Dr. James Sumner of the University of Manchester who specializes in the history of science. In the 1950’s, essential brewing and economic history related to porter was explicated by the British economist Peter Mathias in this landmark book.
In 2010, I penned “Notes on Three Threads and Numerical Variations“, as the literature discloses that three threads was not the only beer mixture, there was also a two threads, four threads, and six threads. Beer writer and prolific blogger Ron Pattinson kindly agreed that I could post the article on his blog as I didn’t have my own at the time. In those notes, I discussed the thread variations and that English revenue authorities tried to prevent the practice which had the effect of reducing taxes otherwise payable. I also offered thoughts on why the thread drinks were named, and priced, as they were.
Martyn Cornell has recently written on his site about three threads and there was an extended discussion in the comments on various aspects of porter and beer thread history. I want to pick up here on something I stated there. I consider it is an interesting theory not (as far as I know) proposed by anyone anywhere before.
In my 2010 notes, I mentioned that in the British textile industry in the 1600’s and 1700’s, a strange terminology existed, strange because it paralleled terms used to describe beers or beer styles prevalent in 1700’s London. These terms are beer, thread, porter. That is, each had a technical meaning in textile manufacture; each also has a significance in the area of fermented drinks made from barley malt and hops. Was there a connection between in particular “thread” and “porter” as used in textile manufacturing and as understood in the London beer world of the early 1700’s?
In excise official Edward Denneston’s 1713 essay discussed in my 2010 notes, he recounted a visit to the Fortune of War, a pub in the eastern part of London. He concluded that the pub’s beers described by the thread titles mentioned (the spelling “thrid” was used, but it clearly meant thread) were mixes of strong and common beer in different proportions and priced according to strength. Two threads cost two pence, three threads, three pence, and so on. Porter, long said to replace in a single brew the three threads mix, also was priced at 3p for much of the 1700’s. Porter was initially a cant or slang term for “entire butt beer”, meaning a beer from a single gyle or brewing not mixed with beers from other brewings. The hitherto most commonly offered theory, which appears early in British sources, is that “porter” for beer derives from London’s “porters”. These were men who carried goods and other articles expending considerable labour and who favoured the dark three threads as a reviver and fortifier. See some good background, on ticket and other porters, here from Martyn Cornell.
Two types of beer only were found in the Fortune of War’s cellar by Denneston, strong beer and regular (common) beer. Two threads would mean tuppence beer which was relatively weak, three threads, thruppence beer which was stronger, and so on. There was no five threads offered by the Fortune of War, which seems odd. Why would it offer a three threads, four threads and six threads but no five threads? Setting this aside for now, I think probably two threads was the original mixture. It was probably mostly common beer with a measure of stout (strong in its original meaning, irrespective of colour), but anyway to bring the beer to about 5% ABV. To offer something stronger, you would need another name. It seems natural that the numbers, and price asked, would go up for the stronger, so, three threads was the same mix but with more of the strong, say 6% ABV, four threads had yet more strong beer in it, say 8% ABV, and six threads was strongest, maybe 10% or higher. Six threads has been recorded in other sources, so clearly beers such as this did exist.
Various theories have been proposed for the origin and meaning of the term thread in this connection, e.g., perhaps thread/thrid is a corruption of “third”. I feel weaving terminology may explain the origin of thread in its beer sense, and quite possibly of porter, as well. My notes in 2010 noted the seemingly parallel terminology in two different fields of industry. Earlier this year, I was reading a 1991 book on packaging edited by Frank A. Paine, entitled The Packaging User’s Handbook. It is available on Google Books in partial viewing. See pg. 491 which explains that two threads, three threads, four threads and six threads each form a “porter” for jute of an (obviously) different grade or quality. There is no five thread jute porter, apparently.
The threads that is together make up “splits” which form a porter. As Paine explains, some cloth seemed actually to have been called porter in the trade, he says Calcutta cloth. It seems clear that the more threads in the jute porter, the stronger the jute. Sacks made from higher-thread jute could hold more weight, and rope strength was tested and determined by the number of threads in the wound, for example.
Perhaps a metaphor arose for beer mixing from jute mill technology. People who worked in textile manufacture, people who worked on the docks and also ticket porters may have patronized pubs where the Fortune of War-type mixtures were sold and dubbed them by reference to their occupations, just as say strong beer was sometimes called “high test” in North America by people knowing the term from filling their car tanks. The fact that brewing equipment was sometimes referred to at the time as a “loom”, see again my 2010 article, would reinforce the application of textile-related terms to beer mixtures.
It is true that “porter” in weaving is a Scots term, the English equivalent was “beer”. (There can be no connection between the weaving and brewing senses of “beer”, but the fact that beer was a synonym for “porter” in textiles terminology may have encouraged the metaphor). But who knows what some people in London, especially those connected to exporting jute and other cloth, would have called it? And you couldn’t use beer for the mixing term since that already meant other kinds of malt liquor and obviously has an independent origin. I believe “porter” may have been used to describe the mix of beers just as the thread names did, and once the brewers evolved a beer – separate gyle or no – which had the characteristics of three threads, the pub slang, porter, stuck to the new form.
This is complicated, but still I think there may well be a link between the textile and brewing senses of thread and porter. Possibly, naming beers of ascending strength by these terms was a complex form of humour. Maybe advantage was also taken – using a double verbal allusion, that is – of the fact that men who carried articles for hire happened also to like these drinks. Perhaps the latter association was the one that survived, the other, or older, being forgotten. More research in the textile area might uncover further useful information or leads.
N.B. (Added later September 17): please note my remarks in the Comments section below which add some clarification and further thoughts. G.G.
** The image shown, of an Indian jute mill, appears to be in the public domain, the source used is here.