Back To The Future of Porter, via Michael Donovan

Fraserians_MacliseOf the many resources to understand the changes 1800s porter had undergone from the previous century, few are as clear and complete as Michael Donovan’s Domestic Economy, Vol. 1, published in 1830. The book formed part of a series of volumes, The Cabinet Cyclopaedia, a typically protean Victorian effort to compile under one roof knowledge in wide-ranging areas of science, history and culture. An informative entry in Wikipedia explains its genesis and commercial outcome and influence.

These cyclopedias are predecessors of the encyclopedias that were mainstays of family education outside the school for most of the 1900s. Both were great resources for a public hungry for learning and often outside the organized education system. This was a time when few avenues existed to impart higher or technical knowledge outside the university and professional trades organizations. Scotland was a partial exception (it favoured general public education early), as was increasingly North America, but I am speaking of England mainly.

Even highly-reputed University College London had only recently been established as an alternative to Oxford and Cambridge universities.

The series’ editor, The Rev. Dionysius Lardner, lectured at University College. Michael Donovan, 1790-1876, was an apothecary and chemist from Clare, Ireland. He clearly had a good technical background and authored other volumes in the Cyclopaedia, on food or science-related matters. The alcohol writing covered not just beer and brewing but most other kinds of drink as well as etymological and other history pertaining to alcohol. Certain drugs received treatment as well, and tobacco.

Donovan’s writing on intoxicating drinks cannot be said to have gone without criticism. In fact, a rather excoriating review appeared in Fraser’s Magazine, called Donovan the Intoxicator, and can be read here.

800px-Fraser's_Magazine_1833The review, while somewhat entertaining, is more a character assassination than a serious assessment of Donovan’s work. It is replete with quotations in foreign or dead languages, and distended footnotes. One has the sense that a Donovan without classical learning was being reproved for venturing outside his domain. There is a nasty anti-Irish tone to the essay, as well.

But even setting all this aside, it must be noted the reviewer agreed porter was an excellent drink and offered not a murmur of affront to anything Donovan wrote on the subject. If he had disagreed, he wouldn’t have forborne to inveigh, as the essay in toto makes clear. Sample line where the review disagreed with Donovan whether ale is traditional to Ireland: “At the present moment there are not three kinds of tolerable ale in the whole island; and the best of them (which is not very good), that of Fermoy, was introduced by a Scotchman”.

I will summarize Donovan’s comments on porter, which appear on pp. 88, 197-202 but also elsewhere in the volume. You need to read in full the sections on ale and porter, including his comments on storing beer in vats, to really see what he is saying about porter. It seems clear too Donovan liked to drink porter and was familiar with the Irish and London forms. His numerous comments on the palate of porter and ale show this and enhance his other remarks, as not all who wrote about porter necessarily liked or were all that familiar with the drink.

Donovan repeats the familiar statement that 1700s porter was made entirely from high dried, brown malt. He says on more than one occasion that it was near black in colour in its heyday. He states the beer was empyreumatic (smoky and burned), not sweet and full like ale. He insists that current porter (1830) was quite different from the original. While allowing that the new black malt, mixed in a small amount with pale malt, would deliver the old porter colour, he says the palate lacked the empyreumatic taste of the old porter.

The reason a smoky taste appeared in 1700s porter was that hardwood was used to kiln the malt, as I discussed on this blog a few days ago.

Donovan explains, as others have, that as malt became more costly, people looked for ways to reduce brewing costs, and finally the more efficient pale malt became the base of porter. It is more efficient since it has more usable extract from which alcohol can be made. Instead of the acerbic, sometimes sharp or sourish aged or blended porter of old, the porter of 1830 was full, sweetish, and rather like ale, he said. He adds that a mix of pale, amber and black malt can emulate the old taste to a point. Indeed in Ireland then and at least until the late 1800s, some porter used these three elements. Donovan includes his recipe for porter which uses precisely these three for the mash. It clearly was drawn from contemporary practice at Guinness or other porter-brewing in Ireland.

800px-Apothecary15thcenturyOn the surface, Donovan’s suggestion that burned sugar (caramel) would approximate the old taste seems odd. Clearly he was referring to a boiled sugar solution which had a scorched taste, not the modern confectionary caramel which may have butter and other things in it and is a sweet. In one sense though, his suggestion is not so strange, as “blown malt”, frequently used to make porter in London earlier, may well have comprised a similar burned sugar element, as I argued the other day here. English law of the day prevented use of sugar, however, which Donovan duly noted.

Donovan also expresses the view that if porter is to be aged at all, it should be in large volumes in tall vats where the bulk of the beer comes under high natural pressure. This would retard the continuation of fermentation and onset of acidity. One can infer too, I think, that oxidation would be reduced given the lower bulk-to-wood ratio as compared to standard barrels and other small containers. Modern brewers who mature stout and porter in ex-bourbon barrels and other kinds of “small wood” might reflect, unless of course the sourness that often results is wanted.

Donovan also wrote, expressing a frankness you rarely heard from contemporary brewers, that there were different reasons to age beer long in vat, but the main one was that beer brewed in winter had to be stored over summer (when you couldn’t brew stable beer in pre-refrigeration days). Is it any surprise that once refrigeration enabled beer to be brewed year round long aging went out the window?

Writing at the point when the porter of old was in living memory but the new practice had arrived to stay, Donovan’s remarks are a valuable resource to understand whence porter came and where it was going. Indeed today, our modern porter, where it is all-malt at any rate, is more or less what had come to prevail by 1830. I’d think Donovan’s fellow porter drinkers had it better than we do to the extent their porter was higher-hopped than today. Also, no raw grains or sugar was used in commercial brewing in 1830, but it occurs for many brands today. Still, in its broad lines, the new porter Donovan described can be seen as ancestor to our modern porter, particularly in the absence of a marked smoky, dry, and sometimes sourish character.

Were porter fans in 1830 better off than those in 1770? I would say, possibly. Too many sources suggest the “real” porter, at least when aged or blended as much of it was, was an austere, harsh, vinous drink – not everyone’s cup of tea pace modern fans of sour beers. I recently had a farmhouse porter in Toronto that had an appealing lactic taste, albeit nothing smoky. It got close I think to 1700s porter and was a fascinating drink but it’s a specialty within a specialty, not too many today would buy it, I think. To foreign readers, think Liefmans Goudenband with a dash of Imperial Stout added.

There you have it: back to the future of porter in 1830.

Note re images: all images are drawn from Internet sources and believed in the public domain and available for educational and historical use. All feedback welcomed.








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