Draughts of Danish and the Ghost of London Porter

Gleaning Porter’s True Flavour Via a Trip to Denmark

A primary interest of ours in beer studies is to try to understand how beer tasted in earlier times, that is, its actual taste, not its tax features, economic importance, wage structure, technological base, or related social history. These other things are of interest too but mainly as channels to understand flavour. (Not that one can’t get sidetracked by byways…).

There are different ways to get at this, by studying old recipes, technical manuals, popular literature, and so forth, all of which I’ve done.

This post on oak and alder wood’s likely role in kilning porter malt is in line with what I’ll discuss below. Both tie into a number of 18th and 19th century sources on porter, including The London and Country Brewer (1730s) which states that  London brown beer featured a smoky note from wood-kilned malts but the taste softened after long aging of porter in vats.

Robert Stevens was a Hackney resident in the early 1800s and perhaps a religious figure or trader, I haven’t been able to track down much bio. It appears he was involved in Unitarian (church) organization, but beyond that I can find no trace.

He was a correspondent to The Monthly Magazine, a literary and political journal that published some notable writers, including early Charles Dickens. In 1801 Stevens contributed a multi-part series on an overland trip from Copenhagen to Hamburg, thus by coach and horse then.

The account is full of detail on many subjects. In the beer area, he makes an interesting comparison between Danish strong ale and London porter that ends by shedding light on both beers, especially in the light of modern studies.

He states that strong Danish bottled ale was exported to the West and East Indies, was “greatly” improved by the “hot climates”, and was quite similar, not to contemporary London porter, but the original London porter, the porter “of former times”. This is only 1801, only a couple of generations after porter first comes to prominence in English life.

I’ve pointed out before how one can read surprisingly early of a product that the “good old days” have passed. Soon we will be reading that Vermont and Black IPA altered the classic taste of IPA as it was when Bert Grant’s and the early Stone Brewery IPA were on the market.

There is perhaps something of sentiment at work here, the idea that a taste presumed lost parallels or echoes the loss of one’s salad days, or the distant misty time of early heroic ancestors, that kind of thing.

Still, porter had changed in composition by 1800. Historians and researchers, starting with the late economist Dr. Peter Mathias, as well as original sources anyone can consult who knows how, record that by 1800 the mash for porter included pale malt to increase efficiency.

Pale malt has more usable starch for conversion to ethanol than the higher-kilned brown malt. Improved means to test the gravity of worts resulted with other changes to using pale malt with brown malt to increase yields. Pale malt then was kilned with coke, straw or other materials than wood, thus less or no phenolic component entered the grain.

Further, the long-aging of porter was in slow decline and by 1800 much porter was a mix of new or mild porter and old porter drawn from the vats.

Thus, when Stevens decried the porter of 1801, he might have been thinking of a more smoky, darker, and longer-aged version he knew in his youth and perhaps older persons recalled for him, as against a paler, less smoky, milder Mark II version.

We can glean an idea of the original porter since Stevens states that Danish strong bottled ale resembled it especially as exported to distant warm climes east or west.

Some porter was sent out to India, but the improved English beer or at least stable beer associated with India was pale ale, not porter. So Stevens may have been likening the beneficial effects of hot climates on shipped Danish beer to long-vatted English porter.

And this makes sense, as shipping beer afar has long been likened to longer storage in the cool English climate; maturation is faster due to the rocky transport and changing climatic factor.

Some modern writers have speculated that overseas transport to hot climes actually improved beer, versus that is a situation where the beer, especially well-hopped pale ale, resisted reasonably well the presumed ravages of such journeys.

As far as I know, Stevens is the first known source in the colonial period to state that heat improved beer.

The Danish ale in bottle was almost surely brown, strong again, and well-hopped, too. This is pre-lager, pre-Carlsberg: top-fermented beer as all beer was before the onset of industrial bottom-fermentation in Europe later in the 1800s.

How we do know Danish ale was like that? Because Rolf Nielsen told us via his article in 2008 entitled “The Beer of the Danish Golden Age” published initially in the Scandinavian Brewers Review. He explains that in the 1700s barley malt was wood-kilned in Denmark, brown, and smoky in taste from direct contact of the smoke with the malt.

Only from about 1800 in Denmark was malt cured in a way to avoid the smoke taste. This was either from use of different fuels, or channeling the smoke from wood away from the malt as Nielsen discusses.

The newer beers might still be brown though, because even where brown malt was still made it lacked the smoke taste.

Hence arose an anomaly not a little amusing: a brown beer could be white, as the term white beer was applied to pale or dark beers, the criterion being they didn’t taste smoky. As Nielsen puts it in his pungent way (the account gains charm from likely being written in a second language (or translated literally)):

Why in earth call an extremely dark ale ‘white’? Or even more stupid: call it a ‘dark white ale’? And utterly stupid: call it a ‘pale white ale’? Mysterious practices which take place when linguistic colour blindness and a lack of historical knowledge controls the labelling and the marketing of the gradually more rare examples of pale top-fermented, tax-free ale.

In order to understand why the brewers’ of the 19th century were so enthusiastic about the term ‘white’, we have to have a closer look at the period where new techniques within malting had a revolutionary impact on brewing beer in the more advanced craft breweries. It was precisely at the end of the
18th century and in the beginning of the 19th century that the Danes, in general, and the Copenhageners, in particular, had the opportunity to say goodbye to the brown, often smoke flavoured beer….

On the label of the dark Danish beer pictured, you see “hvitdøl” – it means white (or pale) ale. It was a term that became associated with the new non-smoky malts irrespective of the type of beer made.

But the strong Danish export brown ale that brought to mind for Stevens old vatted London porter was almost certainly the older, 1700s type of brown ale explained by Nielsen. Since Stevens likened it to the older porter and there is evidence it was smoky often, the Danish brown ale surely was smoky too, the older type Nielsen identfied before even brown beer became “white”. The direct confirmation of a beer drinker contrasting two beers is still most useful.

Some of the old porter and Danish ale must have been sourish too from the long standing in porous wood or bottle without refrigeration.

The Danish beer was clearly well-hopped. Nielsen states the first (best quality) mash for 1700s brown ale used hops in the boil vs. addition of a solution of hops boiled in water. Lesser mashes got the hop solution treatment.

It is interesting that London-style porter was brewed in the different Scandinavian countries from the early 1800s; it was popular there as of course in Russia and certain areas in the Baltic. In more recent times Denmark had Albani porter (perhaps still), among other reputed brands. Sweden still makes the fine Carnegie porter. Finland persists with Sinebrychoff porter, one of the best of the genre anywhere.

That success may in effect reflect a continuation of an older, local tradition, unless of course those strong smoky browns were themselves emulations of London porter. I’d think not though, judging from Danish brewing history as explicated by Nielsen.

And even if the London porter came first, Stevens’ remarks, in the light of post-WW II research, are still helpful as permitting us to infer both beers were smoky, reduced in hop character, and perhaps a touch lactic or acetic.

What happened to those Danish ales? Nielsen brings matters up to 2011* by noting that top-fermented beers have been re-introduced by modern craft brewers yet often feature, say, American or Belgian influence rather than the ancestral Danish taste.

Perhaps that has changed in the last seven years, but as of 2011 his constatation is a truism exemplified in many other contexts. People always want to follow fashion, so things happening elsewhere get emulated while original, more authentic traditions are forgotten. Perhaps the éclat of American IPA in today’s U.K. is the best example…

Still, Denmark has contributed its rounded, distinctive (or it was) version of blonde lager via Jacob and Carl Jacobsen and Carlsberg. These are names forever imperishable in the annals of brewing accomplishment. Maybe that’s enough.

Note re images: the first image was sourced from the Wikipedia entry on beer in Denmark, here. The second is from the publication identified and linked in the text, via HathiTrust. All intellectual property in both belongs solely to their lawful owner, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*The article was reprinted that year, in Brewery History, hence using this year for this purpose.







10 thoughts on “Draughts of Danish and the Ghost of London Porter”

  1. Hi Lars ,
    UK smoked malt was usually done with either hornbeam or oak .
    Wouldn’t mind trying the gammeltol from northern Jutland , or the others , they sound good !! Sorry ,my phone won’t do the correct letter symbol for the Ol .

  2. This was interesting, and new to me. That strong Danish ale sounds very much like a strong ale the Danish farmers would brew in March/April and store until harvest/autumn. Note that this is a farmhouse ale tradition, and not commercial beer. They called it “gammeltøl” (literally “old ale”), and it’s always described as quite a bit stronger and hoppier than the normal ale. It probably comes out of the same tradition as the German märzen.

    The note about alder smoke is interesting, too. In farmhouse brewing in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark alder was the most common wood for smoking malts. So much of the farmhouse gammeltøl will have been smoked, and smoked with alder, although not all. Northern Jutland seems not to have smoked the malts, and beech wood was also much used for smoking in Denmark.

    • Very interesting Lars, thank you. And I wonder now if English porter’s distant roots may lie in Scandinavia. It would be interesting to know if Scandinavians predominated in early Norfolk versus the German element, say.


      • Actually, I think porter’s roots probably lie in the Low Countries. They were making a dark ale soured by long storage in wooden casks in the Low Countries in the 17th century. That sounds very like the original porter to me, although perhaps a little less dark.

        It’s possible alder was traditional for smoking malts in the UK and Germany, too. At this point I don’t have the data to say anything either way. I know in Orkney they used peat, but that was because there were no trees.

        Tasting the Norwegian-style farmhouse ale smoked with alder should be possible. I know Martin Thibault has had several events featuring recreations of that style of beer in Montréal. If you watch out it should be possible to catch another.

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