My Presentation on Porter and Stout at Castro’s Lounge in Toronto

“Rear View Mirror” Presentation at Castro’s Lounge, Saturday, November 26, 2016

I presented on this topic over the weekend. We had a dozen signed up, not a large number but Castro’s, a compact room, was almost full from normal trade anyway, so not many more could have been accommodated.

I started by noting that “porter” as a term for beer is first documented in a 1721 letter published in Nicholas Amherst’s Terrae Filius (1721-1726). I noted that previously, brown ale and brown beer were popular in the city, but also other beers of varying colour and strength.

I stressed that the subject of porter is complex and would deserve a book on its own, indeed a series of them examining the topic from different standpoints. I chose to focus on the points itemized below, but obviously another 20 or 40 could be added, e.g., the Harwood origin story, Obadiah Poundage’s letter of 1760, Feltham’s Picture of London account, the origin of brown malt and the oak and alder link, tax and price issues, technological innovations, the invention of black malt by Daniel Wheeler, the rise of mild ale, etc.

bottle-padrino-photo-pngThe group was comprised of about half “new hands” and the others more experienced in the beer palate with a couple knowing some good detail on beer in general. We tasted Sleeman Porter, Durham Black Katt stout, Mackeson Milk Stout, Flying Monkeys Cadillac Graveyard Oatmeal Stout, Wellington Imperial Russian Stout, Padrino Porter, and the house threw in Black Oak Nutcracker, a spiced porter.

All were from Ontario except the Mackeson, brewed in Caribbean, and Padrino (Barcelona). All were bottled or canned except the Black Katt and Nutcracker, which were non-cask draft.

Fuller Imperial Stout was on the original list, but couldn’t be sourced in time. The last two were substituted.

The part of the group not familiar with beer technics preferred the Sleeman Porter, then the Flying Monkeys or Black Katt. The others liked the Padrino a lot (I thought it was great, the best that day). The Wellington seemed a little off, with an acidic edge. This actually suited my purpose as I pointed out some 1700s-1800s porter acquired a similar “hard” edge and was often used in blending.

Chris and Craig in the group blended the Wellington with the Flying Monkeys and it was excellent!

Few enjoyed the Mackeson, but I did.

Below are the main points I addressed. I’ve lightly edited them to reflect more how the discussion actually went.

  • earlier terms for porter include porter’s ale, porter’s beer, porter’s guzzle, porter’s liquors
  • traditionally, it is thought the term comes from London porters who moved parcels and merchandise as they favoured the drink
  • “three threads” and other thread numbers preceded porter as drinks
  • “porter” aka “entire butt beer” was said to replace a blend of beers, the “threads” (thirds?)
  • Gary Gillman has advanced a completely new idea that London Huguenot silk weaving terminology explains the terms three threads and porter, by reference to cloth quality*
  • the greater the number of threads of each “porter” in the loom (aka portée, portee, portie), the higher the quality of cloth and its price
  • the higher the number of threads in the thread beers, the greater the price, as documented in 1713 at the Fortune of War, Goodman’s Field, part of London’s silk-weaving district
  • Gillman projects the weaving terms porter and thread were applied jocularly to mixed beers to label their ascending qualities by price, e.g. two threads was two pence the pot, three threads three pence
  • this is the first new thinking on porter history for 200 years
  • the term stout preceded porter, there was pale stout and brown stout
  • porter and stout are essentially the same except stout was sometimes stronger and richer
  • the thread beers and mixes may have been a way to avoid tax on strong beer, but possibly also to attain a better palate
  • with a tax crackdown, arguably entire butt/porter emerged to replace the most popular mix, three threads
  • three threads and porter were the same price for a good part of the 1700s, three pence the pot, which adds to their connection…
  • a hallmark of porter/entire was longer-age to have a balance of mature and fresh elements, but blending never disappeared and resurged at end of 1700s
  • brown malts were typically used in porter in 1700s and somewhat smoky from kilning with straw, wood, coals
  • in early 1800s, pale malt was added to mash to afford its higher extract potential
  • roasted black malt became popular, instead of or in addition to brown and amber malts, to lend the colour and roasty taste
  • palate of porter apparently changed in this period
  • early 1800s, Guinness substituted black malt for brown, but also used amber malt through 1800s, the beers were still all-malt
  • c. 1900 Guinness settled on pale malt and black malt for all beers
  • mid-1900s (dates vary) Guinness substitutes roasted barley for black malt, apparently today 40% of mash is unmalted barley
  • porter disappeared for a time in Britain but some breweries continued to make stout, which was similar
  • e.g., Mackeson stout was never off the market, it uses a lactose addition, introduced 1907
  • craft brewing has restored different varieties of porter and stout, e.g., oatmeal stout, Imperial stout, foreign export stout, Baltic porter
  • craft brewing has developed new forms of these especially flavoured with coffee and chocolate but also fruits and other things
  • some flavourings are new, some are not, but all beer was flavoured with a huge variety of things before the hop became standardized for beer
  • classic porter and stout are made with 100% barley malt and the hopping traditionally is high, in keeping with its “beer” origins versus ale
  • the beer and ale distinction largely disappeared by later 1800s but traces of the distinction subsist
  • the pint of “mild” in U.K., where still available, is less hopped than bitter and IPA and reflects the old “ale”


*My two main publications (2015) on the topic can be read here. The “keystone post” mentioned sets out the main argument, and additional points are made in the second posting linked herein.