The Sand Porter of Montreal (Part III)

In Parts I and II in January of this year, I discussed a “sand porter” advertised in Quebec Province newspapers in the early 1880s and 90s. I plumped for the porter being filtered through sand.

I retweeted the posts a few days ago, which elicited this Twitter exchange. Beer historian Martyn Cornell mentioned another Canadian citation for sand porter, in 1879 in Ottawa, Ontario, from Carling Brewery.

Martyn felt the riddle of the term sand porter remained. Other participants made interesting comments, e.g. that bottles of porter might have been stored in a bed of sand to promote a good maturation, or that filtration might have been useful to eliminate solid matter from molasses, sugars, or the roasted malts in use at the time.

Martyn pointed out since there was no known “sand pale ale”, why filter a porter in sand, especially as filtration was less important for porter (due to the dark colour)?

This point suggested itself to me when I wrote the posts, but it didn’t rule out for me a singular method of porter filtration.

Maybe sand imparted a colour to pale ale not noticeable in a blackish porter. Maybe isinglass finings, or just normal settling, produced clear ales, especially pale ales, but did not suffice for porter. Maybe …

Also, clarity was still a desideratum for porter vs. a “muddy” appearance. Mid-century beer writers William Tizard and Thomas Hitchcock emphasized the point. Hitchcock wrote that “perfect brilliancy” was “admired”.

Of course, I would not claim proof, or proof positive, that order of certainty. With historical questions, frequently that is not possible. Nonetheless using relevant knowledge and deductive thinking one can sometimes posit a plausible solution, one that will persuade some at any rate.

Another thing I was mindful of when drafting those posts was something I read years ago, that aging vats at a British porter brewery were covered with a layer of sand to help the beer in some way. I couldn’t remember what effect was claimed exactly, but was fairly certain I had read this at one point.

In January 2020 I tried hard but could not find the reference. I decided to try again, and this time I found the reference, I guess I used the right key words.

An 1871 article in The Brewers’ Guardian, a reprint from the Irish Times, recounted a tour of the Guinness facility in Dublin. The writer noted:*

To keep the porter cool in summer the tops of the vats are covered with a layer of fine sea sand.

Many breweries at the time had some mechanical temperature control, e.g., for fermentation and cooling the wort, but the vatting stage was more difficult. Evidently Guinness was trying to keep the contents, cooled over the winter and early spring, as cool for as long as possible.

Netting or a sheathing such as wetted straw was used for casks of pale ale stored outdoors by some Burton breweries, a similar idea. Pictures have been posted by beer writers showing the “ale banks” covered in such fashion.

Even today Greene King in Suffolk, UK continues to layer marl, a locally sourced gravel, on its wooden vats for its 12% abv, Old 5X strong ale.

The website explains in that case that the weight keeps the secondary fermentation from raising the lids. Comparing to the Guinness example, it may be six of one, half a dozen of the other (sorry).

Carling and some Quebec breweries perhaps used a sand covering for porter similar to what Guinness used, to similar purpose, and this suggested the name.

The example of Guinness, a famous brewery by the period discussed, may have spurred some Canadian brewers to follow its example. Sand porter is hardly an evocative phrase, and probably meant little outside brewery walls, but it was early days for marketers.

The Canadian advertisements I cited were published between June and early September – the hot time in Eastern Canada.

Martyn’s ad was somewhat later, in November when it would have cooled down. But the vats for summer trade may not have been fully emptied, or…

This is as far as I can take it now, which is a good distance, IMO.

N.B. Alfred Barnard’s early 1890s The Noted Breweries of Great Britain, etc., in his detailed chapters on Guinness and other porter breweries, does not mention this feature of vat houses. While it is unknown for how long Guinness continued using sand to insulate its aging vats, it is quite conceivable some Canadian breweries stayed with the practice longer than the “parent” firm.





3 thoughts on “The Sand Porter of Montreal (Part III)”

  1. Hello,
    what about storage in sand? There’s stories of premium Berliner Weiße having been stored for extended periods in the sandy ground. So it’s been done in Germany at some point at least.

    • Hi Yann,

      I believe you have written a comment or two on earlier posts, thanks for this current comment. The same suggestion was in a Twitter discussion when I tweeted this post on Twitter.

      I recall the sand weisse idea from earlier, I believe Michael Jackson mentioned it in an early book or article.

      In this more recent book on wheat beer by Eric Warner, Warner suggests the bottles were buried to prevent bursting. Presumably the sand or earth, in the area they were buried, afforded the right temperature not to burst but still allow maturation from the cocktail especially of Brett and bacteria in there.

      It seems unlikely to me the Canadian brewers did similar here for bottled porter, although it is possible. I don’t see why porter would be liable to greater risk of explosion than pale ale, say, which also has a Brett influence when long stored, and possibly too with lactic acid bacterial influence given the mixed cultures of those days.

      But the sand term seems limited to porter in Canada, or rather a small part of Canada in fact. Also, unless the rooms were heated (it’s possible) I think the bottles would surely freeze in our very cold winters here.

      The fact that the biggest porter brewery in the world used sand-covered vats to mature porters seems more likely (imo). Pale ale does not offer the same problem, since pale ale traditionally was not aged in large tuns like porter, but rather casks or hogsheads.

      But I could be wrong, of course, and your theory might be right, it’s just what I think currently.

      Good wishes to you and Merry Christmas.


      • Hello,

        They’d have to be buried quite deep to avoid freezing, that is a strong argument against the idea indeed. The thermal inertia/insulation does sound more sensible then.

        Merry Christmas to you too!



Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: