I was reading up on blended beers last week whilst researching Krieks, and stumbled across the history of the porter. It’s an interesting tale which illustrates nicely the ebb, flow and evolution of styles.
I wouldn’t describe the humble porter as popular, by any stretch of the imagination, but most modern breweries will have it on their list, which I guess is a reflection on the current brewing scene - where variation is king. But it wasn’t always like that… and for a brief moment in the mid 20th Century - the poor old porter basically became extinct!
How the porter exactly came into existence is a murky tale at best, but it is first mentioned in 1721. Around this time, publicans often mixed beers at the bar and a drink that was a blend of one third pale ale, mild (fresh brown beer), and stale (matured brown beer) had become popular. It was a darker beer and was known as three-threads - with each third being a thread from a different cask.
Seeing its popularity, a London brewer called Ralph Harwood was clever enough to brew something to replicate it, which he did from a single mash, requiring no blending or ageing and which he called Entire (coming from a single cask and a single thread). It was a working man and woman’s drink and popular amongst the porters of London.
This story is very likely more fairy tale than fact - but we love a bit or romance so let's roll with it for now.
Original porters were strong beers of around 6+% that were aged for up to 18 months at the brewery - this was a serious drink. It was popular too and variations on the theme such as single, double, triple and even imperial stout porters came into being through the 1700s. It is this development that resulted in the style’s fall from grace.
These bigger styles eventually came to be known simply as stouts, and quickly claimed the niche of the stronger darker beer of choice.
Taxation on malt increased and the cost of ageing porters became apparent and by the end of the 1800s, breweries were either making a less serious, mild unaged porter with a lower abv and less hops - or had given up altogether in favour of stouts.
The theme continued into the 1900s, with rationing around the time of the second world war exacerbating things, and by the 1940s, the porter as a style literally disappeared.
To be fair, the Irish held on a bit longer and the Germans too with their bottom fermented version (which is more akin to a dark lager) known as the Baltic Porter - but it is the Americans that we have to thank for the style’s more general revival.
The Anchor Brewery in the US bottled a porter in 1974 and this triggered a spate of English breweries to follow suit - most noticeably Fuller’s and Timothy Taylor’s. Which brings us to today’s beer - a porter made by the Thornbridge brewery and going by the name of Cocoa Wonderland. Let’s give it a whirl…
It pours as dark as a moonless night with a brown tinged head. The nose is sweet and inviting with condensed milk, caramel, mocha and dark chocolate notes leading to a palate that is lifted and lighter than expected - and with some lively effervescence. There's some lovely bitterness on the finish which combines nicely with the chocolate notes too.
This certainly feels like a return to the robust porter styles of the 1700s with big hops and big flavours, and yet, with the addition of chocolate and lactose, this take on the porter is unashamedly modern. At the same time, the lactose addition is without doubt a cue from milk stouts - which first started appearing in the late 1800s and became popular in the mid 20th century.
So, through time we have seen the porter usurped by the stout, and its general fall from grace - only to rise once again - a phoenix from the flames. This has taken place in slow motion over the space of three hundred years, but the beer scene is different now, fast paced and ruthless, and it will be interesting to watch as some styles flourish and others meet their demise…