Why is it called porter?
- Thursday, 25 September 2014
After reading a great rundown of the difference between porter and stout, a little bit of research needed to be done on why porter is called porter. The reasons behind the naming of stout will surely come next, but for now, let’s stick with porter.
Firstly, what is a porter? The linked article gives a pretty good description of the difference between porter and stout, but does it define a porter?
A porter is a dark beer that is typically a bit heavier than a dark or brown ale. It’s typically brewed with dark malts and is pretty well hopped. However, the malty characteristics of the beer tend to disguise any big bitterness. However, being British in origin, a proper porter can have a spiciness to it. Also, depending on the hops, there can also be a fruitiness to it as well.
Back in the day, many porters were stored/aged in barrels. This practice has mostly stopped today, but is quickly making a comeback with breweries looking to experiment with new flavours. In fact, when the crew went down to Red Hill Brewery’s Secret Stash Weekend, they had a number of barrel aged beers, including a porter.
As the story goes, cited in the article above and in the all mighty Wikipedia, the beer got its name because it was popular with street and river porters. A porter being someone who moves things – so people like dock workers and movers.
A popular (but generally unfounded story) generally referred to as the “three threads story” talks about bar tenders blending three different types of beers to make a unique taste: a strong, aged beer; a mild, young beer; and a sour beer (that may or may not have been sour on purpose). For some reason, this combination was particularly popular with the working classes of London and every publican had his own combination. Finally, a brewer by the name of Ralph Harwood, found a recipe to brew this taste into one beer and (supposedly) the porter was born. Unfortunately this story is widely regarded as false.
Another theory on the name pops up in yet another article about porters and stouts that the name is derived from the word “poorter,” the name of a type of beer from the Netherhands.
Whether the beer was first created in England or the Netherlands doesn’t matter though. It was still popular with dockworkers.
So mystery solved? Hardly! Why was this beer popular with English porters? Why aren’t we calling the standard pale ale a porter? Or some other drink?
Well, the popular assumption about why the beer was popular with the workers of the city is that it’s simply because it’s a hardy beer! Porter did (and still does) have more of a kick to it than your standard session ale, and, after a hard day working the docks, isn’t that what you want?
Adding to this, being a more malt driven beer, it’s generally heavier than its paler cousins. A porter will simply have more calories to it than another beer. Once again, after a hard day working the docks, having a couple pints of porter would be near eating a whole loaf of bread.
Through the years, porter took a bit of a hit due to tax regulations (mostly due to wars) and the alcohol content was gradually scaled back. Unfortunately this lead to a fall in the popularity of porter over time. However, it’s good to see that breweries are bringing porters back to their former glory and brewing them to how they were originally designed: strong, dark, and robust.
So enjoy a porter, and enjoy its great history!
If you enjoyed learning about porter, check out our other articles on beer naming conventions.