First brewed, it is said, in the Bell in Shoreditch , in 1722, Porter was for a time – the beginning of the industrial revolution – the dominant style of ale in England, and one which was exported to some unlikely corners of the world where it still survives – the Estonians have a penchant for it to this day. The nature of London’s water is said to have lent itself to the brewing of porter.
The elder brother of the dryer, and more full bodied stout, Porter was a satisfying, heavy beer of no mean strength, just what was needed to bring a bit of oomph back into exhausted workers, and it was also very flavoursome, using malts that were darkened in kilning until they were nearing a roasted, toasty flavour. It was indeed an industrial brew, one that the early commercial breweries as opposed to the traditional brewpubs excelled at. These breweries developed special techniques and machinery to achieve high quality dark malts without letting them go over the top and burning – one system patented in 1817 is particularly linked to the refinement of the process and continued success of the style.
As they brewed on a large scale, and demand (or the vagaries of the delivery system) could mean stock built up, some porters might remain in store for a longer period than was usual – brewpubs would have slowed their production when demand slackened – developing further flavours in the barrel.
Nobody is sure of the origin of the term ‘porter’. The great beer writer Michael Jackson said it could have come from those delivering to pubs from industrial breweries announcing themselves with the shout ‘porter’, but it seems to be written in at least half jest. Some link to the dark red and full bodied fortified wine port is another possibility. A third idea I have heard suggested is that it was drunk in vast quantities by the porters on the great London markets. Whatever the explanation, the word has a ring as satisfying as the drink itself.