There are English porters, Brown porters, Robust porters, American porters, Baltic porters, Imperial porters, Smoked porters, barrel-aged variants of most of the preceding, and so on. With as many variations as there are it is hard to believe that porter is perhaps a neglected style. Then again, it did disappear for a while [see Foster, Porter, and others]. Of 14 beer people asked about overrated and underrated styles three of them said porter was most underrated and no one suggested it as overrated in our current market climate. [Yes, I know that is from Thrillist; feel free to ignore it.] I would like you to sit down with one or more porters of your choosing. Pay a few minutes attention to your beer and then use that as a springboard to further thoughts on the style.
Click on that image. It's from the commonplace book of William Maud, evidently of Wetherby, York, England, b. 1787 who served as a customs official in Great Britain; he was employed at the excise office in Leeds in 1830. In his note book he keeps track of things of personal interest like Egyptian history and the excise table. On page 135, he wrote down two recipes: strong porter and common porter. He was likely taking an interest as the district excise man in the business of those who paid him taxes. The 184 year old jottings of a curious unfamous man.
There is so much going on. Both the common and strong porters are built upon a bit more porter malt than pale malt. The strong porter calls for Clay hops, which I now know from this 1855 agricultural journal was a rather rank hop that had particular preserving qualities. Which is interesting as Maud notes that the amount of hops you use depends on "the length of time you intend to keep the porter in the vats." I am not sure that I had understood the word "cleanse" to mean the primary fermentation dropping clear. Notice he records that cleansing the common porter is accomplished by raising the temperature of the primary from 71 to 77 degrees. His conclusion is wonderful: "this is all wrought in the Punchin"! As with porter so with life.
Porter is Georgian Britain's gift to us all. It comes in many forms. It was enjoyed in New York City as an import and then a local product in the second half of the 1700s, before and after the Revolution. The best was ripe and brisk. It survived both sides of that civil war. As we wrote in Ontario Beer:
The day book of tavern owner Abner Miles from 1798 illustrates drinking preferences of the governing elite who spent this a English money. Merchants Hamilton and Cartwright along with Commodore Grant and Chief Justice Elmsley along with many others are noted drinking a wide range of strong drinks with their meals and afterwards. They drank an impressive number of bottles and bowls of white wine, syrup-punch, brandy, rum, port, madeira, gin sling and sour punch along with mugs of beer and bottles of porter. The variety of drink indicates that, at least for the elite, tastes were as varied as imports from throughout the British empire and beyond would allow. The imported porter also illustrates a commercial connection to imperial and global brewing that continues to the present.
It does continue. I am having a Fuller's London Porter as I write this. The grainy dusty texture of the malt so chocolately good. The hops twiggy minty good.