I have a plan. It may not appear so, but I do. Purpose, perhaps, is more accurate. I want to improve the quality of debate about the history of beer styles. Because, let's be honest, the standard is mostly pretty crap.
It isn't laziness that prompts me to post big chunks of my source material (though that is a happy side effect). I want you to be able to weigh the evidence and come to your own conclusions. It's boring debating with yourself. If a few of you can be arsed to read this stuff, maybe I won't have to any more.
One of the few contemporary sources that discuss the origin of Porter, Obadiah Poundage's letter has unfortunately been much misinterpreted. Yet analysed correctly, it's a goldmine of invaluable information. As an insider in the brewing trade, he certainly knew what he was talking about.
Here's how I interpret the letter:
- many drinkers liked the taste of aged beer, to get this they drank either all old beer or old beer mixed with young
- before Porter, breweries sent out all their beer young and to get old beer publicans either had to age beer themselves ("start butts") or buy it from middlemen
- brewers had the idea of a partially-aged beer themsleves to:
- generate greater profit
- make life easier for landlords
- the first Porter was Brown Beer aged for 4 or 5 months
- by 1760 customers and publicans expected Porter to be clear
Here's the text. See what you think.
Obadiah Poundage's letter
I believe I may say I am the oldest acting outdoor Clerk at present in the brewery. I served in the trade when Tom Tryon (a student in physick) whom I new very well, occasioned no small bustle among us by advising the not boiling of our worts for fear that our ales should taste raw. This, as near as I can recollect, was about the time of the Revolution as proves in how much need the trade stood of further improvement.
...In the beginning of King William's reign [1689-1702], whose memory be ever blessed, the duty on strong beer and ale was 2/6 per barrel and small beer was made from the same grains and sold for 6/- per barrel. Both the ale and beer was fetched from the brew-house by the customers themselves or at their charge, and paid for with ready money; so we entertained but few servants, fewer horses; we had no stocks of ales and beers in store, of casks but a trifling quantity and money in the Compting House before either duty or malt was become due. The Victuallers then sold this ale for twopence the quart.
But soon after our wars with France occasioned Further duties on this commodity -- I set them down from memory alone -- ninepence per barrel more in 1693 was laid on strong ale, an additional threepence per barrel in 1694. The whole duty amounted to four shillings per barrel on ale and one shilling per barrel on small beer at this period. Ale rose in price to 18/- and 19/- per barrel and the victualler sold it for twopence halfpenny per quart.
Now we come to the Queen's time [Anne 1702-1714], when France disturbing us again, the Malt Tax, the Duty on Hops and that on coals took place, besides one shilling per barrel more on strong beer and ale and fourpence per barrel more on small beer, owing to old Lewis's ambition. Our duties on strong beer and ale amounted to 5/- per barrel and on small beer 1/4 per barrel. May he receive his reward, say I, for about the year 1710 his machinations embarrassed us much. However, at last, it was realised that the duty on malt surpassed by much the duty on hops, from whence the Brewers endeavoured at a liquor wherein more of these last should be used. Thus the drinking of beer came to be encouraged in preference to ale. This beer, when new, was sold for £1/2/- per barrel, but the people not easily weaned from their wonted sweet heavy drink, in general used ale mixed with beer, which they purchased from the Ale draper at twopence halfpenny, and twopence three farthings per quart.
About this time the Gentry residing in London more than they had in former times, for them was introduced the pale ales and pale small beers they were habituated to in the country and many of the Brewers took to making drinks of this sort. Affluence and cleanliness promoted the delivery of them in the brewer's own casks and at his charge. Pale malt being dearer than brown malt, the brewer being loaded with more and greater taxes, the price of such small beer was fixed at 8/- and 10/- per barrel and that of the ale at £1/10/- per barrel; the latter was retailed by the victuallers at twopence per pint or fourpence per quart under the name of twopenny.
This incroachment on the consumption of the drinks which London had always been habituated to, excited the brown beer brewers to produce if possible a better sort of commodity in their own way, than heretofore had been made. To their honour I say it, my old Masters were foremost in this attempt and thus much let me add, I approved of the undertaking. They began to hop their mild beer more and the Publican started three, four, sometimes six butts at once, but so little idea had the brewer or his customers incurring the charge of great stocks of beer, that some moneyed people made a trade of purchasing their hopped beers at the first hand, keeping them sometime and when stale to dispose of the same to Publicans for £1/5/- per barrel and £1/6/- per barrel. Our tastes but slowly alter or reform. Some drank mild beer and stale mixed, others ale, mild beer and stale blended together at threepence per quart, but many used all stale a fourpence per pot.
On this footing stood the trade until about the year 1722 when the Brewers conceived there was a method to be found preferable to any of these extremes; that beer well brewed, kept its proper time, became racy and mellow, that is, neither new nor stale, such would recommend itself to the public. This they ventured to sell at £1/5/- per barrel that the victualler might retail at threepence per quart. At first it was slow in making its way, but in the end the experiment succeeded beyond all expectation. The labouring people, porters etc. experienced its wholesomeness and utility, they assumed to themselves the use thereof, from whence it was called Porter or Entire Butt. As yet, however, it was far from being in the perfection which since we have had it. I well remember for many years it was not expected, nor was it thought possible to be made fine and bright, and four or five months was deemed to be sufficient age for it to be drunk at.
The improvement of transparency has since been added to it by means of more and better workmanship, better malt, better hops and the use of isinglass; but this more perfection has brought with it numberless charges, greater stocks, long credit, more casks, more cellarage, more servants etc. and if at this time Porter is not fine, it has brought also this casualty of being returned on the Brewers' hands as being unfit for use.
...For a last objection, the Gazeteer has said, by a rise of 3/- per barrel a certain great brewhouse will be benefitted by £11,000 per annum. Perhaps is the Brewhouse I have the honour to belong to, and perhaps it may be so much advantaged. Sir, I desire to be allowed to know somewhat of this matter, if such be the profits they make, it will be the first profits they have seen these five years. Their capital stock is not less than £120,000 and this sum in the public funds would make £6,000 per annum; remains £5,000 out of which at least one half must be taken for so much as under the circumstances of a rise on beer, it will be made of better quality; the result then is that 2 per cent would be paid by the victualler for carrying on the most laborious manufacture in England.
There is then a necessity for a rise on this commodity and if it did not take place when the late additional duty on malt was imposed and when liberty was granted to the Distiller to go on in his profession, the reason was this: The London brewers willing to try what could be done in support of this charge by weakening their commodity, acted in consequence thereof and how did the event prove? Why, their beers were small and bad to such a degree that it became a fashion with the people to drink one half twopenny and one half porter at threepence halfpenny the pot.
your very humble servant,
- "Brown beer" was the direct ancestor of Porter.
- "Start" meant something very specific in 18th century brewing. "Starting a butt" has usually been interpreted in this letter to mean "tapping a barrel". It really means laying down a barrel of beer to mature. This section is talking about publicans having to mature multiple barrels in their own cellars to meet the public's taste for aged beer.
- "Mild beer" means something completely different from "Mild Ale". In the period when the letter was written Beer and Ale were still two very different drinks. Beer was hopped at about four times the rate of Ale. In this context "mild" simply means "unaged". You can read more about the difference between Ale and Beer here.
- In this context "fine" means "clear". From the use of the word "once" in this sentence, it's obvious that by 1760 (despite what some claim) Porter must have been clear. In fact, the way the sentence is phrased implies that Porter had been clear for many years at that point.
2 pints = 1 quart, 8 pints = 1 gallon, 36 gallons = 1 barrel (for beer) 32 gallons = 1 barrel (ale)
1/- = 1 shilling = 12 pence, 20/- = £1