Sunday, 19 April 2009

The death of Porter (part 92)

You may have noticed that I use a multipronged fork to devour and absorb the past. Brewing manuals, price lists, brewing logs and newspaper articles all play their part. Today I'm going to use one of these sources, brewery price lists, to analyse Porter's demise.

I've pretty well destroyed the Porter dying out due to WW I malting restrictions theory. And, as we've seen, Whitbread were still brewing their Porter and the start of WW II. Fuller's was still around in the 1950's. Porter didn't disappear overnight. It was a long slow process. What's happened with Mild over the last 30 years seems like a good parallel.

A quick overview of Mild's decline seems a good place to start. In 1960 Mild was brewed everywhere in the UK and available in every pub. By the time I started drinking in 1973 Lager only just outsold Mild (14.6% of sales to 14.2%), yet there were already parts of the country where Mild had almost disappeared. London, Sheffield, Scotland. The areas where it retained a degree of popularity - South Wales, West Midlands, parts of Yorkshire and the North West - today form the style's last strongholds. Many southern breweries no longer regularly brew Mild. Scottish 60/- is close to extinction.

The uneven geographically spread of decline can be seen quite clearly with Porter, too. The brewing records I've seen, being mostly from London, give a distorted image. London was Porter's last toehold. It was still a standard part of a London brewery's range in the 1920's. Most still made one in the 1930's. But what about elsewhwere? That's where brewery price lists come in.

Price lists provide an invaluable record of the range of beers being brewed bty a specific brewery at a specific time. See when Porter disappears from the price lists and you can plot its decline. In the 1850's and 1860's just about every brewery produced a Porter. When did they start to drop it?

The answer is: surprisingly early. Already in the 1870's there were breweries that brewed Stout, but no Porter. As the 19th century progresses a greater proportion produce no Porter.

The table below gives an idea of how brewers turned their backs on Porter. I won't claim that it's wonderfully scientific, as it's based on a random sample of price lists (the ones I happen to have found). But it does give an impression of the rate and extent of Porter's decline.

It looks as if the 1890's was the decade when Porter hit serious trouble. Half the breweries in my sample didn't brew one. And those still with a Porter were increasingly concentrated in the South. The maps below show clearly the uneven distribution of Porter brewing breweries.

View Porter in a larger map

Romford, Bristol, Stratford-on-Avon, Stockport, Watford, Leamington, Northampton, Putney, Chiswick, Hitchin Herts, Leamington, Sheffield, Epping, Mansfield, London, Hastings.

View No Porter in a larger map

Newark, Manchester, Nottingham, Chippenham, Cambridge, Cambridge, Hull, Colchester, Swansea, Swansea, Newark, Hull, Wickwar Gloucs, Stafford, Brigg, Sheffield, Tiverton


Matt said...

There is a tendency to take for granted the availability of cask ale in England. The same is true for mild in the North West - the half a dozen pubs within walking distance of me have cask milds from Holts, Hydes and Robinsons. I'm not sure how long that will last as I'm definitely at the younger end of the mild drinking age range. Did Messrs Barclay and Perkins ever foresee the day that draught porter would cease to be popular?

Gary Gillman said...

I wonder if porter's downfall can be laid to the fact that as the 1800's wore on it became a traduced product, untrue to its roots. Many brewers writing in this period noted that porter had become a different product to what it was originally. There seem to have been three main changes: first, the substitution of pale malt for brown for most of the grist (not by all brewers I know). Second, and what is related, the burned malt taste, to which the 1700's drinkers had become accustomed, was taken out or lessened due to use of black patent malt, burned sugar and other stratagems to restore the old taste. Third, aging of porter from 5-12 months and more in huge oak tuns - indeed its "entire" character and raison d'etre - ended by the cheaper expedient of mixing old beer and new, which couldn't have delivered the same taste.

Why did public taste change to mild beers as we are so often reminded? Because, I believe, the public didn't like the sour edge imparted by the sour beer addition to mild beer. Many writers make it clear that properly aged beer using very large oak tuns - "sound old" beer - was not sour but a well-attenuated flavour just short of tart. I doubt the same result could be obtained by mixing old beer and new beer just as some people think that rotating barrels in an American whiskey warehouse results in a character that cannot be equaled by dumping together the matured barrels from different floors.

By successive changes in its production method, the taste of porter became much more akin, I project, to London ale. Given the predeliction of the 1800's for pale drinks, why would people drink something not that different-tasting from ale which was the "wrong" colour?

Maybe the brewers outsmarted themselves, just as American mass production of lager, which over 100years evolved into a bland, unpleasant "corny" taste, found itself outsold (in relative terms to be sure) by craft brews and quality imports in recent years.

I am mindful some brewers, such as Whitbread, retained a more traditional approach to the product through the period mentioned. But once the public perception of the "new" palate of porter came into focus (perhaps around 1850), long-term decline was, I infer, inevitable.


Ron Pattinson said...

Matt, sadly, I think Mild will continue to fade away.

Funny you should ask that about Barclay Perkins. I've a dead good quote on that very topic that will appear in a post in a day or two.

Ron Pattinson said...

Gary, more than anything, I think a simple change in fashion did for Porter. If anything, it's surprising it was so prominent for so long.

Porter managed to survive the shift away from the aged taste. After 1870 or so it was mostly sold mild.

The irony about its colour, is that Porter went out of fashion just when darker beers were co9ming into fashion, around 1890-1900