Beer History 101 + The Chocolate Hills Porter

We’ve always loved history here at the Cebruery. With modern civilization having spread to most easily reachable corners of the world, it’s become harder and harder to experience first hand what life was before the modern convenience of electricity, medicine, and indoor plumbing. But there are artifacts of history all around us, and beer is certainly no exception to this rule. From the ingredients to the process to how it is consumed, studying a particular style of beer can shed light upon an entire historical period as viewed from inside a pint glass.

The history of the Porter is no different. All historical references to this inky black, roast style seem to converge upon London brewmaster Ralph Harwood in the year 1722. The 18th century was a period of rapid growth for London, the center of the evolving British Empire and the early stirrings of the Industrial Revolution, the period in history that brought us the advent of manufacturing, from textiles to metalwork to paper to glass. Steampower and fossil fuel use became common place, and agricultural techniques advanced too, a necessity given the enormous population boom that occurred simultaneously with these technological advances. The population of Europe as a whole quadrupled from 100 million in the year 1700 to more than 400 million by the year 1900, largely due to increased standards of living and economic conditions resulting from the advances of the Industrial Revolution.

Ralph Harwood owned and operated a London brewhouse (and perhaps pub) known as The Bellin Shoreditch. Prior to Harwood, breweries were in the business of producing beer, but not in the business of aging it. That is, beer produced was immediately sold, and any aging that was to take place was the responsibility of a publican or other dealer. Harwood—perhaps in an attempt to take advantage of new technology that allowed him to save money by utilizing utilities of scale—formulated a recipe for a beer that was to be aged on premises, at his brewery, before being dispatched in a condition ready to be consumed immediately. Some (perhaps dubious) historical accounts suggest that Harwood’s inspiration for this darker beer was the popular “Three Threads” blend (which itself was likely vernacular for “three thirds”) that many alehouses and pubs were serving up. This blend was one part each of what at the time were called “ale,” “beer,” and “twopenny” (the strongest and most expensive beer available at the time). At the time of Queen Anne (1702 – 1714), these were three of the five or so options you’d likely find yourself presented with at your standard London alehouse. These names of course don’t mean what they do today – “ale” at the time meant a beer that was less hopped than “beer,” and both were typically made with brown malts, which were less expensive to produce than pale malts. Some of the other options available included “mild,” which was fresh and recently brewed, and could be contrasted with “stale,” which—while not exactly off—was a slightly (ahem) aged version of a beer not meant to be aged.

Perhaps largely due to price differences between these options, London’s drinkers were quite fond of mixing their styles to create these hybrid blends. “Stale,” for instance, which cost four pence a pot (or quart) was often watered down with “mild,” which was less expensive because it hadn’t been taking up valuable space aging in the pub keeper’s storeroom for the last year. In 1760, a then-elderly brewery worker with the moniker “Obadiah Poundage” first wrote of the popular “Three Threads” mixture, which apparently provided the perfect mix of flavor and low cost that many of London’s burgeoning working lower-middle class were seeking. Other definitions of “Three Threads” from contemporaneous sources suggest it was a blend of “ale,” “stout,” and “double beer.” It was perhaps an attempt to replicate the popularity of these blends that perhaps led to Harwood’s recipe, which had the financial benefit of being brewed in one place, in one vessel, and aged on premises, allowing the brewer to charge more for the same product and both saving both space in the pub keeper’s alehouse as well as the time and trouble of removing the bung from three separate casks of ale to make one blended beverage. He allegedly christened his creation the “Entire” or “Entire Butt,” hinting at the needing to blend that it obviated.

Of course, the truth of the matter is that the London Porter’s of the 1700’s weren’t terribly similar in flavor profile to what we imagine “Three Threads” actually tasted like, and was instead more a revitalized and improved upon version of ordinary London brown beer. The threat of cheap beer from the countryside brought in by the flocks of migrating Brits looking to work in the new factories being opened in London as well as the aforementioned “middle men” who were buying beer to age and then selling it an inflated price created the perfect storm for the marketing campaign that became “Porter.” The resulting recipe changes—blending several brown ales together, increasing the rate of hopping, and improving storage and aging methods—resulted in a flavorful but mellow beer that had the flavor of neither new nor “stale” beer, and the style became wildly popular among those same burgeoning London working folk, many of whom worked as canal porters in the newly built river transportation networks. From its popularity among these workers—who numbered in the thousands in central London, and whose vigorous daily manual labor often rendered them quite thirsty at the end of a hard day’s work—this beer earned its appellation. The earliest known mention of Porter by name talks about dining at a cook’s shop “upon beef, cabbage, and porter,” and a letter from a Swiss traveler written in 1726 talks about a “kind of beer … called porter … because the greater quantity of this beer is consumed by the working classes. It is a thick and strong beverage, and the effect it produces if drunk in excess is the same as that of wine; this porter costs 3d the pot. In London there are a number of houses where nothing but this sort of beer is sold.”

The thickness and strength of this beer—as well as its high content of dark, roasted malts—covered up any number of faults common in the still-developing industrial brewery settings of early 18th century England, a factor which became more important as Porter began to be shipped to other parts of Europe and North America. The beer reached the height of its popularity during the height of the British Empire, and the effects of its popularity are still felt in the brewing traditions and cultures of former British colonies and trading partners, such as those in the Baltic states across the North Sea and those in Eastern Europe. Even China still uses the term “porter” to identify a dark, roast, very strong brew. Ultimately, lower gravity porters (those in the 3% – 5% abv range) merged stylistically with mild ales, and those with higher gravities and fuller bodies and a deeper roasted malt profile merged stylistically with stouts. The style even went on to be produced in a dryer, more highly hopped fashion in Ireland in the 1770s by the Guinness Brewery: two styles, marked with a single and a double “X” (with a third, stronger version exported to the Caribbean), were ultimately renamed “Guinness Extra Stout” and “Foreign Extra Stout,” both of which are brewed to this day and have since become Ireland’s national style of beer. And even though dark English beers nearly became extinct during the early-20th century (some say the result of an inability of English malt houses to roast their grains during the energy restrictions imposed by World War I), the style has now made a renaissance in America and elsewhere, including at The Cebruery, by those looking to reinvent and continue to push the evolution of historical styles.

Our Chocolate Hills Porter utilizes British Maris Otter malt as a base and five specialty grains to provide a spectrum of roasted flavors—from caramel, to toffee, to chocolate, to coffee, and to astringent, black tastiness—and a smooth, silky body that augments all of the aforementioned. A sizable hop schedule stays true to historical norms, but we utilize a combination of British and American hops to provide an international aroma and flavor profile to this beer, fitting for a style that was the first to be internationally distributed. A traditional English ale yeast strain dries this one out fairly well, but leaves some residual sweetness to augment the caramel and chocolate notes provided by the grain bill, as well as provides some fruity esters that intermingle with the hop notes. The end result is a highly drinkable at 5.8% and with approximately 250 calories per pint, but also highly flavorful.

We would be remiss if we didn’t take this opportunity to introduce our Kahoy Series. Porter is a style that lends itself well to being experimented with. With such a wide range of flavors presented by the combination of the malts and hops listed above, there are just so many different ways to present this beer that it was hard to settle on just one. We think our Black and White Porter does the style justice, though. This limited edition version of our Chocolate Hills Porter is part of our Kahoy Series, and uses fresh Madagascar vanilla beans, imported cocoa nibs, and moderately toasted American oak to lend both dark (chocolate, toasted wood sugars) and light notes (cinnamon, vanilla) to an already flavor packed beer. Chocolate Hills sits on oak for a full six months before it becomes Black and White Porter, so the latter will be a limited release – grab it if you see it!

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