by Mark Tichenor
You think your job sucks? Try being an 18th-century porter in the streets of London. We’re not talking suitcases here. In the days before cargo vans, heavy things had to be moved by hand, onto and off of ships, into warehouses, across town. Porters were the guys who did it. It’s like if your moving company had to move the whole city. It was exhausting work. According to popular history, the favorite daily nourishment to sustain a full day’s, um, porting was the strong, black beer of London, what we call porter today.
Porter almost almost died out in Great Britain during the lean post-war years. Taxation based on alcohol percentage leeched out the nourishing carbohydrates, and the ascent of trendy European lagers made it seem downright stodgy. It took American homebrewing hobbyists, keen to attempt any beer style they could discover, to finally get porter bubbling in kettles again.
Unsurprisingly, commercially brewed porter became as American as the people making it. It got stronger, often much hoppier. Brewers tortured their porter in all sorts of fiendish ways, adding vanilla, chocolate, or coffee, sometimes even maple.The Alaskan Brewing Company smoked the malt, creating a beer that would rocket the small company to legendary status. Brewers aged porter in retired whiskey barrels to impart oak and bourbon characteristics. You name it, it was done to porter.
While many fine variations resulted from that mad ingenuity, some breweries still make a more classic, basic porter, a sip of which could transport your imagination back to those teeming wharves along the Thames.
Naked Dove 45 Fathoms Porter is one such brew. Owner and Brewer Dave Schlosser is something of a traditionalist when it comes to beer styles–his porter is as straightforward as they come, free of gimmickry or fad flavors. Noticeably dark brown instead of black, 45 Fathoms offers a hearty, chewy mouthfeel and a flavor that melds pumpernickel bread and sherry notes, without leaning too heavily in either directon. Expertly balanced, it’s the star of the Canandaigua NY-based brewery’s range of year-round beers.
Although best known for their pale ale, Venerable California brewers Sierra Nevada make a porter that’s worth dreaming about. Extremely dark, with the expected heavy roast and bready characteristics, Sierra Nevada Porter reveals a slight sweetness and subtle coffee flavor as well, yet with a remarkably clean finish. Hitting the drinker with all those big tastes without leaving them cloying on the palate is indicative of a very well-designed beer.
Happilly, the style made a remarkable comeback in the UK as well, spearheaded since 1979 by the always great Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter. Black and toffeelike, with a noticeably softer mouthfeel than its American counterparts, Taddy is still fermented in gigantic open-topped slate boxes (Samuel Smith’s is the last brewery to use the old Yorkshire Squares fermentation system). Whether this helps impart that characteristic vanilla pudding smoothness upon the porter is open for debate.
Although variations of the stale are dressed up, smoked, made superstrong or aged in whiskey barrels, regular old porter is still a basic beer for blue-collar tastes. In each sip is a reminder of our roots and the role of those who toil hard for a living. Porter is, and will always remain, the beer of the worker.
Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at beercraft.wordpress.com. Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.