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I thought I'd share a large article from the 1830's about London Porter breweries. As you'll see, its author wasn't totally at home with the brewing process. Where he comes into his own is when discussing the social and economic aspects of the Porter trade.

It's not unusual for journalists to struggle with technical details. That's as true now as it was 180 years ago. It's easy for us beer obsessives, daily drenched in the minutiae of brewing, to laugh at their misunderstandings. But just think about this. If you had to write a piece about genetic engineering how accurate would the technical bits be?

Accustomed as a provincial inhabitant of the United Kingdom is to estimate at a very high rate the extent of London porter breweries, from his finding the beverage in abundance in every spot on which he may set his foot, yet the reality, when it is his fortune to visit the actual scene of the manufacture in question will prove in general far to exceed any anticipations which may have been formed. Nothing which a stranger can behold in the whole British metropolis will strike and amaze his eye more than the mere appearance of one of larger brew-houses of the city, with its enormous coppers, huge fermenting vessels, and monster-like store-vats; while, if he carries his observations farther, and examines into all the dealings and ramifications of such concern, his mind will be fiiled with still greater astonishment at the seemingly incalculable amount of capital embarked in it, as necessary to sustain and carry it on. The first question which suggests itself to one's thoughts, on looking at the lakes of porter perpetually being manufactured in such places, is, Who is to drink all this? One can scarcely believe that any given number of human throats, even of the thirstiest order, can consume these seas of liquor as fast as they seem to be produced. Yet but a short residence in the mighty city which is the scene of this production, will remove much of this wonderment from the stranger's mind. He will soon discover that porter almost supplies the place of water in London, as the common and hourly means of slacking thirst. None so poor, none so miserable in London, but contemns the thin colourless product of the spring, and will have his deep brown "stout," pot or can, at home or abroad. With the labouring classes the beverage has become a necessary of life, and, indeed, even the most temperate and orderly among them would perhaps as soon want their solid food, as the "entire" to wash it down. In part, the origin, at least, of this habit may be owing to the rather impure sources of much of the water about the metropolis, and we have heard sensible men trace it to such a cause; but the cheapness, abundance, and quality of the liquor, not to speak of other circumstances, seem in a great measure sufficient to account for the prevalence of the custom at the present day."
Kendal Mercury - Saturday 26 January 1839, page 4.
Awe at the scale of Porter brewing was totally reasonable. In the 1830's, in no other city in the world was beer brewed in anything like the quantities made in London. In the days before the railways, few places in the world has a large enough concentration of people to allow this size of operation. This is when the London brewing industry was at its peak. In the decades that followed the new railway network enabled brewers elsewhere, notably in Burton, to challenge the dominance of London.

He's probably not far wrong about the dodgy quality of drinking water encouraging Londoners to drink beer instead. Though it often wouldn't have been in the form of full-strength Porter. In the 1830's and 1840's Barclay Perkins still brewed a Table Beer version of Porter. It had a gravity or 1033-1038º and ABV of 3.5-4%. Their standard Porter was 1065º and around 6% ABV*.

So far so good. Now for the dodgy technical stuff.

"The difference in colour between porter and ale, as well as other malt liquors, is chiefly owing, as is generally known, to the condition of the malt used in preparing the former of these drinks. The malt in this case is slightly scotched in drying, or curing as is more frequently termed, so as to acquire a brown hue, which it communicates to the liquor made from it. But there are other qualities for which porter is remarkable ; and it is for the possession of these, more peculiarly, that the porter of London has obtained its great and distinctive celebrity. The agreeable bitterness and empyreumatic flavour which characterise it, have been the envy of all the brewers, we may safely say, the wide world, and fortunes have been thrown away in the endeavour to discover the source of these properties, and to imitate them. These attempts have always failed so signally, if not uniformly and universally, that at length mankind have almost agreed, by common consent, to rank the puzzle of London porter-brewing with the mystery of the Iron Mask, or that of the authorship of Junius. Numberless, indeed, were the explanations tendered by one party and another, before the point was thus given up ; and as one of these notions may be said still, in some measure, hold its ground, many persons may be glad of a little information upon the subject. Finding that no means whatever, tried in any quarter of the earth, could make porter taste as it did in London, some ingenious individual at length hit on the idea that the cause must lie in the Thames water, with which it was manufactured. As the Thames water was really known to have peculiar properties—that of keeping long fresh and pure at sea, for example, after undergoing several fermentations many people regarded this solution as perfectly satisfactory ; and one enterprising brewer of the Scottish capital actually went the length of bringing down the Thames water in casks, in the full expectation of at length rivalling the metropolitan brewers. The attempt was unsuccessful; nor will the reader marvel at this, when informed how erroneous were the premises upon which the experiment was based. Only four of the London brew-houses do really make use of the Thames river water! In other words, not a sixth part of the London porter is manufactured with water from that source. The breweries have in most cases private wells, and the liquor brewed thus is no whit inferior in quality to that into which the river water enters. The public, at least, have never discovered any difference. So much for the Thames-water fallacy."
Kendal Mercury - Saturday 26 January 1839, page 4.
The change in Porter grists around 1800 seems to have eluded the author. In 1837, the grist of Barclay Perkins Porter was: 116 quarters pale malt, 20 quarters brown malt and 4 quarters black malt**. The grists at other London Porter brewers were generally similar. The development of black malt in 1817 had allowed brewers to significantly reduce the proportion of coloured malts.

I'm surprised any London brewer used Thames water in the 1830's. Those that I've studied either had their own wells or used New River water. The Thames was filthy by this time. No-one would have contemplated drinking its water.

It gets worse. I'm not even sure what the author is trying to say in this next paragraph.

"The real cause of the pleasing bitter relish and aroma of the London porter, we have good authority for asserting, rests with the malt used, and also for the mode of curing it for use. The hops, of course, are the principal source the bitter in all porter, but in the case of London porter, the delightful bitter smack is not so much derived from the large allowance of hops, as from the use, in the brewing, of great quantities of brown or embrowned malt, which malt is cured along with dried wood of a stringent quality. This wood is mixed with the malt, and, besides contributing to the spirit and strength of the beverage, is the ingredient that imparts to it its much prized aroma. In the introduction of this stringent wood, consists the long-sought-for secret. All the stories which have been told of the unbounded use of liquorice, and drugs of every kind and name, are entirely erroneous as far regards the leading brew-houses, which supply the world with London porter."
Kendal Mercury - Saturday 26 January 1839, page 4.
I get that some of the bitterness came from the brown malt. And when he says it's cured along with dried wood, I think I get what he means. That wood is being used in the final curing. But when he goes on about mixing wood with the malt, that's just nonsense. As for it contributing to the strength of Porter, that's just totally crazy.

He seems to have misunderstood the malting process. I guess someone told him the flavour came from the wood used in kilning and interpreted that as meaning that the wood actually ended up in the mash tun.

Interestingly, the author denies the usual adulteration accusations. Rather hastily, I fear. The successful prosecutions brought against brewers prove that the use of illegal ingredients did occur. Though admittedly none of the large Porter brewers was ever prosecuted.

Next time we'll be looking at the capital and people involved in London brewing.

* Barclay Perkins brewing records held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document numbers ACC/2305/1/541 and ACC/2305/1/550.

** Barclay Perkins brewing record held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document number ACC/2305/1/550.