|BEER BEFORE PORTER|
|Before we can understand Porter we must try and understand what people were drinking before Porter came on the scene. This is a complicated task. The objections to our understanding of Porter outlined above apply even more so, but coynfusing, in a country were people travelled little there were countless regional variations. Neither was their any communality of terminology. There was a large number of names used to describe beers, but how do we know whether similar beers were given different names in different parts of the country, or similar names given to different beers?||
“At the present day, in the eastern counties, and indeed over the greater portion of the country, ale means strong and beer means small malt liquor; in London beer usually means porter (i.e. the small beer of stout); while in the west country beer is the ‘mighty’ liquor and ale the small.” iii
This quote comes from 1889. So imagine the picture on the ground in 1689. This difficultly is not helped by the traditional etymological considerations attached to the works ‘ale’ and ‘beer’, arising from their original and obsolete distinctions between unhopped ale and hopped beer, about which we will not go into further here.
We do know that various towns had a reputation for their beers, and at different times places as diverse as Margate, Nottingham, Hull and, of course, Burton, were known for their ales, but we don’t know how they differed. We also know the names of many of the beers consumed.
Consequently whilst many authorities are agreed that Porter originated as an attempt to combine in one brew the flavours being obtained by the public who were mixing beers from various casks in the pub cellar, there is no unanimous agreement as to what exactly was being mixed, or even if was two or three beers that were being mixed.
One story refers to a drink called ‘Three Threads’ said to refer to the threads on the taps screwed into the casks; (i.e. one pot of beer would have been drawn through three taps), although references to Three Threads outside such historical explanations appear mighty few. Nor are many agreed exactly what these three beers were. Some are as vague as ‘ale, beer and twopenny’, others give us ‘stale, mild and country ale’; for ‘country’ read ‘pale’ (pale by their standards, that is, not ours). Stale was beer that had been matured, possible for up to two years. As we shall see, storring beer was an expensive process, and it was not unusual for entrepreneurs to buy young beer, keep it and sell it back to the brewers, who needed it for the ‘three threads’ market at twice the price.
It is not entirely clear as to why a fashion for mixing beers arose at the start of the eighteenth century, other than a desire to match palate and pocket. There were increases in beer duties in 1692. An extra three shillings per barrel was levied on Strong beer, driving up the price from tuppence to tuppence ha’penny per quart. Further tax increases on coals and hops during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14) also pushed up the cost of production.
A tax on coals was important for it was well understood that different fuels produced different qualities of malt.
“ Malts are dryed with several sorts of Fuel; as the Coak, Welch-coal, Straw, Wood and Fern, &c. But the Coak is reckoned by most to exceed all others for making Drink of the finest Flavour and pale Colour, because it sends no smoak forth to hurt the Malt with any offensive tang, that Wood, Fern and Straw are apt to do in a lesser or greater degree.” iv
Brewers would naturally respond to such a tax change by increasing the price of pale beers or substituting cheaper darker malts, which were less sweet, because less sugar remained in the malt. London brewers could not malt pale malts themselves until coke was introduced, as coal smoke was a problem in the capital. These taxes therefore didn’t just affect price, they affected flavour, and Londoners did not like having their accustomed flavours interfered with. So to get what they wanted they blended themselves.
This put the London brewers in a difficult position. Stale beers were costly, their own brown ales were seen as inferior and pale and country beers were produced elsewhere. Sales were heading south. Harwood cannot have been alone in looking for an solution.
Ideally we would like to replicate the original constituent beers in order to understand the component flavours and the flavour of the ‘Three Threads mixture. From then we could try and recreate the original Entire Butt that was famously first brewed by Ralph Harwood at the Bell Brewhouse in Shoreditch in 1722 , and from thence on examine the considerable changes in Porter production that took place over the course of the century up until the massive shift in popular taste in the 1820-30s that saw the whole scale replacement of Porter by mild.
Not much is known about Ralph Harwood, though much fable attached to his supposed discovery.. His contribution is said to have been the development of a new malt that would enable a single gyle brew giving the comparable product out of one barrel to Three Threads. This was a variety of high-dried brown malt.
The brown Malt is the soonest and highest dryed of any, even till it is so hard, that it is difficult to bite some of its Corns asunder, and is often so crusted or burnt, that the farinous part loses a great deal of its essential Salts and vital Property, which frequently deceives its ignorant Brewer, that hopes to draw as much Drink from a quarter of this as he does from pale or amber malts.” v
The advantages of the new drink were soon apparent, not the least of which was the price. Three Threads was 4d a pot in 1720. The new drink only 3d. Londoners may have had their preferred idea of what beer should taste like, but they also had a better idea of what it should cost. Harwood’s beer may well have been an approximate flavour match, but close enough for most people given the price saving.
Despite changes in taxes, wages, raw material costs and the like, the new price remained unchanged until 1760 when it rose to 3 1⁄2 d. Considering that life expectancy for the majority was little above 40, this means that when the price of Porter did rise in 1760 the vast majority of Londoners had never known any other price. It was a profound shock.
The reason for the price stability was the fact that throughout the period the economies of scale of Porter brewing kept pace with or outstripped any inflationary pressures. This was because Porter brewing was the world’s first modern industry, and the innovations and changes that occurred throughout the century kept producing greater efficiencies.