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Historical Porter

The first 100 years

by Ray Daniels

The earliest porters were made entirely from a type of malt known as "brown" or "blown" malt. It was probably some what similar to today's chocolate or Special B malts, except that is was dried over a wood fire and took on a distinct smoky flavor.

Overall, the flavor of the original porters was highly roasted, smoky, somewhat acidic (from aging in bacteria-infested tanks) and well bittered. The product would have been translucent and probably ruby-red rather than black or even brown in hue. The original gravity of these brews is believed to have been about 1.060 to 1.070.

You can reproduce these early porters by smoking some malt on your grill. Soak pale malt in water for five to ten minutes, then drain. Use a section of window screen or a similar device to hold the malt over a low charcoal fire generously sprinkled with wet smoking wood such as hickory, mesquite or apple. Keep the lid on the grill if possible and turn the grain every three or four minutes. Smoke for as long as you can, but when it begins to char or audibly pop, it is time to take it off.

For an all grain recipe, combine equal quantities of pale and smoked malts - about 7 lbs of each should get you to the right gravity range for a 5 gallon batch. You can also make an extract version, by soaking the smoked malt at 150 to 160 deg F for 30 minutes or performing a mini-mash with some pale ale malt. Here's a recipe you can try:

Original Porter

5 gallons

7 lbs smoked brown malt

7 lbs pale ale malt

Mash at 154 deg F for 45 minutes

Hop with 15 alpha acid units boiled for 45 minutes.

No flavor or aroma hops were used in the original porters, but you can throw some in if you want.

Ferment with Whitbread ale yeast or a similar London strain.

Industrial Porter

By 1790, porter brewing was big business. The popularity of porter had forced the brewers to adopt the techniques of the industrial revolution that they had helped to fuel.

Cost cutting was one sign of porter's industrialization. Brewers had discovered that pale malt was far more cost effective than brown malt and they began to substitute the former for the latter. To make up for the lost color (and the associated consumer perception of lost potency) brewers resorted to various additives to provide color or kick to the beer, including opium, Indian hemp, strychnine and tobacco.

The best brewers of the time avoided these abuses while still reducing the proportion of brown malt they used. A lightly toasted malt with a character between that of the brown and pale products was introduced, called amber malt. Most porter recipes from around 1800 included pale, amber and brown malts in varying proportions.

While brown and amber malts are difficult to find today, it is easy to make your own at home in the oven using a cookie sheet (covered with aluminum foil to ease clean up) and pale or 2-row malt.

Place the malt on the cookie sheet to a depth of about 1/2 inch. Place in the oven at 250 deg F for about 30 minutes to dry the malt. Next raise the temperature to 300 deg F for 30 minutes. At the end of this time, take several kernels of the roasted malt, break them open and compare the color of the starchy interior to that of some unroasted malt. By this time, it should be a cream or light buff color. This is the proper color for amber malt.

To produce brown malt, raise the heat again to 350 deg F and perform a similar color check every 10 - 15 minutes until the interior of the roasted malt takes on a tan color.

You can now make a 1790 porter using equal quantities of pale, amber and brown malt, or perhaps two parts pale to one part amber and one part brown. Your target gravity should be 1.055 to 1.065 with bitterness of about 30 to 35 IBUs.

Industrial Porter

3 gallons

3 lbs pale

3 lbs Mild malt

3 lbs brown malt

Mashed at 155 deg F for 60 mins.


0.5 oz Galena (11.7% aa), boiled 70 minutes (6 AAUs)

1.0 oz Kent Goldings (5% aa), boiled 20 minutes (5 AAUs)

Ferment with Whitbread, Nottingham or another English yeast strain.