Plundering porter recipes from centuries past

Guinness Porter

Guinness Porter - Credit: Archant

ou wait for one porter to come along and then three come along in quick succession... In my last column I reported on the 3 Brewers’ recreation of a porter beer brewed in the 19th and early 20th centuries by a long-dead brewery in Hatfield.

And now two further recreations of the style have been produced by the world’s biggest brewers of dark beers, Guinness of Dublin. They date from the late 18th and early 19th centuries and are based, the brewer says, on authentic recipes culled from ancient brewers’ logs.

The beers are Dublin Porter and West Indies Porter. The Dublin version is based on a recipe dating from 1796 while the beer destined for export to the Caribbean comes from a brewers’ log dated 1801.

Guinness has installed a pilot brewery in Dublin where beers using old recipes and innovative new brews are trialled. Porter was a beer style developed in London early in the 18th century. It was a blend of pale, brown and aged or “stale” beer. It was given the name of porter as a result of its popularity with the porters working the markets and docks of the capital. At that time, the strongest beer in a brewery was dubbed stout and the most powerful versions of porter were called stout porter.

In Dublin, Arthur Guinness employed a brewer from London to show him how porter was produced. His version became known as “Plain” to distinguish it from stronger stout and it rapidly became the drink of the Dublin working class.

In common with English brewers, Guinness became a major exporter of beer. One version, Foreign Export Stout Porter – now known as Foreign Export Stout – became the base for the strong versions of the beer brewed in Africa and for some European countries. Guinness has long enjoyed an enthusiastic following in the Caribbean and West Indies Porter at 6% reflects the version of beer sent there by ship, with a high level of alcohol and hops to help it survive the journey.

Dublin Porter has a modest strength of 3.8% and I doubt that was the strength of the beer served in pubs and bars in the Irish capital in the 19th century. Records in London reveal that porters at that time had an average strength of 7.1%. People engaged in heavy manual labour demanded beer made with high levels of alcohol to both restore lost energy and give them essential proteins at a time when diets were poor.

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A beer measuring just 3.8% would have been dismissed as fit only for children or nursing mothers. Guinness may be missing a trick with a 3.8% beer considering the interest today in the strong ales of Belgium, styles that have been taken up with great enthusiasm by craft brewers in Britain and the U.S.

Eventually porter, both in England and Ireland, went out of fashion and stout became the favoured version of dark beer. At one stage of the 19th century, Guinness was the biggest brewery in the world as a result of its energetic exporting policy. It sent beer to all parts of the British Empire and overtook sales of Britain’s biggest brewer, Bass.

Today, as a result of the world-wide beer revolution and the great interest shown in old beer styles, porter is being made in Britain, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. Most of the new wave craft breweries in Ireland have the style in their portfolios and they are now joined by the brewery whose name and harp logo are synonymous with dark beer.

Dublin Porter (3.8%) has a creamy malt and cappuccino coffee aroma with hints of dark toffee and peppery hops. Bitter hops build in the mouth, overlain by smooth, creamy malt and a growing toffee note with a hint of burnt fruit from darker, roasted malts.

The finish is bittersweet to start but ends dry and bitter, with some acidity, while the creamy character resembles a milk stout, with a continuing smooth coffee feel. It’s a very drinkable beer but would benefit from a higher level of alcohol.

West Indies Porter (6%) has a luscious aroma of herbal and spicy hops with a big hit of toffee, liquorice and coffee from dark malts. The palate is a fine balance of rich, roasted grain, espresso coffee and bitter hops with continuing toffee and liquorice notes. The finish is sweet to start but burnt fruit, bitter coffee and spicy hops build to a bitter finale, but with a continuing balance of creamy malt and liquorice.

Both porters retail at £2.20 a bottle but are currently on special offer in Morrison’s at £1.20. A draught version of Dublin Porter is available in selected outlets.