London Porter Reborn

In London, the bones of the dead are still visible. Derek Prentice points at the Truman brewery smokestack. 

In London, the bones of the dead are still visible. Derek Prentice points at the Truman brewery smokestack. 

The ghosts of forgotten beers are legion. Some are barely more than a name jotted by an observer centuries ago. Others survived until recently enough that they remain in living memory. And some morphed and evolved so much that we don’t realize they are ghosts. Put London porters into this last category. But unlike Vienna lagers or witbiers, London porter was a worldwide phenomenon, a beer so popular it sparked imitators the world over.

No beer except pilsner was ever a bigger deal—and that example offers a great contrast in continuity. Both porters and pilsners have been brewed since the 1840s—porters for a century before that—but Czech pilsners have barely changed. Barley farmers now grow a descendent of the grain used to make Josef Groll’s first pale lager, but the techniques, the water, the hops—all are identical. Porters are still made, but literally the only thing that remains is the name. Go back to 1842, and London’s great breweries were mashing their porters by the gyle, brewing them with a weird, extinct malt, aging them for months or years in wooden vats, and blending them with fresh beer to serve, strong and boozy, to ticket porters who teemed in the streets. Now porters are tame little things made with a dash of black malt. 

Ron (left) and Mike. 

Ron (left) and Mike. 

For history nerds and pedants—all 127 of us—those old porters flicker in our dreams. What did they taste like? Many breweries have offered revivals or called their dark ales “London porter,” but none were authentic recreations, not really. That’s why the second historical collaboration between historian Ron Pattinson and Goose Island brewer Mike Siegel (with help from London brewing icon Derek Prentice) is so seductive: they have tried to resurrect a ghost. Using as much fidelity to process and ingredient as 21st century brewers can know about 19th century beer, they have created a true London porter called Obadiah Poundage.

The biggest absence in the tradition of porter-brewing is blown brown malt. It’s possible to get brown malt today, but it’s not the acrid, smoky “blown” malt that was the soul of the old porters. Blown malt was made by an abandoned malting process akin to popping corn, where high heat causes the seeds to burst. That other great historian of English brewing, Martin Cornell, quotes from an 1892 brewing manual: “blown malt is made by subjecting the barley to ‘a sudden blast of intense heat generated by heating up the kiln fire with oak or beechen faggots or billets.’” The malt this process produced was by all accounts bad: the cheapest grade, it produced beer that, when served fresh, was described as “heavy, thick, and foggy.” Before the famous porters came unaged versions of brown beer that were the lowest, crudest tipple available. We’ll come how they transformed into delicious beers soon, but first Mike and Ron has to address the brown malt issue. 

Blown malt. 

Blown malt. 

It’s impossible to make anything approximating a London porter without it, so the team contacted maltster Andrea Stanley at Valley Malt to recreate it. For good measure, they also went to Crisp Malting in Norfolk, England, where they’re floor-malting Chevalier barley, the variety that would have been used at the time. In a beer with this many strong flavors, the contribution of the pale malt variety is not likely to be significant—but it’s an impressive level of detail. Stanley’s blown malt, of course, became the beer’s defining feature. 

Floor malting. 

Floor malting. 

Poor malt doesn’t seem like a great way to build a famous beer, and now we come to that additional stage in porter-brewing that amounted to alchemy. Vat-aging in barrels inoculated with resident Brettanomyces yeast transformed the beer into a liquid prized as the finest on earth. (Whatever money cheapskate brewers saved on malt costs was lost by having to own vast warehouses with giant oaken vats so the ale could ripen for long, expensive months.) Goose Island has its own vats—commonly called by the Flemish name, “foeders,” since Belgium remains the champion of wood-aging now that Britain has abandoned it—which served as the project’s inspiration. Mike used the Claussenii strain for his batch—appropriate because it was originally taken from British vats. 

The final step was a common British technique of blending older stock or “keeping” beer—the vat-aged stuff—with fresh beer. London Porter took all the flavor from the stock ale, while the fresh or “running” beer gave it liveliness. This is, of course, still the logic behind Belgian gueuze. Also typically, Mike used different recipes for the two beers.  “Mostly the Keeper had twice as much brown malt, and more hops.” The added hops and brown malt would have been useful for aging—both to retard bacteria and feed the Brett—but would through a younger beer out of balance.

So what’s the beer taste like? Mike sent me a couple bottles, and I was most excited to try it. I prepared myself to be transported back in time, and then was surprised when I arrived. Obadiah Poundage is both more and less than I expected. It has a surprisingly fruity nose—blackberry?—with a foundation of brown bread. Given all the intense ingredients, I expected a flavor tsunami, but that’s not the case. It’s layered and complex, but balanced and approachable. Of course, that would have been the case—this was a wildly popular beer, and it had to appeal to a broad audience. That blackberry fruitiness is the first taste, followed by a slightly acrid wave of roastiness—but it’s not a roastiness I’ve encountered. It’s also not actually too smoky; roastiness predominates. The Brett provides a fascinating note that is evidently Brett, but it’s not horsey or dry. The beer harmonizes very nicely—again, as one would expect for such a popular beer. It’s not a modern taste, but neither is it weird and antiquated like Burton ale. 

There were lots of London breweries making Porter, but Ron and Mike chose an 1840 example from the Truman brewery. This was a very nice touch, because it allowed them to bring Derek Prentice into the project. Derek is one of the lions of British brewing, having spent years as Young’s Head Brewer before that institution shuttered its London site. He’s currently at Wimbledon, after a stop at Fuller’s (where he led Patrick and I on a tour.) Remarkably, Prentice started brewing at Truman’s 51 years ago, in 1968 (!). It went out of business in 1989 and the buildings were transformed to other uses. 

Derek Prentice

Derek Prentice

I will leave you with the video of the project (from which all the photos in this post came).  It’s a great document, and you can learn even more about the project. But first, let’s close with some words Prentice spoke in the video. They capture why anyone would go to such lengths to execute a project like this—even one with the deep pockets of AB InBev-owned Goose Island. As I’ve said a million times, there’s something special about beer:

“For me, it stems back to those early days when I joined the brewery here. I just found the whole place, the whole brewery—there was so much history, there was so much romance.... It was just magical, these old buildings—there were rooms people hadn’t been in in years, with old copper vessels in, full of cobwebs and forgotten corners. There were just wonderful, historic buildings, full of romance and characters. You know, the people you worked with—all breweries seem to attract characters.”

Prentice was talking about the lost Truman brewery, but he might have been talking about extinct beer styles or London porter itself, and the many forgotten rooms no one has visited in years and years. I am so pleased to know that one room, at least, has finally been explored. This is just one recipe from one brewery, of a style that was made for hundreds of years. No doubt others tasted different. But at least now we have a glimpse.

There’s a fair amount of Obadiah Poundage available, but you have to go to the brewery in Chicago to buy it. It is probably worth the trip. 

Jeff AlworthComment