I relish few moments more than 5 p.m. Most days when the clock reaches that magic hour, I crack a beer and gulp my reward for the day’s labor. Though I write about drinking for a living, I don’t drink while writing. Like oil and water, work and pleasure don’t mix – but that wasn’t always the case in old London.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, porters hoofed heavy freight off boats and ferried parcels and merchants’ goods around town. Portering was backbreaking, calorie-draining labor, work that demanded steady refueling. According to historian Martyn Cornell, the men received an energizing boost from a dark, tart beer that they sipped at pubs equipped with outdoor benches and tables for storing their loads. The beer was so closely associated with the workers that by 1721 it began appearing in writing bearing their profession’s name: porter.
As for the dark quaff, it evolved from cloyingly sweet brown beer. Though brown beer was once London’s dominant style, its subpar reputation cracked the door for competitors, and lighter-colored pale ales started catching on. To compete, brewers devised a decently hopped, less sweet brown beer that was mellowed in wooden barrels. Due to the lack of sanitation, bacteria and the wild yeast Brettanomyces likely loitered inside the wood; given time, the microflora gave the beer its signature tart, lightly lactic character.
Once porter won over British drinkers, the brew was shipped to colonies and across the prevailing trade routes, landing in Ireland, Denmark, India, Russia, and Scandinavia. Over the ensuing decades, pale ales climbed in popularity, and porter begat the Irish dry stout – Guinness is Ireland’s classic example. By the mid-20th century, porter was essentially extinct. The style seemed destined for the dustbin, and in many respects that’s still the case.
Few breweries produce tart, historically appropriate porter. Increasingly, plenty of modern interpretations do exist, though, and you’ll typically find them to be lighter and less astringent than stouts. Today’s British porters present sweet flavors of caramel or toffee and a bit of roasted complexity. American porters are more imaginative, employing smoked malts, heaps of hops, fruits, chocolate, coffee, and hot peppers. For example, California’s Stone Brewing Co. adds chipotles to its Smoked Porter. Ohio’s Willoughby Brewing recreates a candy treat with its Peanut Butter Cup Coffee Porter. And Florida’s Funky Buddha makes Maple Bacon Coffee Porter, which tastes like breakfast in a bottle. No judgments if you drink it before 5 p.m.
As with stouts, porters can dominate delicate cheeses with their abundance of cocoa, coffee, and roasty bitterness. But these flavors are a perfect fit for a rich, nutty Gruyère-style cheese, such as Roth’s Grand Cru Surchoix or Le Gruyère AOC 1655. For a different direction, try a decadent triple cream, such as Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt. Tam or France’s Pierre Robert. Washed-rind cheeses also possess the backbone to go toe-to-toe with porter, and I’d be remiss if I overlooked Cahill’s Irish Porter Cheddar, which is deeply veined with its namesake ale.
The New Hampshire brewery’s blacktop-smooth porter evokes roasted coffee and chocolate; there’s a bitter jolt on the back end.
“Rich, dark and complex” is the slogan for this venerable British brew. You’ll taste toffee, chocolate, and fresh bread.
The Hawaii brewery’s silky and chocolaty porter is made with toasted coconut flesh, which supplies an unmistakably sweet, nutty, and altogether tropical nuance.
London’s Meantime based this porter on a 1750 recipe. The deep-brown beer’s aroma of lightly roasted malt and cocoa leads to flavors of coffee and toffee.
Edmund Fitzgerald Porter
Since 1988, the Cleveland-based brewery has crafted some of Ohio’s loveliest beers, including this well-hopped porter packed with flavors of coffee and bittersweet chocolate.