Friday, January 27, 2012

The Porter Principal

I really dig Porters. I always seem to have one either bubbling away in the fermenter or socked away, down in the basement. Maybe it's Porter's inky opaqueness—like a sharks eye—that I'm drawn to. Dark mystery in a pint glass. There's something special about a simple Porter, something that is, as Evan Rail has described as, "time agnostic." However, there seems to be a trend with craft breweries to try and hide the Porter (that sounds like a euphemism, doesn't it?). Every brewery today has a smoked-mocha-raspberry-Zagnut-bourbon barrel-aged offering, while the mother sauce—to borrow a term from the culinary world—seems to have been left behind.

That's why I've decided to go back to basics for this post. No smoke, no whiskey, no vanilla, just Porter. I've picked two to examine, arguably the two quintessential Porters—one from the old world and one from the new—the archtypal brown beers (to modern porters, at least) from their respective parts of the globe—Fuller's London Porter and Anchor Porter.

Fuller's has been Fuller's since Messers Fuller, Smith and Turner shook hands back in 1845. Not traditionally known as a pure Porter brewer, Fullers has, as far as I've been able to find (and I didn't look very hard) been making Porter on and off since the 1880s—and I'd garner a guess, that they actually started well before then, but I haven't seen any records. Porter has had an up and down ride over the last two hundred years—and not just at Fuller's. Porter was the king of British beers in the 19th century, but it's popularity began to wane toward the end of the century. Change in taste and gravity caused a long and drawn-out fade away from price lists and pubs—well into the first half of the 20th century. By most counts, London-made Porter was a rarity by the Second World War and almost completely gone by the 1960s. Fortunately though, that wasn't the complete end of Porter, and Fuller's was one of the breweries who helped to re-establish it's place in the beery world. With an increasing interest in craft beers in the 1990s and Fuller's growth in the market place, that brewery would once again begin making a Porter, initially as an export-only beer, then introducing it to the U.K. market in 2000. Today, ratebeerers rank it as one for the best British Porter on the market, giving it a perfect 100 out of 100. Beer advocate also shows the love.

I've had Fuller's London Porter a thousand times—both at home in bottles, and out on tap. What always amazes me is it's aroma. Pouring it into the glass (which was set on the counter, not near my sniffer) I was smacked with the wonderful odor of fresh made coffee, spiked with an anisette liqueur, and a wallop of roated smokiness. It tumbled into my pint glass, billowing to a dense, memory foam-like, fallow-hued head—it's pitch blackness slowly inching its way to toward the rim of the glass. The complexity of this brew's flavor is astounding. There's everything from rich bittersweet chocolate, to a slight musty tobacco. It has a rich, burnt sugar and molasses note, with a mild edge of smokey liquorice. It has a mild, earthy hoppiness, and a fairly subdued amount bitterness, but I think most of that comes from the malt. Above all, however, is its roasted nuttiness—like chocolate-covered espresso beans. There's only one thing that brings that pop, that dry, almost savoriness, to the party—and it's the one, true signature of a great London Porter—old school, dry roasted, brown malt. While this Porter makes you think you've just stepped out of Doc Brown's, time-traveling DeLorean, into the 1800s, I'm sure it isn't anything like what Fuller's made way back when—but it sure is good. (Check this out if you'd like to see what Porter they did make, a hundred years ago)

Just as in UK, Porter was also produced in 19th-century America. Cities like Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and brewers like Matthew Vassar—of whom Vassar College is named—made their fortunes brewing Porter. While Porter waned in England, it continued to be made throughout the 20th Century—although what we consider to be Porter today, was a far cry from the adulterated and artificially colored American Porter of mid-century. That all changed in California during the early 1970s. If Fuller's helped to usher in the re-birth of British Porter, another brewery—6,000 miles away—didn't just help, but started the modern, all-grain, Porter craze in the U.S. Anchor Brewery, San Francisco's hallowed microbrewery, began making it's version of Porter in 1972, eventually bottling it two years later. If the British beer industry can look to companies like Fuller's to draw it's history from, then American craft beer industry need look no further than Anchor. Just as Fuller's London Porter, scored exceptionally high on ratebeer, so does Anchor's Porter, receiving a rank of 99 out or 100.

While both beers are definitely Porter, there are a few differences between the Brit and its American cousin. Whereas the Fuller's smelled of licorice, the Anchor has an unmistakable aroma of fresh fruit—pear to be exact. It's jet black like the Fuller's, with a craggy, tan flop for a head. Just as in the aroma the Anchor is full of deep fruity flavors—sweet pear and apple, tart plum and dates with just a hint of banana esteriness. There's a mild dark malt, chalky, bitterness that's complimented by a subtle, almost baking cocoa flavor, and a rounded burnt toast, roasted note. It has far less of that signature brown malt roastiness than the Fuller's, but enough to still evoke thoughts of sweet, diner coffee. It's bitterness is more pronounced than the London Porter, with an obvious use of sharper American hops, but generally the dark malt is center stage in this show. The greatest difference between the two cousins is in their body. Both weigh-in about 5.5% ABV, plus or minus a few points. However, the Anchor seems thinner, more lithe, than the roasty and robust Fuller's. Neither is wrong, and it really comes down to a matter of preference. Either way, Anchor's Porter isn't so much and homage to the London Porters of yore, but more of a re-interpretation with a decidedly Bay area slant to it.

If your a brewer—homebrew or otherwise—and you read this (and I hope you do) the one thing I hope you take away from this post is: As much fun as it is to drink and/or make a chile-cinnamon-imperial-pumpkin Porter; a simple roasty, black as night beer also is worth the while. Who knows? Maybe we can get another hundred years of great beer out of the old girl yet. 


  1. Fuller's current Porter recipe is surprisingly close to their classic one. I say surprising because they didn't look at the old recipe when formulating the new beer.

    Fuller's brewed their Porter until at least 1955. By 1958, it had disappeared.

  2. I had a feeling I when writing this post I might hear from you Mr. Pattinson! Looking at that 1910 recipe (of which I might just make) on your site, I'm guessing the big difference between then and now was the amount of brewing sugar.

    Any idea when they first started brewing Porter?