London was for centuries the largest and most advanced brewing centre in the world - the beers that evolved there shaped brewing worldwide. London gave birth to the two first global beer styles - Porter and (India) Pale Ale. Both of these beers have huge significance in terms of brewing history.
There are many myths and misunderstandings regarding the 18th Century origins of London’s two greatest beer styles, but only one eyewitness to what really happened – a brewery insider with a strange name.
“Obadiah Poundage” (an alias), the 80 year old brewery worker who wrote a letter to the London Chronicle in 1760 about the London brewing industry, had some very interesting things to say about the origins of Porter and Pale Ale. He is the only contemporary source for this information that we have.
The following is an abbreviated version of some of what he wrote, with notes.
“About this time [the late 17th / early 18th century] the Gentry residing in London more than they had in former times, for them was introduced the pale ales and pale small beers they were habituated to in the country and many of the Brewers took to making drinks of this sort. Pale malt being dearer than brown malt.”
.....The aristocracy began coming to London more than they had previously, and created a demand for the more expensive Pale Ale that they had been used to in the country. Some London brewers began to brew Pale Ale in response.
“This encroachment on the consumption of the drinks which London had always been habituated to, excited the brown beer brewers to produce if possible a better sort of commodity .”
.....In order to compete with the brewers who had started to brew Pale Ale, the brewers who had always brewed the traditional London Brown Beer decided to try to improve the quality of their beer.
“They began to hop their mild beer more and the Publican started three, four, sometimes six butts at once. Some drank mild beer and stale mixed, others ale, mild beer and stale blended together at threepence per quart, but many used all stale a fourpence per pot.”
.....In order to improve the London Brown Beer, they started to hop it more heavily. Publicans bought beer in butts and aged (started) it themselves. Some people liked unaged (mild) beer, some liked matured (stale) beer, and some liked a mixture of both. The bar staff would serve each customer with the mixture they preferred, mixing it at the bar from different barrels.
“On this footing stood the trade until about the year 1722 when the Brewers conceived there was a method to be found preferable to any of these extremes; that beer well brewed, kept its proper time, became racy and mellow, that is, neither new nor stale, such would recommend itself to the public - in the end the experiment succeeded beyond all expectation.”
.....This continued until about 1722, when the brewers realised that if beer was matured at the brewery and released in peak condition, it would be popular with the public. This proved to be correct, and the brewery matured beer became very successful.
“The labouring people, porters etc. experienced its wholesomeness and utility, they assumed to themselves the use thereof, from whence it was called Porter or Entire Butt.”
.....This improved beer became popular with working people, including porters, from whom it now took its name. 'Entire Butt' was what the brewers called it, but it was popularly known from this point as 'Porter'.
“The improvement of transparency has since been added to it by means of more and better workmanship, better malt, better hops and the use of isinglass.”
.....A further improvement was the use of better raw materials, and greater clarity due to the use of isinglass finings.
So, to summarise what Poundage tells us about the origin of Porter and Pale Ale:
1) The aristocracy began coming to London more than they had done previously and created a demand for the (expensive) Pale Ale, the world’s first premium beer style.
2) In order to compete with Pale Ale, London Brown Beer brewers decided to improve the quality. It was sold young (mild) in butts to Publicans, who aged it themselves.
3) Around 1722, the Porter brewers realised that if they matured the beer themselves, they could release it in peak condition, avoiding the need for Publicans to age it themselves or to have to mix young and aged beers from separate barrels at the bar. Both these factors would have been very popular with the Publicans, of course.
4) This experiment succeeded, and the beer was very popular with working people, especially porters, after whom it became commonly named. Porter was further improved by the use of better ingredients, and clarified using isinglass finings.
5) Both Pale Ale and Porter were around from early in the 18th Century. For many years, Pale Ale was an expensive beer drunk by the upwardly mobile, and Porter was the working person’s drink. (It would take a long time, but eventually Pale Ale would displace Porter as London’s most popular beer).
The 18th Century brewing industry in London had become enormous because London was the biggest, and fastest-growing, city in the world, containing huge numbers of people who all needed beer to drink. The breweries earned massive profits, and invested large sums in technology such as thermometers, hydrometers and attemporators, making London not just the biggest brewing centre in the world, but also the most technologcally advanced by far.
At the end of the 18th Century, in 1796, Whitbread became the first brewery in the world to brew 200,000 barrels of beer in one 9 month brewing season – 60 million pints from just one of London’s many breweries, most of it Porter.
London beer, Porter and India Pale Ale, was being exported all around the globe.