The United Kingdom is unique among the beer-loving nations of the world. While bottom-fermented lager beer is the most popular type of beer worldwide, Britain and Ireland are the only countries where the principal brews are top-fermented ales. Here, pilsner is not the most appreciated beer style as it is in the rest of the world. The majority of pub goers and beer lovers feel more of a kinship with their native draught bitter, a unique beer that presents, as the name implies, a bitter character, supplied by a healthy dose of hops. Though it’s rise to popularity was less than meteoric… The use of hops in beer was unheard of at one point in the history of English ales. It wasn’t until the 15th century, much to the chagrin of English ale drinkers, that the Flemings introduced hopped beer (called biere instead of ale) to England. Their use was sharply criticized, and largely regarded as a poisoning of the natural splendor of the traditional ale of the land. At one point, authorities officially banned the use of “the wicked and pernicious weed hops.” But in time opponents acquiesced, and hops became a critical component of many a favorite ale.
But even this popular style of beer experienced a regional centrality; before bitter became ubiquitous throughout the U.K., various styles existed almost in isolation of one another—those that were preferred in the north of England were often not at all desired in the south. It took a new kind of beer to freely cross provincial boundaries—a beer that would become the first nationally popular beer-style in Britain—a beer called Porter.
Porter was first brewed in 1722 in Shoreditch, London. As the legend goes, it was commonplace for patrons to request two or three different ales to be combined in their glass. Eventually, an innkeeper named Ralph Harwood developed a beer that embodied the virtues of each component beer, and he called his brew "Entire". It swiftly became very popular with the working men at the docks of London (or "porters" as they were known). Harwood's lunch-time trade became so busy that he would send lads into the streets bearing buckets of brew balanced on a long pole advertising Harwood’s brew and crying out "Porter, Porter". Eventually, the name “entire” dropped out of use as it was replaced by Porter (another variation of the story goes that Harwood’s delivery man was in the habit of shouting “Porter!” to announce his own arrival at the pub, in either case, the name Porter stuck).
Within a few years, porter had become the most popular style of beer in Britain. Saloons would offer accommodations to working men with cheap cuts of beef (the porter house steak) and, of course porter by the pint. In 1799, Guinness switched entirely (no pun intended) to producing porter, which became the beer of the Irish working man. In fact, it was porter that would ultimately give rise to a variation known today as the very popular Guinness Draught. But despite its massive popularity, the style all but vanished by 1973, replaced mainly by variations created by Guinness.
Today, Porter is again alive and well, experiencing a renaissance in both the U.S. and the U.K., though its original formulation and flavor remains somewhat of an uncertainty since its variations over the years, not to mention its brush with extinction. This month, we provide what may be the most accurate version of Porter available today—Flag Porter. Its story is certainly among the most interesting we have ever encountered. In 1988, several bottles of porter were raised from their resting place 60 feet deep in the body of an 1825 shipwreck lying at the bottom of the English Channel. The beers were in their original containers, with their wood stoppers and wax seals intact. Unfortunately, the 163-year-old beer "tasted like old, wet boots" according to Dr. Keith Thomas, renowned brewer and microbiologist. However, when he examined the beer under a microscope, he discovered that a small percentage of the yeast were still alive! After months of re-cultivating this yeast, he brewed a porter using an authentic 1850 recipe. Adhering to the practices of porter brewers of the era, Dr. Thomas uses barley and hops grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, and the very same yeast that was extracted from a bottle of 1825 porter!
Flag Porter is currently brewed by the Darwin Brewery of Sunderland, England. Established in 1994, Darwin Brewery has become one of the most respected small breweries in the North East of England. They produce a wide range of traditional and unique beers and were recently awarded the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) North East Beer of the Year for their delicious Ghost Ale.
For more information about the brewery, check out their web site at http://www.darwinbrewery.com/ or visit their U.S. distributors at http://www.legendslimited.com/.