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Porter’s sour secret

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The spectrum of beer styles is filled with wonderfully convenient origin stories, from Belgian farmhands and their refreshing saisons to English brewers intensifying their hoppy pale ales for oceanic transport. But not every style fits neatly into brewing lore, especially the porter.

Few origin stories rouse more passionate discussion than this malt-forward brew, which rose to popularity in 18th-century England. The reason? Nobody’s entirely certain how the style came to be—many believe it originated when brewers began blending fresh and stale brown ales for London’s thirsty working-class porters. But we’re pretty sure of one fact that’s all but forgotten by modern drinkers: The original porter was sour.

“The standard brown ales of the period didn’t age very well,” notes Frank Clark, supervisor of the Historic Foodways program in Colonial Williamsburg, Va. “So, London brewers bumped up the hops and found that by aging them for a long period of time, it mellowed the flavor, but that also invited Brettanomyces [yeast] and acetic acid.”

According to Clark, porters’ large-scale popularity and barrel-aging space requirements played a major role in sparking England’s industrial brewing movement, the technology of which eventually brewed the sourness out of the style. But with the modern popularity of Belgian sours, a few craft brewers are attempting to reintroduce the historic style as it once was.

“Historical records refer to porters as sour, but we can’t taste them, no matter how good the notes are,” says Boston’s Cambridge Brewing brewmaster Will Meyers, who released his sour porter, The Colonel, last year. “I kind of feel like our job as contemporary brewers is to create a contemporary version of what they were like.”
To re-create his version, Meyers spiked 110 gallons of porter with Brett, and aged it in subdued bourbon barrels for an entire year. The result paired roasty, chocolaty flavors with slight acidity and funky yeast notes: “It’s kind of ridiculous how popular the beer is considering it’s a niche within a niche. In theory there should be one guy who likes it.”

Along with Meyers, Southampton Publick House brewmaster Phil Markowski and Ithaca Beer brewmaster Jeff O’Neil have toyed with sour or funky porters to rave reviews. But when New Glarus Brewing owner Dan Carey released his Old English Porter, a blend of fresh porter and one spiked with Lactobacillus (lactic acid bacteria), last year, he found not everyone was enthused about, or even aware of, the style’s roots.

“One-third loved it, one-third scratched their heads and one-third thought it was the worst beer they’d ever had,” remembers Carey. “I had more than one humiliating phone call.”

Their reaction makes sense: This country’s beer culture descends from post-Industrial Revolution England and Germany, where sourness is primarily considered a repugnant off-flavor. That notion’s simply hardwired into our palates. However, Carey found that with a little education about Old English Porter, his customers accepted its profile, much like they do with en vogue Belgian sours.

“I did a market recall, then sold the beer out of the gift shop,” says Carey. “We had a sign that said ‘Danger, this beer is supposed to taste this way,’ to drive home that it was a sour beer. Sales took off after that.”

Ask any of the brewers who’ve attempted this style, and they’ll all agree that while the beer is a hit, the sour porter will never again achieve the popularity it did in the 18th century. But with the growing niche market for pungent beer, the original porter has a chance to live on. •


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