Friday, 14 August 2009

Coal Porter

Thanks for MentalDental for pointing this out to me. It's a rather odd explanation of the smoky taste in Porter. Could it possibly be true?

On a personal note, I can remember the days when coal was still burned in large quantities in Britain. Later, when I visited East Germany, I wondered why I kept thinking of my early childhood. Then I twigged: it was the smell of coal smoke.


The French brewers have attempted to imitate the London porter, by hiring brewers from the metropolis to brew there; but however fully these have exerted their talents, they have not been able to brew a porter exactly similar in taste to the London; and the savans of the French capital have been puzzling their brains to determine the cause of this failure.

Mr. Francoeur, professor to the faculty of sciences at Paris, imagines, for what will not man imagine that the peculiar taste of London porter arises from the smoke of our sea coal fires. He says, that the peculiar smell of the smoke of sea coal is so abundantly diffused in the atmosphere of London, and especially in those manufactories which employ great fires, and in their neighbourhood; and is so powerful and adherent, that in London every article is strongly impregnated with the smell of it. English cloth, packed in the metropolis, carries the smell into foreign countries; and the clothes of Londoners retain the smell for a fortnight after they have left their homes. Hence, he says, there is no wonder that the porter should taste of this smoke, especially considering how long the porter is exposed to the smoky atmosphere, with a large surface in coolers of the brewhouses, whose steam engines emit such dense clouds of smoke.
"American Mechanics' Magazine", Saturday August 6th 1825, pp 62-63.

[By "sea coal" they mean what I would call coal. The lumps of black stuff that you set fire to.]

There could be many explanations why they couldn't brew Porter that tasted like the London variety. Raw ingredients, brewery equipment, water chemistry. Without any more detailed description of the difference in flavour, guess is about all we can do.


Oblivious said...

Dublin would have been using similar uk coal I presume, yet Guinness is not associated with this smokiness?

Would the proportions of brown malt not have an effect?

Gary Gillman said...

We have seen the detailed discussions Ron has posted of 1800's brown malt production, and clearly the use of beechwood and other woods to kiln the malt is the explanation.

This French account surely is a romantic explanation. I do not doubt what is said about the cloth, but this could not have affected beer to any degree. If it did, one would think the same thing would have been noted of exported pale ale (whether London- or Burton-brewed).


Oblivious said...

Gary I presume by 1825 the drum roast would be in use, so the malt would no longer be smokey?

Ron Pattinson said...

Oblivious, drum roasting was practised by then, but not when making brown malt.

Oblivious said...

Ah thanks Ron, I just presume that all malt roasting had switched over

So the brown malt was the major contributor of the smokiness?

Kristen England said...

I dont think 'smoky' is the right word. When I lived in Sweden I used to visit this little pizza shop on my corner. The pizza had this 'taste' that I haven't had anywhere else. Recently a new pizza shop has opened near me in Minneapolis. Its a coal fired pizza joint. The instant I tasted this pizza it took me back. This is the exact flavor, aroma that I got in Sweden. A little research showed me that that joint also used coal.

This is definitely one of those little aromas and flavors that can get missed but once you have had it, you know its there. If you had two beers side-by-side you for sure would be able to tell the coal fired malt one vs the other. I think this is what they are on about.

Again, to me, its not a definitive 'smoke'. More of an oily carbonized character. I could see it as being a definite character though.

MentalDental said...


What you describe is similar to the "empyreumatic" flavour the victorians so often refer to when speaking of brown malt/porter. It is often taken to be synonymous with "smoky". But then, why not say smoky. Empyreumatic is more akin to burnt.

1. The OED says (for empyreuma): The "burnt" smell imparted by fire to organic substances.

2. The OED again (for empyreumatic): Pertaining to, or having the quality of, EMPYREUMA; tasting or smelling of burnt organic matter.

3. The Engineer's And Mechanic's Encyclopaedia, by Luke Hebert, 1836 (for empyreuma): A term implying a peculiar odour derived from the overheating of matters under the process of distillation, or when vegetable or animal matter becomes burned in other processes in close vessels. It is said that it's peculiar odour is produced from no substance that does not contain oil; hence, if no empyreuma is perceived in burning any substance in a close vessel, we may be assured that it contains no oil.

4. An Elementary Dictionary, or Cyclopaedia, for the Use of Maltsters, Brewers... By G A Wigney, 1838 (empyreumatic): The flavor imparted to any viscid substance which is burnt in boiling.

5. And finally (!) Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, published 1913 by C. & G. Merriam Co (empreuma): The peculiar smell and taste arising from products of decomposition of animal or vegetable substances when burnt in close vessels.

Smoky and empyreumatic are closely related but different, I think, but I get the feeling that the the two ideas are often confused.In some old books the term empyreumatic is applied to patent black malt which could not be described as smokey but can certainly have a burnt taste (?empyreumatic).

First Stater said...

Ron, I believe sea coal was more an explanation of the coal sizing. Typically boilers were fired with coal around 4"(10cm) in size. Home coal for heating was <1". That is why those stokers had such big arms.

Ron Pattinson said...

First Stater, that's funny because the coal we used at home was bigger than an inch. It averaged about the size of a cricket ball.

Oddly enough, my dad was a stoker on HMS Rodney.

Graham Wheeler said...

Sea coal was the delivery method. It was impractical to transport thousands of tons of coal cross-country from the coalfields to London, or anywhere else in the country for that matter, by horse-drawn vehicle along inadequate roads. So it was shipped from the coalfields round the coast and up the Thames in the case of London.

If you were not situated close to a navigable river or a port you were stuffed as far as getting coal was concerned, or paid very dearly for it.

For this reason it is my belief that even early pale malt was kilned over wood. The commonly made assertion in the modern-ish literature that pale malt had to be kilned over coal or coke is a bit of a myth in my view.

Barm said...

Vaguely relevant is the statement in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica: "In Germany malt is, as a rule, dried and cured with hot air, whilst in Great Britain the products of combustion are passed through the malt, as it is believed that they exert a beneficial influence on the flavour."

Does this contradict or confirm other sources?