Monday 8 October 2007

Porter and WW I

The decline and eventual death of London Porter has always intrigued me. It's one of the things I've been most keen on researching during my archive trips. I think I've found one more piece of the jigsaw.

This is what Michael Jackson has to say on the topic:

"When both Porters and Stouts diminished in popularity in Britain, why did they stand their ground in Ireland?

One reason may be that restrictions on the use of energy during World War I made it difficult for British maltsters to roast their grains.

These restrictions were not imposed in Ireland, where rebellion and independence were in the wind

It sounds like a reasonable theory - brewers in England couldn't get their hands on the right malts and so were unable to brew Porter and Stout. Let's see how well it matches with the evidence from Whitbread's brewing logs.

In 1914 Whitbread brewed an impressive range of Porter and Stout: Porter, ES (Export Stout), LS (London Stout), SS (Double Stout) and SSS (Triple Stout).

Dark malts - brown malt and black malt - made up between 12% and 16% of the grist, depending on the beer type.

What would happen later in the war if, as the theory suggests, dark malts were in short supply? It would seem logical that either Whitbread would have stopped brewing Porter and Stout or that the amount of dark malts employed in their manufacture would have been greatly reduced.

Most breweries pared back their beer ranges in WW I because of government restrictions on beer strengths and shortages of raw materials. Barclay Perkins discontinued their bread and butter beer from before the war - X Mild - and replaced it with the low-gravity 4d government ale. Most stronger ales weren't brewed at all between 1917 and 1919. Whitbread was no exception.

Between April 1917 and April 1918 the Whitbread Porter brewery produced only two beers: Imp (Imperial Stout) and Porter. From April 1918 to April 1919, they only brewed Porter and LS (London Stout). The one beer that they brewed throughout the war was Porter.

Let's take a look at how Whitbread's Porter and Stout shaped up towards the end of the war. Remember that April 1917 is when the goverment began to really put pressure on the brewing industry with emergency legislation.

Well fancy that - the proportion of brown and black malt in the grist increased later in the war. In 1917 it was around 18%, in 1918 and 1919 between 18.5% and 22.7%. You know what, it doesn't look as if they were running out of brown and black malt, does it?

The terminal decline of Porter was well underway before WW I broke out. As for other styles, wartime restrictions forced down the gravity, but they don't appear to have had any more effect than that. Porter's popularity continued to ebb away during the 1920's and 1930's and by the outbreak of WW II it had all but disappeared.

So don't blame Kaiser Wilhelm or Lloyd George for Porter's demise. The answer is far simpler - public taste had moved on.


Anonymous said...

Wow, Ron.

I can't believe that they were still making the imperial as late as March of 1918.

Amazing stuff, Ron!

Anonymous said...


Do you have the grists of the pre-war X and the 4d? Do they look anything like those from Barclay Perkins?



Terry said...

Increasing the brown and black malt as a proportion would lower the amount of fermentables in the total mash, of course, and I assume it would lower the OG of the wort as well (though as I'm not a technical brewer I dunno for certain - would the weight of the colour extracts make up at all for the lack of sugars compared to pale malt?) so you'd be brewing a beer with lower OG as per government regulations but (probably) keeping up the mouthfeel and flavour so it wouldn't taste like the weak beer it was ... so yup, your analysis makes sense to me, Ron - another rewrite for history ...

Ron Pattinson said...

Kevin, the Imperial is a weird beer. I don't think I've found it anywhere except during WW I. If you look at the restrictions on brewing that started in April 1917, it's incredible that they were able to keep brewing such a strong beer.

Whitbread X in 1910 was 1056.7, 90% pale malt, 10% sugar. Unfortunately the logs of this period don't indicate what type of sugar was used. I may be falling out of love with Barclay Perkins. When I compare their X ales, the Barclay's one looks really crap - 10% maize, 30% sugar.

I haven't yet looked at the Whitbread ale logs from WW I, so I don't know what their 4d Ale was like.

Ron Pattinson said...

terry, what I've seen of WW I grists suggests that they were trying really hard to brew decent beers despite all the restrictions. The rapid drop in gravities must have made life very difficult for brewers.

Barclay's Perkin's 4d Ale of 1919 is a good example - only 1026.4 but with 10% amber malt and 3.7% brown malt. With loads of sugar and maize, too, but that's no different from their pre-war beers.

Anonymous said...

I notice that the sugar percentage increased as the brown and black malt percentages increased. I'm sure that we can surmise that was to make up for the increase in unfermentables with those types of malts. I know this is probably a chicken and egg question, but do you think this recipe creep affected popularity at all?

Ron Pattinson said...

el norteno, that's a very good question.

Sugar content is a good one. Whitbread Porter/Stout had a lower sugar content than their Ales before WW I. I suspect that the change in composition - more sugar, more darker malts - is designed to hide the drop in gravity. This is probably where British brewers learned how to make low-gravity beers with flavour. It would be really interesting to brew beers with each of the different recipes and compare them to see if this was the case. They could also just have been using whatever they had to hand. I'm learning to temper my speculation.

Recipe creep. Do you know what surprised me most about these Whitbread logs? How little the gravity of Porter fell. The lowest it got was 1037. The changes in Mild were far more extreme, yet after the war it remained the most popular style.

Anonymous said...

More recipe creep questions, I wonder if the increase in black and brown malts created an increase in perceived rather than actual bitterness that was off-putting. Also, when you describe this sudden plunge in popularity, does pricing have any role?

Ron Pattinson said...

el norteno, more good points.

Change in flavour of Porter: I can't say from the recipes. Brewing experiments are the answer.

Sudden drop in popularity: the logs I have photos of are for large quantities of beer - 500 to 1000 barrels. Being a dozy twat, I didn't notice the bit at the back of the logs where monthly and annual production figures by beer are recorded, until after I had handed the WW I Porter logs back. So I don't have the proper numbers for how much Porter was produced. Quite a lot, I think. Next time in the aechive, I plan torectify that.

Pricing is another really good one. I hadn't mentioned this. I was keeping it for myself. The Whitbread logs of this period have costings. Price of malt, hops, sugar, tax. Retail price. Margin. LS February 1919 is a good one. It's the same beer as the Porter. The Porter sells for 110 shillings a barrel, the LS for 120. To me, that says that Porter is expected to be cheap.

Once I've looked at all the annual summaries from Whitbread, I'll be able to chart the fortunes of Porter across WW I. I expect a linear decline, but I've been wrong so many times. Let's just wait for real numbers.

Stonch said...

"I expect a linear decline, but I've been wrong so many times. Let's just wait for real numbers."

If only the "experts" had adopted such an approach before putting pen to paper ... keep it up Ron.

Ron Pattinson said...

Stonch, I think very little would have been written about beer if that had been the case.

I was looking through the Michael Jackson article about Porter again and I found several other points that I'm sure aren't true. I will post about it sometime, but I need to gather a few more facts.

There's so much I want to look up in the archive. I need to start planning another visit.

The Beer Nut said...

The notion that Ireland held on to porter because of the war is repeated in Iorwerth Griffiths's recent Complete Guide to Beer & Cider in Ireland (my review on ICB).

So, if it was just a matter of taste, and notwithstanding that there is no accounting for same, can you sugest an explanation for why this happened? Was it just a lack of imagination (or too small a market) on the part of Irish brewers to try making something different?

Ron Pattinson said...

beer nut, I think I have an explanation, though it may not be the right one.

Porter brewing started a couple of decades later in Ireland than in London. Ireland just wasn't as far through the lifecycle of Porter as England at the time of WW I.

England - birth of Porter 1720, death 1940.

Ireland - birth of Porter 1760, death 1970.

Anonymous said...


I've got my own half-baked theories. Porter was the always the smallest beer in the porter/stout family. I think it shrunk out of 'beeriness." I've been drinking the 1933 whitbread porter that I brewed a bit over a week ago, and I really like the brown malt flavor, but it is certainly very light bodied. My final gravity was a bit lower than it was for Whitbread's (my 1008 vs Whitbread's 1011) but it is pretty beerlike. The only real exception is I used straight cane sugar rather than the amber/black invert they would have used.

I tend to agree that people lost the taste for porter, but would say that it had as much as to do with the gravity/percieved fullness of palate (porter vs heavily crystal malt in the mild after the gravity drops) as it did with the loss of taste for brown malt.

I still am very curious about grists in the decline of mild. My own pet theory (which is likely to be wildly untrue) is that as mild was dying, brewers started throwing brown malt in there (which people had completely lost the taste for) which ended up being one of the nails in the coffin for mild. How's that for wild speculation?



The Beer Nut said...

OK. So instead of "why did porter die off in England?", the question from my perspective is "why didn't ale catch on in Ireland?"

Perhaps this should be posted to today's article, but what was it in England that eventually pushed bitter/mild out in front of porter/stout; and why didn't it happen in Ireland?

The only thing I can think of is industrialisation. Was there something in the English urban factory-worker that made him prefer ale, while the agrarian Irishman wanted stout?

Ron Pattinson said...

Kevin, it's interesting to hear of your experiences with the Whitbread 1933 Porter. At a certain point I think you have to brew a recipe and taste the finished beer to understand it properly.

I just noticed that the FG for Whitbread Porter stayed pretty constant as the OG dropped. I guess this was top maintain body.

My use of the word "taste" in the post was ambiguous. I could equally have said "fashion". I don't think Porter's decline is so much a move away from the flavour of brown malt as it just becoming unfashionable.

In 1919 Whitbread London Stout and Porter were exactly the same beer. By 1933 the Porter was considerably weaker. But as the Porter and all the Stouts were party-gyled, they were effectivley different-strength versions of the same thing. But it's Porter, which had been the biggest seller by far, that dies out. I suspect it's more to do with the name Porter and the image associated with it than the taste of the beer.

The decline of Mild was, I think, a similar story - weak, cheap and associated with old blokes wearing cloth caps. I don't see brown malt in Mild, with the exception of the odd brew during WW I.

Ron Pattinson said...

Beer nut, there isn't always any particular logic to changes in fashion. But there is a recurring pattern in the hisrtory of any particular style. A period of rapid increase in popularity, domination, slow decline, rapid decline, extinction. (Though some styles, like Bitter and Pils, are slow starters and suddenly take off after after decades as a niche product.)

I'm not sure that the popularity of Bitter or Mild over Porter is connected with urbanisation. Porter was the world's first industrial beer, developped in the first modern metropolis. It was the first beer produced on a truly industrial scale.

Why didn't Ale catch on in Ireland in the 19th century is a very good question. The only explanation I can come up with is the one I stated earlier about the cycle of Porter's popularity having started later in Ireland. Looking at the history of beer styles in Ireland, it's noticeably out of phase with England. Though the same is also true of Scotland to some extent.

Interestingly, in England Porter came to prominence earlier and lasted longer than it did elsewhere. Judging from old brewery adverts, Porter started dying out in the English provinces around 1900.