Mastering British Porters

The original London Porter was a smoked beer which utilized exclusively British Brown malt, smoked over Hornbeam. There was until fairly recently a general consensus that it was in its original form a mixture of a ‘mild’ beer (actually a ‘fresh’ or ‘green’ beer) and a ‘stale’ (or mature beer with sub-acetic ‘sour’ flavor). Others have provided convincing evidence that it was a much improved brown beer highly hopped and matured for a time to facilitate a more mellow character. As technology advanced particularly with the advent of black patent malt and as pale malt itself became cheaper both technology and economics conspired together and held a powerful sway on the grist of the Porter which inevitably led to changes in its character!

In brewing recipe books Porters and Stouts are often presented together and there is sound historical justification for this. For example in ‘The Carlisle Journal’, dated Saturday 2nd of April 1836 we read of a certain ‘Double Brown Stout Porter’, being advertised by a company calling itself Guinness! Thus the original Extra Foreign Stout was termed a Stout Porter!

stout porter mastering english porters

The Carlisle Journal, 1832.

Companies produced different versions depending on the original gravity. The Single Stout Porter had an original gravity of around 1.066, The Double Stout Porter (such as the aforementioned Guinness) one of 1.072, the Triple Stout Porter of around 1.078 and Imperial Stout Porter an original gravity of around 1.095. Over time the two diverged, the Porter suffix was dropped and a Stout came simply to be known as a stronger version of any beer.

Sadly the days of the once thriving and much esteemed British Porter were numbered. Taxation on malts to pay for the Napoleonic war provided a catalyst for brewers to reduce the volume of grist and between 1860 and 1914 the gravity dropped from 1.058 to 1.050 and the hopping rate from two pounds to one pound per 36 gallon barrel according to the Whitbread brewing records held at the London Metropolitan Archives. Two world wars and grain shortages in the United Kingdom reduced the gravity even further to a mere 1.042 after the Second World War and the once highly esteemed silky Porter fell by the wayside its place taken by its more robust and swarthy cousin, the Stout.

malt for english porter

Happily, we have seen a huge explosion and revival of the style especially among home brewers and there are many variations on the theme. Smoked Porters echoing down through the ages to a time when the London Porter was made with old-time smoked brown malt. Dark and complex Honey Porters, full bodied and dry or the soft sweet caramel flavors of the Brown Porter balanced with coffee and dark chocolate.

If we are to master the style it helps immensely to know what we are aiming for. We imagine it in our minds, how this beer we are attempting to create will taste and how we can use those malts and hops at our disposal to ascertain those characteristics. Think freshly ground roast coffee and smooth dark chocolate with subtle hints of caramel! Mmmmm chocolate and coffee!

hops_carron_valley_brewing-4

A word of caution here gentle reader! After reading and assimilating the style guidelines as published by the BJCP Under section 12A I am not entirely convinced that I agree with the evaluations in their entirety, although to be fair they are broad guidelines. It filled me with much glee and not a little consternation to learn that it should have and I quote, ‘an “English” character.’ What that is I cannot say and as it’s not defined perhaps someone can enlighten me.

We want something that sits somewhere between a Brown Ale and a Stout. We do want roast malt flavors, coffee, and dark chocolate but we do not desire any harshness or acridity, nothing that is sharp or biting. We also should not be afraid to use our hops that aim for a good hop character. Some Porters have a full spectrum of complexity from an initial taste that is bitter and ‘hoppy’ to a mellowing of all elements sometimes leading to a slight sweetness on the back end. Colour-wise there is plenty of room for variation from a Porter which is almost ruby black to a fairly light brown and translucent Porter. Regarding mouth-feel, we want something that is medium to light, certainly not thick and chewy! Remember we are not brewing a Stout!
original gravity 1.050

original_gravity_carron_valley_brewing-5

A little higher than my target

For a British Porter, we shall be aiming for an original gravity of between 1050 and 1042. Please do not let this ‘sessionable’ quality put you off, this beer is all about flavor and taste! Despite any reservations about hops, we shall be aiming for somewhere between 30-35 IBU’s which is not bad for a beer sporting a modest ABV of 4-5%. Attenuation should be good leading to a somewhat dry finish although historically there was once again great regional variation. Tetley of Manchester finished at 1020 with half the amount of hops of a London Porter of the same period! Whether this was due to the brewing process or was a deliberate attempt to create a sweeter beer for the regional palate is difficult to say.

cali_porter_label-6We will be paying close attention to water profile adding minerals not only to balance the mash but to enhance flavor perception as well. Personally, I need to harden my water, perhaps you are more fortunate. I suspect most English yeast strains will suffice although I harbor a proclivity for WLP002 English Ale yeast. For me, there is NO substitute.

The recipe I am going to share with you I think is a good introduction to the style although it does not utilize the traditional brown malt associated with the style. It has been described as ‘a dark delectable brew, biscuity in the mouth leading to a dry finish with good hop character.’ You will perceive roast coffee and dark chocolate flavors, probably grow a large handlebar mustache and start to speak with a British accent. Should that happen, to keep some Old Kentucky Bourbon on hand to quickly bring you back to your senses! Ok, enough talk, to the kettle!

Caledonian Porter – Brown Porter

Batch Size: 5.4 gal
Boil Size: 7.4 gal
Boil Time: 90 min
Efficiency: 70%

GrainsHop ScheduleYeast
  • 8.4 lbs Pale Malt
  • 1.1 lbs White Wheat
  • 7.7 oz Amber Malt
  • 7.7 oz C60
  • 5 oz Chocolate Malt
1 oz Kent Goldings @ 90min
1 oz Fuggles @ 90min
WLP002 – English Ale Yeast
By the Numbers: OG: 1.050 FG: 1.016 ABV: 4.2%
IBU:33 (Tinseth) Color: 18 SRM (Morey)
Notes:Infusion targeting 150F – 60 min,
Mashout at 165 F – 15 min
Water Profile:

  • Ca 73
  • Mg 1
  • Na 13
  • SO4 46
  • Cl 60
  • HCO3 200
  • SO4/Cl Ratio 0.8
  • precipitated chalk
  • Minerals are added not only to balance the mash but also to provide a silky backdrop to the roast malts.c

Brew Day

For me, brew day begins three days earlier with the making of a yeast starter. This provides a healthy culture to get your British Porter well on its way. Normally I make more than I need in order to save and store some for the next brew.

I strongly recommend using brewing software. I like Brewtarget which is an open source and free to download. It has everything you need. A recipe builder with style guidelines, a mash schedule tailored around your own equipment, a pitch rate calculator and much more. It’s intuitive and relatively easy to set up a profile tailored around your own equipment.

Some brewers at both commercial and home-brew level pre boil their water prior to mashing in. This not only reduces the dissolved oxygen content but it helps precipitate out any temporary hardness which may be of significance if we live in an area where the water contains excessive amounts of minerals. Because my water is so soft I have the opposite problem when making a dark beer. Thus I added small quantities of Baking Soda (NaHC03 – Sodium Bicarbonate) and Precipitated Chalk (CaC03 – Calcium Carbonate) to the mash. This provides not only calcium and a small amount of sodium, but it essentially hardens the water profile which balances nicely the roasted malts. The use of a water profile spread sheet like Bru’n’Water is essential to maintain a balance and ascertain the correct mash pH.

calcium_carbonate_dissolved_8

Perhaps a few words concerning the use of Calcium Carbonate. Many home brewers are reticent about utilizing it in the mash because it does not dissolve in water very easily. Thus the perception is that they will lose any benefits that it provides in the form of calcium and balancing the mash profile. This is easily remedied by dissolving the Calcium carbonate under pressure with Co2. All one needs is pressurized Co2, a PET bottle, and a carbonation cap. Calcium carbonate readily dissolves in water when under a little pressure. Of course balancing the mash profile and providing a wholesome source of calcium is not the only reason we use Calcium carbonate in the mash. The other reason that we utilize it is that it provides an excellent back drop to the roast malts, slightly rounding out their flavor and giving us the well rounded and mellow characteristics that we are targeting. It is no coincidence that the worlds finest dark beers are produced in areas with relatively high concentrations of minerals in the water.

Bittering and Hops

We shall be using roughly about 1oz (28g) of East Kent Goldings and the same amount of Fuggles for the entire ninety-minute boil. Thus we are aiming for a smooth hop bitterness combined with a mellow roast character which will give us those qualities which distinguished the Porter from contemporary ‘brown beers,’ and made it so popular.

john-tuck-9

Fermentation

Fermentation should ideally take place in a controlled environment. Personally, I like to chill my wort and yeast to a little below pitching level and then pitch allowing the yeast to gradually wake up into its new maltose rich environment. No one likes to be awoken abruptly and I doubt yeast is any different! We shall be fermenting at 18 Celsius, 64 Fahrenheit.

krausen_ii-10

Once the krausen begins to drop and attenuation is almost complete we shall be raising the temperature one or two degrees for a couple of days just to let the yeast attenuate out as much as possible giving us the dry finish that we are after. Rather interestingly Whitelabs itself and my Brewtarget software state that WLP002 English ale yeast is noted for leaving a slight residual sweetness as it has a tendency not to attenuate out as much as other English strains. On a personal level, I have found that it’s excellent and remain a huge fan of the strain having used it for everything from Oatmeal Stouts to highly hopped American Pale ales.

On drawing a sample after seven days we find that the gravity has dropped to around 1015 which is excellent for it promises what we had originally intended, a good dry finish. After tasting the sample I am almost blown away by the complexity of this beer. It begins with distinctive toffee caramel notes which immediately morph into a smooth roast coffee and dark chocolate sensation and ends with a lingering hop bitterness and dry finish. In fact, it was so tasty I quaffed the entire sample just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming!
hydrometer reading after seven days

After seven days our gravity has dropped to 1.015 which is excellent for it portends the slightly dry finish that we are attempting to ascertain.

An excellent way of increasing our prospects of achieving good attenuation and thus a dry finish is to target the fermentability of the wort. This can be achieved by utilizing a step mash program either through direct heat, by decoction or infusion. By targeting the Beta amylase range of 61-63C/142-146F we are determining the wort’s fermentability. If we want a more fermentable wort we can increase the time we rest in this temperature range. A good starting point is to target a maltose rest in the range of 61-63C/142-146F for 30 minutes and a dextrinization rest at 70C/158F for the same duration as illustrated below. Mashout at 75C/167F is used primarily to decrease the viscosity of the mash for lautering.

A classic German Horkhuz mash schedule can be used to target fermentability and thus attenuation providing for a slightly dry finish we are trying to achieve.

Fining and Packaging

Samples can be drawn to ascertain final gravity and we can prepare our now almost finished brew for fining and packaging. Again I treat the yeast with care and gradually reduce the temperature over time once final gravity has been reached, usually dropping it by about five degrees Celsius, nine degrees Fahrenheit per day. I like to lull the yeast to sleep, play it some soft Gaelic music and generally see to its well being.

Our final gravity and we have achieved excellent attenuation and the slightly dry finish that we were targeting.

WLP002 English Ale yeast is an excellent flocculator and will leave the ale fairly clear as it stands. I like to drop the temperature to around -1 Celsius, 30 Fahrenheit for at least three days prior to fining to facilitate the formation of haze forming particulate. It must be said that while much of the emphasis on using finings is to combat aesthetics like chill haze, the real benefit of dropping these compounds out is to improve the taste and stability of the beer.

As standard I fine with Polyclar730 Plus which is considered to be a stabilizer and antioxidant. It’s actually made up of two components, a PVPP and a Silica gel. The PVPP has a large surface area and selectively combines with certain polyphenols and prevents haze forming precursors from chemically bonding. Rather interestingly it’s also compliant with German purity laws, the Reinheitsgebot as it completely falls out of suspension over time and is not soluble in alcohol. Silica gel has a porous surface which traps haze forming proteins and helps precipitate these out. It’s also very selective and does not affect foam stability. This is important because we don’t want to risk stripping our beer of its characteristics by being over zealous with fining. Cold crashing and conditioning at a cool temperature in the keg (or bottles) should preserve all that natural goodness!

Fining with a PVPP and silica Gel. It can be used in conjunction with a fining agent like gelatin although care should be taken because we do not want to strip our beer of its characteristics.

Serving

Finally perhaps one or two words on serving. Primarily because of the prevalence and success of Lagers and Pilsners we have been somewhat conditioned to serving beer very cold. The perception being that cold is refreshing! which it undoubtedly is. We should be careful though because an overly cold temperature can suppress a myriad of flavors or even compensate for having very little flavor! We have just created a beverage with a broad spectrum of flavor and we should let it shine in all its complexity. Serving at the low end of cellar temperatures would be advantageous, somewhere in the region of 7-10 Celsius, 44-50 Fahrenheit is considered optimal for this style. Perhaps the most practical way to achieve this is to serve chilled and let the beer warm up a few degrees in hand.

Hopefully, I have provided you with some inspiration to brew this truly delectable beverage. There is something rather dignified in coming home from a hard days work and pouring oneself a glass of fine British Porter. Take a moment or two to reminisce about those days when thick ‘pea soup’ fog would creep up the river Thames and envelop the city of London with its hard pressed laborers carting goods from one place to another, sustained and lifted by the noble brew you now hold in your hand.

by Robbie C.
Hi I am Robbie an enthusiastic home brewer from Glasgow, Scotland. I learned the basic principles of home-brewing from my father who makes country wines from seasonal fruits like brambles (blackberries), gooseberries, elderberries, plums and raspberries and about anything that will ferment. After brewing a single extract kit I delved into all grain brewing and have steadily progressed to more advanced concepts like water treatment, step mashing and attempting to understand the scientific basis for many of the processes that transpire. Its perhaps this symbiotic relationship between science and art which makes brewing so attractive.

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