Thursday, January 17, 2013

Historical Porter Tastings

Now that my porters have a bit of age to them, most greater than four months in the bottle, I figured it would be a good time to see how some of them are coming along and how they compare to each other. The first porters in the lineup are the 1836 Whitbread porter and a 'vatted' St. Stephens porter from 1834, both of which were made with a sizable amount of brown malt that I had kilned over hornbeam wood. The last porter, is an approximation of a 18th century porter, made entirely from diastatic brown malt that was kilned over straw. It is worth noting that the Whitbread porter has not been soured, whereas the St. Stephens has been bulk aged with a culture of Brettanomyces claussenii and a small amount of lactobacillus; as to simulate the bugs that might have been found in vatted porters of the age. The straw-kilned version is not soured. All versions were bottled conditioned, albeit largely unsuccessfully, I might add. Earlier tastings of the 1836 and straw malt porter can be found here and here.

Whitbread 1836 Porter:

Appearance - Pours a very clear, ruby black color with a thin, tan colored head with little retention. 

Aroma -  First impression is of dry cocoa powder and molasses, sweet candy corn and a slightly vinous dessert wine character. Not smokey. 

Taste - Roasted malt, licorice, and vinous chocolate with a definite wood-barrel aged flavor that lasts right through to the end. The wood character is stronger now than it used to be, although the flavor isn't 'oaky.' Medium-low bitterness and just a hint of ashy campfire. 

Mouthfeel - More carbonated than I would like; thin, dry, and slightly oxidated.  

Drinkability & Notes -  Nearly a year old in the bottle, there are some oxidation (candy corn flavor) and carbonation issues, but the beer tastes pretty good. Tastes almost like a chocolaty port wine. Amount of wood character is surprising. Certainly a sipper.  

St. Stephens 1834 (Vatted) Porter: 

Appearance - Dark, ruby-black colored with very good clarity and a thin, bubbly head that quickly dissipates with little lacing.

Aroma - Similar cocoa and chocolaty roast of the first beer, but with a funky and fruity Brett aroma that is nearing horse blanket territory. There is still a noticeable 'woody' character to the beer. 

Taste - Cocoa, licorice, and a slightly (tart) vinous character followed by a mellow brett fruitiness. The brett is not as funky as in the aroma and the beer still has a sizable amount of barrel aged flavor. Some light campfire smokiness lingers on the finish. Medium bitterness.

Mouthfeel - Carbonation is rather high/fizzy and the beer is dry/thin.

Drinkability & Notes -  Probably needs more time in the bottle for the brett and lacto to really come into their own, but the effects of 'vatting' are certainly interesting so far. The bugs seem to highlight the smokiness more so than the un-vatted version, although the beer doesn't come across as smokey. More of a rustic, charred-campfire character than anything else. Interesting beer so far, looking forward to trying it in another four to five months.

1700's Straw Porter: 

Appearance - Pours a dark black color with clear, ruby highlights and a brown, voluminous head with surprisingly decent retention. Darkest colored of all the porters. 

Aroma -  One word. Unique. Fruity chocolate liqueur, molasses, and burnt sugar combine with a strange hay-like, dried grass character. More smokey than the other porters. No "wood" character.

Taste - Similar to aroma. Restrained chocolate, burnt sugar, cocoa, and molasses with a rather strong campfire flavor that tastes a lot like the fuel source... burning straw. Really bizarre. Not really exactly pleasant. Bitterness is medium-low and the beer finishes with a dry, vinous character.  

Mouthfeel - Dry, fizzy, and over carbonated. Bottle conditioning issues.

Drinkability & Notes - Where to start? Pretty much unlike any beverage I have had before, let alone beer. And that's both in the best and worst ways possible. Whereas the hornbeam added a somewhat pleasant 'woody' character to the other porters, the straw has not done the same. Overall, the beer is just a strange mix of roasty/vinous porter flavor with a smokey, burning hay-barn flavor... if you can imagine that. This beer would probably taste better with more age, although I do remember liking it better when it was younger.

Things to Consider:

- Smoke. It is amazing how little smokiness the hornbeam wood imparted to the beer, especially compared to the straw, which was touted as the cleanest burning fuel after coal and coke. Whereas as I actually enjoy the flavor of the hornbeam kilned brown malt, the straw kilned stuff isn't so nice. It might just be that 1700's porter needs more time to allow the flavors to mellow. I would struggle to get down a half-pint in its current state.

- Barrel aged flavor. In the historical sources, it is mentioned that porters brewed from brown malt take on the flavor of the "wood," which we assumed meant that the beers had a smokey taste. However, given that both of the porters made from the hornbeam brown malt taste a lot like they spent some time in a wood barrel/or cask, can we assume that some wood character may have been found in the 19th century commercial examples? Or, is this wood flavor only a product of my individual kilning process?

- Kiln design. Regarding smokiness, what did an early 19th century brown malt kiln look like and how did it work; did a change in fuel source require a change in kilning methods? For instance, was the smoke produced from burning straw or wood allowed to come into contact with the grain or was it diverted away by attemperators or blowers?

- Souring. Still too early to make any conclusions, but so far the addition of brett and lacto has given interesting results. The 'vatted' porter is the driest and most wine-like of the other porters I tried, although I think my version has too much brett character for what would have been found in the real stuff. I still have three other porters aging in the secondary.

- Bottling. I honestly think that bottling these beers has ruined them to a degree. As is often the problem when using English yeasts, both the 1836 Whitbread and the Straw-Porter are over carbonated, the gravity in the bottle having fallen past its original FG. I would bet that the oxidation-type flavors so found in the 1836 Whitbread is probably due to bottling too. I wouldn't be surprised if the other porters are similarly affected. 


  1. Very interesting results, thank you for taking on these daunting yet exciting experiments in historical-based brewing. Have you done Fast Ferment Tests on these worts to know the limit of attenuation? What was your attenuation? I've done a few but not yet on beers I will age. That part of english yeast can really make-or-break a beer.

    1. It is frustrating to have put so much time and effort into a beer and end up with carbonation issues. The bottles aren't gushers, but they are more fizzy than I would have liked.

      I didn't do a fast ferment test, although all the batches FG was right around 1.014-16, where they stayed put for a few months until after bottling. If there is a next time, I'll probably force carbonate my historical beers and serve from the keg to avoid these issues. Guess that means I'll need more kegs!

  2. Very interesting Will. I think had the 1700's beer been aged in oak, the flavors would come out differently, would meld in a satisfactory way. That dried grass and hay note surely would soften and meld with the hop and wood elements of the barrel. As you say too, it is hard to know if 1700's kilning methods resulted in less smoke from the hay coming into the malt, this is possible although I suspect, as for oak-aged malt - and some malt was aged in wood in the 1700's, there is no question of that - long barrel aging would have modified any off tastes. Isn't it interesting that the era most associated with long aging of porter - the 1700's - is the one when brown malt was made with straw and wood? I take the point that hornbeam does not impart a smoky taste or very much, but that wood would not have been used all the time.

    As for carbonation, I am not a brewer, but I wonder if the FG needed to be higher for these beers to stand the aging given them. If you seeded with a little sugar or wort and drank them within a few weeks they probably would have been fine (no pun intended), but long aging with a low FG like that probably resulted in too much fizz as against the body of the beer. I never worry about too much carbonation, I just decant the beers back and forth in two glasses until the level is "right", but it sounds like the beers were a little dry. The brett too would eat up a lot of dextrins wouldn't it? Anyway again I have never brewed and if these comments are out to lunch my apologies!

    Great work though and keep at it.


    1. It would be interesting to see how they aged/stored these early porters. Especially if the process could alleviate some of the weird straw/grassy flavors, if their beers had the same type of character.

      As per bottling, anytime you bottle a beer with a high FG, you run the risk of overcarbonating, as the introduction of sugar and oxygen can reactivate the yeast in the bottle. I'd really need to know the terminal gravity of their porters after sitting in a cask/barrel/or bottle. However, given the probability of brett in their beers, that gravity probably would be as low as mine.

  3. Really cool! Why no bret in the straw porter? That might be the key to making it drinkable.

    1. I have some currently aging with the brett, still in the secondary.

  4. Will,

    If you look at page 15 of the London and County Brewer:

    the author explains that aging porter 9-12 months can remove off flavors in beer derived from using materials (wood, straw) to dry the malt. I have read other similar accounts, where the writers say that the smoke taste practically disappears after such long keeping. All beer fans know that storing beer even in the bottle can reduce e.g. hop character and meld the constituents, so the comments make perfect sense. The storage spoken of was in wooden butts, and probably brettanomyces and lactic acid assisted as well to modify the palate.

    You may want to blend your bottle-aged porters with some young fresh porter (even that you buy) either to drink now or for further bottle-conditioning. A ratio of 1:3 (or less of the stale) may work wonders. The old masters had many ways to skin the cat!


    1. I originally had plans to do this, add some fresh porter to the bottled stuff. Just got to make another batch of brown malt, maybe here soon when the weather improves... and then of course, brew another beer. This historical brewing stuff is real work!


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