Anthony Gladman asks how some styles become intrinsically linked with a particular city, and why London lost its own signature: porter
Saturday 23 October 2021
This article is from
A Brief History of Beer
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Modern beer is almost always the same, no matter where you go. NEIPAs the world over share pale malt, American hops, bright flavours and soft, gentle bitterness. Your pastry stout could be Dutch, Estonian, American, French. How likely is it that your sour fruited gose came from Germany?
Even in London, a world-class beer city with a rich brewing history, you will find beers that look as if they could have been brewed anywhere. But it wasn’t always so. The capital once had its own distinctive beer style: porter. It was the world’s favourite beer. Much like lager today, porter cast a net across the globe; a web with London’s colossal breweries at its centre. So what happened? And why doesn’t London have its own beer style anymore?
Any beer, anywhere
The practical ties of regionality in beer are weaker than ever before. Brewers can alter their water however they wish and brew with ingredients from all over the world. Anyone can brew any beer anywhere. And the internet means it’s easier than ever for drinkers to find and buy your beer, no matter where they are.
But even now, if you look close enough, there are some factors that can bind beer and place together. Leaving aside wild ales and ideas of terroir, I have some suggestions for figuring out whether a beer style belongs to a particular location. I don’t want to call these rules because there will always be exceptions. You could think of them as tests perhaps, or guidelines.
First: it helps if the style was born there. Some towns have adopted styles that began elsewhere, for example Leipzig and Gose, first brewed in Goslar. Or Dublin and stout by way of Guinness, which took its recipe from London’s porters. But by and large drinkers want to link a beer to its roots.
Second: the beer should still be brewed there. We can all agree on this one, right? Can you really claim a link between a city and a beer style if you can’t drink an example made there? You can point to historical links, but that’s not really the same.
Third: Though similar beers may be brewed elsewhere, those brewed in this city should generally be recognised as more authentic. This is where Pilsen loses its claim to pilsner. No one would claim it’s the only place, or even the best place, to get a proper example of the style anymore. Pilsner belongs to the world now.
Fourth: there should be more than one brewery making that style in the city. Dublin isn’t really known for stout, it’s known for Guinness. And what of the links between Newcastle and brown ale, now that Newky Broon is no longer made there?
Actually, Newcastle is an interesting example. There are other breweries making brown ales in the Toon: Brinkburn St Brewery makes Byker Brown Ale, Hadrian Border Brewery its Tyneside Brown, and Newcastle Brewing its Ouseburn Brown Ale. Arguably the city is in the process of adopting the style as its own, but I’m not convinced it’s theirs quite yet. Brown ale wasn’t born in Newcastle, and brewers in other towns make brown ales that aren’t thought of as aping Newcastle beers.
So fifth, and lastly, two questions that might show if a beer style belongs to a particular place: do people who like this beer want to travel there to try it at its source? And will people travelling there for other reasons feel compelled to try the beer during their visit? If the answer to either of these is yes, then that city has a good claim to that beer style.
Something to hold on to
Looking at that list, it’s no surprise that countries with long and enduring brewing traditions — Germany and Belgium in particular — will give us examples of cities that have their own beer styles.
Brewers in Bamberg held fast to their smoked malts as the rest of the beer world moved away in search of cleaner flavours. So Rauchbier is theirs and Schlenkerla its king upon a misty mountain (but there’s also Brauereigasthof Spezial to help satisfy our fourth test).
Berlin has its Berliner Weisse, or just about. This spritzy sour beer was almost extinct at one point, with the only commercial examples made in the city being Berliner Kindl and Schultheiss (both from the same brewery). Now the German capital has new breweries championing the style: in particular Schneeeule, but also Brlo, Berliner Berg and Lemke Berlin. The huge popularity of kettle sours around the world, many of them claiming to be Weisses of one sort or another, may be weakening the links a little. Still, Berlin remains the place to enjoy Weisse in its full glory, with an optional shot of woodruff or raspberry flavoured syrup.
The list goes on. There’s Düsseldorf and Altbier, and just 30 miles south-east there’s Cologne and Kölsch. From there turn west towards the sea and soon you’ll enter Brussels with its Lambic and Gueuze.
You were probably thinking of those last two all along, weren’t you? They have to be the two most well-known examples. That’s no coincidence. The links between these cities and their beer styles are so strong because the brewers take steps to protect them.
Both cities host trade bodies which police who can and cannot call their beer a Kölsch or a Lambic. In Cologne there’s the Kölner Brauerei Verband (Cologne Brewery Association). In Brussels there’s HORAL, the High Council for Artisanal Lambic Beers. These beer styles are also protected by legislation such as the Kölsch-Konvention, and EU Protected Geographic Indications.
A lost but still remembered beer
So what of London and its porter? What happened to break those bonds?
Beer historian Martyn Cornell says porter brewing reached its peak in London sometime around 1850. Picture Dickensian, Victorian London — the most powerful but also most crowded city in the world. The rich enjoyed the Great Exhibition while the poor were prey to cholera and the workhouse. The water may have been suspect, but at least the beer was good.
“Porter had been the most popular beer for about 100 years [at that point]” Martyn says. “It was hugely popular with the London working classes and had spread all over the world.”
Even so, London was still recognised as the home of the best and most authentic porter. “You could try to imitate it and you might claim you’ve got a London brewer in to do it and all the rest of it, but London was still regarded as the place to go for porter,” Martyn says.
The scale of porter brewing was vast. At its peak London’s brewers made almost one barrel, or 288 pints, of porter per year for every man, woman and child living in London. But it couldn’t go on forever. In fact porter’s growth had started to show a decline almost two decades before, spurred by the Beerhouse Act of 1830.
“From then on, you start to see public tastes change from porter to what was then still called ale, and mild ale — that is to say freshly brewed ale no more than two or three maybe four weeks old,” Martyn says.
It took a while for the big porter brewers to react to these changing tastes, but by the 1860s they began by dropping its price. Porter became the cheapest beer, selling for 3.5 pence per quart, while mild sold for 4 pence per quart.
After that they dropped the strength, but the decline continued. “At the end of the First World War, porter had become a parody of itself,” Martyn says. “It was about 3.5% — it really was a weak old man’s drink at the very end.”
At the end of the First World War, porter had become a parody of itself
London’s porter brewing doddered on for a few more years but finally stopped in the early years of the Second World War with the closure of the city’s last porter brewer, Whitbread.
So much for porter. The chances of London regaining any beer style of its own took a further bashing a few decades later. The capital wasn’t just losing its porter brewers, it was losing all of them.
In the early 1970s London still had eight breweries making 1 million barrels a year. “At that point something like one pint in every five drunk in Britain was brewed in London,” says Martyn. “London was a massive, massive brewing city until the early ‘70s and then it all fell off a cliff as brewery after brewery closed. The last big one, ironically enough, was the Mortlake Brewery.”
The Stag Brewery at Mortlake, once home to Watney’s, pumped out Bud for Anheuser Busch from 1995 until it closed 2015. For a long while before that, just two other historic London breweries had remained in the city. Young’s kept its Ram Brewery in Wandsworth until 2006. The other was Fuller’s Griffin Brewery In Chiswick. That is still operating today although it was bought by Asahi in 2019.
London’s new brewing
Today things are looking up again. London is home to 143 breweries and counting. Most are relatively small and sell their beer to a particular area of London rather than the whole city. Some regularly brew a porter, but it’s a drop in the ocean against all the pale ales, IPAs, pilsners, sours… Think of a beer, any beer, and most likely someone is brewing it somewhere in London.
The city’s new breweries have arisen unfettered by the constraints of the past. They serve a new generation of drinkers similarly unbound by tradition. People today are keen to try flavours their grandparents wouldn’t have dreamed of finding in their pint.
The risk though is one of throwing the baby out along with the bathwater. It seems strange that a city with such a strong brewing history should be so disconnected from its past. London’s traditional brewing made it famous around the world, yet as the last century closed most of its brewers all but threw tradition away to chase efficiency and greater sales.
Thankfully some of London’s modern breweries have a deeper appreciation of what went before. “The capital’s new small brewers are generally aware that London invented porter,” says Martyn, “and a higher proportion of them therefore make porters than elsewhere in the country.”
Still most of these are just specials or seasonal releases. Those that are regular features are loved by dark beer drinkers, but typically sell much less than any of the pale ales sitting next to them at the bar.
The days of London having a unique and distinctive beer style of its own are gone, and unlikely to return. Instead what we’ll continue to see from London’s brewers is a diversity of beers. And perhaps that’s a good thing: it matches the diversity of the capital’s population, which has always been among its greatest strengths.
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