I realised recently that I’ve never properly blogged about the actual origins of porter – except to counter the claim that it was invented as a substitute for “three-threads” by someone called Ralph Harwood, and to point out that it wasn’t named after market porters, but river and street porters. And I don’t seem to have written about the latest discoveries on three-threads, the drink that has (wrongly) been mixed up in the porter story.
Fly back, then, three centuries, to the time of Queen Anne (1702-1714), when the drinks you’d be most likely to find in a London alehouse would be (according to a contemporary “good pub guide”, the Vade Mecum for Malt Worms) mild beer and stale beer (both made from brown malt); amber beer (made from pale malt); ale (including strong Twopenny pale ale, Derby ale, Burton ale, Oxford ale, Nottingham ale and York pale ale); and stout.
Remember, those names don’t mean what they do today: “mild” beer was fresh and recently brewed; “stale” beer wasn’t off, but the “mild” beer aged and matured; ale meant very specifically a less hopped drink than beer, while stout could be any colour, as long as it was strong. In addition, the ale brewers and the beer brewers were still two different groups of people.
London’s drinkers, then and for centuries later, liked to mix their brews: one tranche of pub-goers would order stale beer, which cost four old pence a pot (or quart), but stale beer and mild beer together was a popular drink: and others, according to a by-then elderly brewery worker calling himself “Obadiah Poundage”, writing in 1760 drank a mixture called “three-threads”, costing three pence a pot.
A great deal has been written about three-threads, because a man called John Feltham, writing in 1802, claimed (with no evidence that I can find) that three-threads was a popular drink made up of “a third of ale, beer and twopenny”, for which “the publican had the trouble to go to three casks and turn three cocks for a pint of liquor.” According to Feltham, porter was invented to taste like three-threads, but because it came from one cask, it saved the publicans the trouble and waste of mixing the drink afresh every order from three separate casks. There is no evidence at all for this claim. But Feltham’s description of what went into three-threads, and his statement that porter was designed to copy it, but as a single beer that would not need to be served from three different casks, has been repeated by almost every writer on beer for two centuries.
However, at least two dictionaries written long before Feltham was born describe three-threads as something rather different. The (admittedly obscure) Dictionary of the Canting Crew by “BE” (the “canting crew” being those who spoke in “cant”, or slang), published around 1697/1699, and mentioned here, called three-threads “half common Ale and the rest Stout or Double Beer” (both “stout” and “double beer” meaning “strong beer”.) This definition was repeated in Nathan Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dictionary of 1737, which again said that three-threads was “half common Ale and half Stout or double Beer”.
Since “BE” and Bailey were writing at the time when three-threads was being drunk – you can find references to it in books and magazines from 1698 to 1757, but after that it disappears – and Feltham wasn’t, I think we can believe their definition of three-threads, as a mixture of two different malt liquors, rather than his more complicated recipe. And if three-threads was actually only a combination of two drinks, and thus no more complicated to serve than mild-and-stale, or any of the other two-beers mixtures all the way through to mild-and-bitter in the 20th century that British pub-goers have enjoyed ordering, that makes Feltham’s idea that porter was invented to replace three-threads massively less likely.
The truth is that porter was not actually a “new” beer, or a beer designed to imitate any other, but ordinary London brown beer, the stuff previously sold as “mild” and “stale”, revitalised and improved under the pressure of the competition it was receiving from other ales and beers. One threat came from the growing popularity of “Twopenny” pale ale, originally introduced to the London market, according to Poundage, by the country gentry, who were spending more time in the capital, and retailing for four pence a quart, two pence a pint. Another pressure on London’s brown beer brewers, Poundage revealed 40 years later, was that middle-men were buying the “mild” beer cheaply from the brewers, storing it, and then selling it to the publicans and alehouse keepers as more expensive “stale” beer – depriving the brewers of profit.
The London beer brewers worked on their brown beer, hopping it more, lengthening the storage times, improving the ways they stored it, surmising, according to Poundage, that “beer well brewed, kept its proper time, became racy and mellow, that is neither new nor stale, such would recommend itself to the public.” This improved brew sold at three pence a quart, the same price as three-threads and less than stale beer or Twopenny, and although “at first it was slow in making its way … in the end the experiment succeeded beyond expectation,” Poundage declared.
That porter was London brown beer by another name is confirmed by several writers in the 18th century: an advertisement in a Sheffield newspaper in 1744 used “London Brew’d Porter” and “brown Beer” as synonyms; Michael Combrune, in his book Theory and Practice of Brewing , first published in 1762, continually referred to “Porter or Brown Beer”; and in 1768 the anonymous author of a book called Every Man his Own Brewer talked about “London Brown Beer”, which was “usually called Porter”.
The improved brown beer found an eager market among London’s working classes, many of whom worked as porters, either informally or for the two main organised portering groups, the Fellowship Porters and Ticket Porters. From the improved brown beer’s popularity with the porters, who numbered thousands, and who did most of the fetching and carrying that took place in the City of London, “came its appellation of porter”, Poundage wrote in 1760.
The earliest known mention of porter by name is in a pamphlet by the political journalist and poet Nicholas Amhurst dated May 22 1721, which talks about dining at a cook’s shop “upon beef, cabbage and porter”. In November 1726, the Swiss traveller César de Saussure, describing London in a letter home home, said that “nothing but beer is drunk and it is made in several qualities. Small beer is what everyone drinks when thirsty; it is used even in the best houses and costs only a penny a pot. Another kind of beer is called porter … because the greater quantity of this beer is consumed by the working classes. It is a thick and strong beverage, and the effect it produces if drunk in excess, is the same as that of wine; this porter costs 3d the pot. In London there are a number of houses where nothing but this sort of beer is sold.”