I like stories about the history of beers. For me, the interesting side of it comes when there’s a human element: why a brewer decided to do this or that; how the drinkers liked the beer; where they drank it; processes which brewers went through.
So when looking through The Curiosities of Ale and Beer by John Bickerdyke, first published in 1889, I was excited to read that an alternative origin for porter is written (thanks to Mark from Real Ale Reviews who found it). It’s probably the most unusual and outrageous origin of a beer I’ve heard…
It first points back to Ralph Harwood in 1730. As he “brooded over the inconvenience and waste occasioned by the calls for the ‘three threads’, which become more and more frequent, he conceived the idea of making a liquor which would combine in itself the several virtues of ale, beer, and twopenny.” So he brewed a drink called Entire or Entire Butts which was tasted and approved and “became the fruitful parent of a mighty offspring.”
So far nothing unusual, a perfectly acceptable beginning for London’s famous dark beer. But it continues, a little off-piste:
Visitors to the great brewery in Brick Lane are shown a hole from which steam issues to the accompaniment of awful rumbling noises. ‘In there once fell a man,’ they are told – ‘a negro. Nothing but his bones were found when the copper was emptied, and it is said that the beer drawn off was an extraordinary dark colour. Some say this was the first brew of porter.
Yes. It actually says this.
Asked the obvious question, the brewery guide replied: “Oh yes… we soon learnt how to make it without the negro.” Which is of some relief, no doubt.
The author adds his thoughts, although the tone is a little wishy-washy and unconvinced (italics are mine): “We must confess that we have some doubts as to this account of the origin of porter. We do not believe that brew could have been much darker on account of the accident, though no doubt, under the circumstances, it contained plenty of ‘body.’”
Two pages later is a versed legend called Patent Brown Stout. You must read it.
Not your usual beer history lesson…