American Porters:
Marching to Revolutionary Drummers
by Ben Jankowski

Mention porter to a beer enthusiast or an Englishman, and visions of a London pub come to mind, with a dark mahogany brew just pulled from the cask after a long day's work. Porter, which dates back to the early 1700s, was the original beer of the people, the brew that for years defined beer to the masses in England. So great was its popularity during the 18th century that it was the catalyst responsible for launching large commercial brewing in England.

Whenever American porter is discussed, on the other hand, its heritage is usually thought of as ancillary to that of its British cousin. The fact is, however, that American porters have been brewed consistently in the United States for more than two centuries and have developed a distinct tradition of their own. British porters, meanwhile, lapsed in popularity and dropped out of commercial production altogether for many years.

This article examines American porter as a style distinct from its British forebears. The American porter family is expansive and includes high original gravities, top- and bottom-fermenting yeast strains, varying hopping rates, and the use of adjuncts. It is a challenging style to understand, a difficult style to pin down, and yet a flexible and malleable style to brew.

The British Origins of Porter
It is often said that the precursor of today's porter was made by Ralph Harwood, a publican in East London in 1722. Tired of blending various beers from different casks to suit patron's tastes, Harwood produced an ale that reduced serving time, decreased the dependence on various beer stocks and complicated inventories, and increased profits. Known initially as the 'entire butt' or just 'entire,' this ale was embraced by London's working class, particularly porters; hence the common name.

Most brewing at the time of porter's inception (early 18th century) occurred in small public houses, but this situation would quickly change. The development of porter made it economically feasible to mass produce beer for a popular market. The shift to mass production led to a remarkable concentration of output in the hands of large porter producers, who in turn loaned resources or operated many public houses in London, thereby monopolizing the porter trade. These breweries included Whitbread, Barclay Perkins, Truman Hanbury & Buxton, Meux Reid, Combe Delafield, Felix Calvert, and Hoare (1). Publican brewing ceased to be a major factor in porter production because of the economies of scale that the larger brewhouses enjoyed.

London porter producers, however, began to feel pressure from the Burton-on-Trent ale producers, with pale ale eventually eclipsing the bulk of the porter market by 1870.

Porter in England also began to feel pressure from its two close relatives - mild ale and stout. Because of the British excise tax system, which taxed beer according to its original gravity, the strength and gravity of porter decreased over time. Porter had remained a keeping (high-gravity) beer into the late 19th century, but by 1913 the specifications for porter in England were as low as 1.040 (9.9 P), while mild was 1.050 (12.3 P) (2). Stout seems to have remained more resilient in gravity through the 19th century (at about 1.070 [17 P]), but the tax system would affect all British beers in the end.

By the turn of the 20th century, mild ale was in direct competition with its porter cousin; its decreased gravity and quick production at the brewery made it popular with consumers and brewers alike. Porter's foothold in the market continued to erode, and commercial production in England virtually ceased after World War II. By the time DeClerk commented on the beer styles of Europe in 1957, he wrote that the term porter 'was given to a light gravity stout, but the name has fallen into disuse' (3).

Made in the USA
When the British colonized America they brought their brewing tastes and traditions with them. But like all things American, American porter reflected unique contributions that would take it far from its original roots.

One difference in American brewing procedures from the outset was the use of adjuncts. Because of the unreliability of grain crop harvests and frequent failures, brewers at the time had to rely on corn, molasses, pumpkins, peas, and squash in addition to malt. The use of adjuncts would have a profound effect on porter production in America for more than two centuries.

Robert Hare of Philadelphia is credited with the first commercial porter production in America, dating back to the struggle for independence in 1776. An anti-Imperialist, Hare was forced to flee to Virginia during the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777-1778, where the occupying Tory troops enjoyed his inventories. After returning to brewing in 1778, Hare's porter was in great demand by none other than George Washington, whose 1789 'Buy American' policy prompted the first president to state that he would drink only porter made in America (4). Much of this porter came from Hare's brewery.

With a presidential declaration and porter's popularity among the likes of Washington and Thomas Jefferson, many of the Philadelphia breweries geared up their own porter production. Among these were the breweries of Joseph Potts, the Morris Brewing Co., Reuben Haines, and the Robert Smith Brewing Co. Much of the porter produced in these breweries was not only for local consumption, but was distributed in the mid-Atlantic states as far south as the Carolinas. Table beers and some pale ales were produced, but porter was by far the most popular product of Philadelphia breweries, in part because of its long storage qualities.

Although imports of porter continued through the late 18th century, much of the local demand was satisfied by American production. (On a curious note, no records have been found to document the importation of Arthur Guinness's porter to the United States during this time. Because of the strong export market to the Caribbean that existed in the late 1700s, it is not out of the question that some of this product landed on U.S. soil immediately after the Revolution.) By the early 19th century, every state had breweries producing porter, though the bulk of the porter breweries continued to be in the mid-Atlantic states and, most notably, in Philadelphia.

An influx of German immigrants brought lager beer to the United States, yet porter was so popular that even German brewers were producing a bottom-fermented version as part of their portfolio throughout the 19th century. The logic behind porter production at lager breweries was to cater to the Anglo-Saxon and Welsh populations of the mid-Atlantic states, who initially preferred the porter style over lagers.

This era was the heyday of American porter production. Evidence suggests that Philadelphia porter was exported to the West Indies and South America along with India pale ale. In 1857, pale ale, porter, and brown stout production in the Quaker City was 170,000 bbl, or 48% of the city's total beer production. At an average cost of $6/bbl (5), revenues were more than $1,000,000. At this time, lager beer eclipsed pale ale and porter production in Philadelphia, but only by 10,000 bbl.

Even after lager beer developed a stronghold in Pennsylvania, the lager breweries continued to produce porters. At the dawn of the 20th century, Philadelphia companies such as American Brewing, Begner & Engel, and John F. Betz & Son (successors of Robert Hare's Brewery) were all manufacturing porter. In an interesting example of the recognition of American porter's uniqueness, the John Roehm Brewery at that time produced an 'Imitation English Porter.'

Porter production was not restricted to the East Coast. In addition to Anheuser-Busch and Coors, at least 22 companies regularly produced porter west of the Mississippi by the early 1900s. Some of these included Brandon & Beal (Leavenworth, Kansas), Imperial Brewing Co. (Minneapolis, Minnesota), August Buehler Brewing (The Dalles, Oregon), Seattle Ale & Porter Co. (Seattle), and the Robert Witz Brewery (Sitka, Alaska) (6).

Prohibition: Retrenchment of Porter in America
Several events in the 20th century led to a decline in American porter production. With the advent of World War I, restrictions on malting hindered the production of the brown and black patent malts necessary for porter production. More devastating yet was the passage of the Volstead Act in 1918 and the beginning of Prohibition in 1919.

Prohibition brought an end to the commercial production (at least the legal production) of normal-strength beers in the United States. Instead, many breweries converted to the production of 'near beer' (1.5% alcohol [v/v]). Even so, it is not fair to say that porter was not produced during this time; no doubt the occasional porter, even at 1.5%, kept the style modestly alive.

When Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933, fewer breweries remained in operation, and the remaining companies' portfolios included few ales. Porter never completely disappeared as it did in England, although the bulk of the porters available in the 1950s and 1960s centered in the Northeast. New England had Narragansett Porter, but Pennsylvania had more offerings, including Yuengling's, Stegmaier, Neuweiler's, Esslinger's, and the Valley Forge Porter brewed by Christian Schmidt.

By the early 1970s, only Yuengling and Stegmaier were producing porter on a regular basis. It would take another decade for porter to be widely accepted again, this time as a craft brewery offering.

Components of American Porter
If we examine the makeup of an American porter, we can find its origins in Britain, but its components and style are American. The two share some commonality in the type of malt used, yet important differences separate American porter from its English relatives, including the use of adjuncts, higher gravities, and the selected use of bottom fermentation.

The grain bill: A common starting point for all porters is brown malt. This highly dried malted barley may today be referred to as mild ale malt or amber malt. Most of the grain bills for porter through the first third of the 19th century refer to brown malt as the primary component of porter. By the 1930s, black patent malt and the pale malt introduced by the Burton-on-Trent brewers radically changed porter's typical grain bill. American brewers appear to have been slow to adapt to this change, though these malts were eventually accepted.

An American brewing book from 1852 shows the grain bill for porter to include one-third 'porter-malt' (7). (The book failed to define porter malt. Readers who can shed light on this mystery ingredient are urged to write in.) We can assume the malting technology of the day to have been equal to that in Britain, so Americans likely produced porter malt by choice rather than for reasons of economy of scale. British porters, on the other hand, used black malt precisely because of its economy. Further evidence to support this opinion comes from Wahl-Henius, who even by 1908 still recommended 'a mixture of high and low kiln-dried malts' (8).

Adjuncts. Adjuncts are a difficult topic for today's home and microbrewers. Many charge that style and value dictate the use of only pure malt materials, yet porter was hardly ever a purist beer. From the outset, porter brewing in the United States took advantage of an assortment of adjuncts, including molasses, corn, rice, licorice, and various sugars. Far from being an adulteration of the product as many purists would argue, the use of adjuncts reflects an adaptation to native conditions, which included scarcity of malting barley and, later, the advantages that the diastatic power of six-row barley conferred to the use of corn and rice. These procedures are part of the American heritage of brewing, and American porter is part of that tradition.

Comparing gravities: Another distinction between English and American porters is their relative strengths as of the 20th century. Many British brewers downgraded their products to beat the progressive excise tax on original gravity. This strategy paved the way for a general decrease in the strength of British porters. American porters had no such restrictions and therefore continued to be of a higher gravity (above 1.061 O.G., or 15 P) until Prohibition, though exceptions to this rule could be found. After Prohibition, original gravities of porter were lowered considerably to be somewhat uniform in the 1.040-1.061 (12-15 P) range (see Table I).

Hopping rates: By today's standards, American porters' hopping rates were quite high until just after Prohibition, one attribute that remained of their British ancestors. Colonial and 19th century American porters had as much as 2 lb of hops per barrel, and some high-gravity porters were dry-hopped. Wahl-Henius provides parameters on hopping rates of porters of the late 19th century; the authors state that 1 lb per barrel (8) was sufficient for the style. Nugey's recipes for porter after Prohibition show an even higher hopping rate of 123 lb per barrel (9), independent of original gravity. These hopping rates declined somewhat - to 20-35 IBUs - before the beginning of the modern craft brewing movement. Cluster hops were the common bittering hop, although it cannot be ruled out that Fuggles or some form of Goldings made their way into the aroma hop profile.

Yeast strains and fermentation: Fermentation using lager yeast strains is another American porter variant. Originally, the bulk of porter produced in the United States was top fermented. As the lager beer revolution spread, many German brewers chose to satisfy local demand for porter by making it in their breweries using a bottom-fermenting strain.

This pattern was especially notable in Pennsylvania, where lager brewers produced porter, sometimes using a traditional recipe that included licorice, but most often using a porter hybrid formula. These 'Pennsylvania Porters' were really based on an American premium pilsner formula that called for six-row malt and corn grits and, most often, the addition of Porterine. This dark syrupy liquid was composed of extract, dextrose, and other nonfermentables and had a color rating of 940 L (10). Brewers added Porterine to the pilsner wort not only for color adjustment, but also to approximate the qualities of porter that otherwise required the use of various other malts not often found at a brewery geared toward American pilsner production. To have maintained stocks of those malts would have been too expensive. Porterine gave these breweries the opportunity to keep costs down and yet cater to the popular demand for porter.

Craft (and Traditional) Brewed Porter

Even as the stalwarts of porter on the East Coast kept the style alive and evolving in its own way, the seeds for a new form of porter were being planted in California. Here a new porter would emerge, one with distinct connections to the past.

Fritz Maytag's Anchor Brewing Co. released a porter in 1974 that appeared to hark back to pre-Prohibition porter recipes. 'I wanted to create an all-malt American porter, a rich and flavorful dark beer,' Maytag says (11). Originally bottom fermented and with a specific gravity of 1.071, this beer today is slightly lower in gravity and is top fermented, but yields a full flavor from caramel and black patent malts. It has a rich mouthfeel and hints of alcohol.

The 1980s spawned the modern microbrewery movement and with it more interpretations of porter. Most original gravities today range between 1.050 and 1.059, but the grain bills include everything from Carapils through to roasted and black patent malts. Little if any adjuncts are used, save for maple and honey in Pete's and Sam Adam's porters, respectively. Hopping rates can be anywhere from 15 to 50 IBUs; some are dry-hopped. High-alpha hops are commonly used for bittering. In particular, Chinook is extremely common, but Nugget, Galena, and Columbus hops also find their way into the kettle. Most, if not all, of the microbreweries' porters are top fermented. Other examples of this style include products from Sierra Nevada (Chico, California), Redhook (Seattle), Catamount (White River Junction, Vermont), Old World Brewing (Staten Island, New York), Deschutes (Bend, Oregon), and Independence (Philadelphia).

If you are getting the impression that a clear definition of porter's style is elusive, you are right. Current style guidelines are very general and yet entirely omit certain classes of classic American porter. For this reason, I propose an update and revision of porter style guidelines.

With all the attention being focused on the craft brewed porters, it is comforting to know that the two surviving Pennsylvania porter producers continue to hone their craft for a new generation of consumers. Ray Norbert, Yuengling's veteran brewmaster of 50 years, continues to produce porter not unlike the recipes of the 1940s. The company's Pottsville Porter is a 1.048 original gravity (12 P) bottom-fermented beer using six-row base malt with corn grits and 50L caramel and black malt. 'There is a balance between black and caramel malt,' Norbert said. 'Otherwise, too much black malt will leave a coarse, burnt flavor.' Hops include Cluster and Cascade, with IBUs ranging between 22 and 24.

Stegmaier's porter is still produced, albeit at the Lion Brewery. Former Stegmaier brewmaster Leo Orlandini produces a top-fermented porter in the tradition of pre-Prohibition porters. At 1.060 (14.7 P), it is based on a grain bill of two-row base malt and 60L crystal and chocolate malt. The hopping rate produces a beer with IBUs between 28 and 30 using Cascades, Tettnangs, and Kent Goldings. The company also makes a caramel porter as a seasonal; it uses 60L crystal as 15% of the grist.

Recipes for Home Brewers

Almost every home and professional brewer has a porter recipe. All of them will produce good variations of the style. To produce a distinctive American porter, you can use one of several methods.

An all-malt recipe is acceptable, but don't shy away from using some form of adjunct; it is, after all, what makes American porter unique. The color should not be opaque, but rather a deep, clear mahogany or brunette. To replicate brown malt, try Victory or, if available, mild ale malt for up to 35% of the grain bill. Munich malt can also be used. Chocolate and black patent are commonly used, but keep these in check. I advise no more than 3 oz of black patent per 5 gallons. Chocolate malt can be used at rates of up to 6 oz per 5 gallons, if desired. Any other type of malt is fair game for the grain bill, except roasted barley, which would lend more of a stout character rather than a porter flavor profile.

Hopping rates are up to the brewer. Many home and microbrewers strive for balance between malt and hops, dependent on the specific gravity, whereas West Coast brewers tend to have a heavy hand with hops in their beers. Use what you feel comfortable with - no framework for American porters currently exists on either the amateur or professional level.

Water treatment is also entirely up to the brewer. The mid-Atlantic states have relatively soft water, so no treatment is necessary for American porters, but if carbonate water is preferred, then 1 teaspoon of chalk and 2 teaspoons of gypsum will fit the bill.

Consider the accompanying recipes ('Classic American Porter Recipes') as starting points for American porters. It is important, especially with this style, to keep your creativity unfettered and to produce your own variations. Ben Franklin Porter is not unlike the colonial brew that the sage himself may have drank. According to brewmaster Lou Farrell of Thunder Bay Brewing Co., this beer has a low, creamy brown head and dark mahogany color. Malt character is balanced by clean hop bitterness. Pennsylvania Porter is the true version, with slightly increased hop and gravity rates. Finally, Happy Valley is the best of both worlds - a pre-Prohibition porter that uses either mild ale or Munich malt along with six-row malt, a high hopping rate, and bottom fermentation for a satisfying early spring fortifier.

You Hold the Key

Make a declaration today to brew some American porter. As Ben Franklin might have said, 'An American porter brewed is an American porter earned.


My thanks to the following individuals for their insight: Ray Norbert (D.G. Yuengling & Son, Pottsville, Pennsylvania), Leo Orlandini (The Lion Brewery, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), Lou Farrell (Thunder Bay Brewing Co., Englewood, New Jersey), Phil Rogers (Anchor Brewing Co., San Francisco), Bernard Black (Mangel, Scheuermann, & Oeters, Inc., Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania), and Martin Lodahl.


(1) K.H. Hawkins and C.L. Pass, The Brewing Industry. A Study in Industrial, Organisational, and Public Policy (Hewman Books, London, 1979), p. 19.

(2) Terry Foster, Porter (Brewers Publications, Boulder, Colorado, 1992), p. 42.

(3) Jean DeClerk, A Textbook of Brewing (Chapman and Hall Ltd., London, 1957), p. 555.

(4) Rich Wagner, 'The Beers and Breweries of Philadelphia,' zymurgy 14 (1), p. 23 (Spring 1991).

(5) Rich Wagner, Guidebook, Philadelphia Brewery Tour VIII (self-published, 1995), p. 60.

(6) 'The Western Brewer,' in 100 Years of Brewing (H.S. Rich & Co., Chicago and New York, 1903).

(7) M.L. Byrn, The Complete Practical Brewer (L. Johnson Co., 1852), p. 139.

(8) Robert Wahl and Max Henius, American Handy Book of the Brewing, Malting, and Auxiliary Trades, 3rd Ed. (Wahl-Henius Institute, Chicago, 1908), p. 1275.

(9) A.L. Nugey, Brewers Manual (Jersey Printing Co., Bayonne, New Jersey, 1937), p. 55.

(10) Robert Wahl and Max Henius, American Handy Book of the Brewing, Malting, and Auxiliary Trades, 3rd Ed. (Wahl-Henius Institute, Chicago, 1908), p. 821.

(11) Fritz Maytag, personal communication, December 1996.

Further Reading

Bergen, Roger, 'Porters: Then and Now,' BrewingTechniques 1 (3), pp. 14-19 (September/October 1993).

Corran, H.S., A History of Brewing (David and Charles Co., North Pomfret, Vermont, 1975).

Downard, William, Directory of the History of the American Brewing and Distilling Industries (Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1979).

Rhodes, Christine P., ed., Encyclopedia of Beer (Henry Holt & Co. New York, 1995).

Salem, F.W., Beer, Its History, and Its Economic Value (Arno Press, New York, 1880, 1972).

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