Esoteric London

No. 115: Druid Street, SE1

Posted in Pubs, Shops by esotericlondon on August 6, 2010

The Kernel Brewery, 98 Druid Street, London, SE1. Photo © Roger Dean 2010

Porter used to be the drink of Londoners. It was particularly favoured by the market porters, hence its name. Whilst not as popular as it once was, more and more brewers are including a porter within their range. Evin O’Riordain of the Kernel Brewery is one such advocate of the style. Over a glass of his Export Stout, (stout being a strong version of a porter) which is brewed to a Truman’s recipe from 1890, Evin gave me a little of the history of the drink.

Porter was first brewed in London in the early 1700′s. Brewers today can only make educated guesses as to the flavour of the original. The production process was very hit and miss: malt would have been kilned over wood fires which meant that timings and temperature control were hard to manage. Brewers tended to use brown malt as the production of dark malt required more heat and longer roasting and often ended in the combustion of the malt and therefore its ruination. This roasting method gave the porter its smokey flavour. The brewers would also have had many different water sources which would have had an effect on taste, although London water is particularly good for the production of dark beers because it is naturally high in calcium carbonate which offsets the acidity. The variety of barley used would also have affected the flavour.

Traditional London Porter with its high use of brown malts has a flavour that is a little “medicinal” at times, with a bouquet “a bit like a marker pen”. Burntness and coffee-ish tones will be there as will tobacco, leather and red fruits, the colour black to a ruby red tint depending on the brown/dark malts used.

Once the brewers started using very large tuns, porter took on a new style. It was stored for up to a year with the beer taking on a hint of the oak used to make the vessel. Because the wood was porous air was able to get in and this resulted in the beer acquiring a slightly “stale” or acidic flavour. This old beer would supply depth of flavour and it would be blended with younger beer to give it some life and freshness.  Evin paints an evocative picture of brewers holding parties to celebrate their new tuns with up to 100 people sitting down to dinner within them, which indicates the massive scale of porter production. These beers had a much higher ABV than today’s bitters and they were drunk in vast quantities, partially because they were far safer than London water in its native, polluted state. It is difficult to imagine how people not involved in heavy manual labour, which would enable the body to process the alcohol faster, would have been able to function. R.D.

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