18th Century Porter
was it smoked?


Lots of people will tell you that porter used to be smoked. It was the malt they used - wood-dried brown malt. You couldn't get any of your modern style malts, so you had no choice. Back in the 18th century they didn't know better. Or so it's claimed.

Wasn't this - similar to Franconian Rauchmalz (smoked malt) - all that they had? Brew from this and your beers will have the smoky bacon tang of Bamberg's Rauchbier. The only alternative was coke-dried pale malt, still rare and prohibitively expensive. It sounds a reasonable enough theory, but is it true? Was porter smoked?

I'll be honest; neither you nor I can nip down our local matsters and buy old-fashioned brown malt. I know, you don't have a local maltsters, anyway. We used to, me and my brother. I can remember him buying a sack of pale and a sack of mild malt. Call it a perk of growing up in a brewing town. But I digress. Brown malt - they don't make it any more. What do you do when you can't buy it? Make you own! Just get some boring old pale malt and set the oven to supernova. Voilà, brown malt. Now you can make an authentic porter. Right.

Now I'll tell you why you're wrong.

Was 18th century porter smoked?
The case for smoke
One of the writers who insists, with great conviction, that early porters were smoky is Graham Wheeler. This comes from a article he wrote in 1994 for "What's Brewing":

"The original Porters of the early 1700's were brown beers, brewed from brown malt, as were almost all other beers of the day. Brown malt was just about the only malt that was made in those days and it is, by definition, a smoked malt; smoked over a hardwood fire of oak, beech or hornbeam. Smoking was considered to be an important part of malting and enhanced the flavour, for much the same reason that whisky malts are smoked over peat today."
So, brown malt was always smoky and no other malt was available. Smokiness wasn't just an accidental by-product of the malting process, but a quality actively sought by brewers and maltsters. Porter brewers would have expected their brown malt to have a smoky taste and would have been appreciative of the extra depth of flavour it brought to their beers.

He's convinced me. But before I start building a smokehouse in my garden, maybe I should see what I can find out about malting from 18th century sources.
What period sources tell us
The 18th century is a fascinating period. A more methodical and systematic approach to a whole host of subjects typified Britian on the threshold of the industrial revolution. The first serious technical publications appeared and brewing was described with an unprecedented precision and rigour. Which is good news for us, because we have surprisingly detailed accounts of many aspects of the brewing industry. Let's take a look at what they say about malt.

It is without doubt true that there was brown malt dried with wood and it did have a smoky taste. Yet the way it was perceived is not quite as portrayed by Graham Wheeler. Smokiness in beer and ale wasn't appreciated in the same way as the peat character of malt whisky is today. How your average modern German drinker reacts to Bamberg smoked beer is closer to the mark - a mixture of disgust (that beer can taste so horrible) and amazement (that anyone can drink such muck for pleasure). Enthusiasts (me included) are more often found outside Germany, other than in Frankenland.

It's no different with West Country smoked malts. Writers of the period describe the distinctive taste derived from wood-smoked malts, and the almost universal revulsion it engendered. The smoked beers and ales of the West Country were famous for being undrinkable - locals and the desperate excepted. This is from "Directions for Brewing Malt Liquors" (1700):

"In most parts of the West, their malt is so stenched with the Smoak of the Wood, with which 'tis dryed, that no Stranger can endure it, though the inhabitants, who are familiarized to it, can swallow it as the Hollanders do their thick Black Beer Brewed with Buck Wheat."

So, a bit of an acquired taste, then. Here's an even earlier reference to such malt by William Harrison, in his "Description of England", 1577:

"In some places it [malt] is dried at leisure with wood alone, or straw alone, in other with wood and straw together, but, of all, the straw-dried is the most excellent. For the wood-dried malt, when it is brewed, beside that the drink is higher of colour, it doth hurt and annoy the head of him that is not used thereto, because of the smoke. Such also as use both indifferently do bark, cleave, and dry their wood in an oven, thereby to remove all moisture that should procure the fume..."

Not exactly an unequivocal endorsement. Here's what "London and Country Brewer" (1736) has to say:

"Brown Malts are dryed with Straw, Wood and Fern, etc.The straw-dryed is the best, but the wood sort has a most unnatural Taste, that few can bear with, but the necessitous, and those that are accustomed to its strong smoaky tang; yet it is much used in some of the Western Parts of England, and many thousand Quarters of this malt has been formerly used in London for brewing the Butt-keeoing-beers with, and that because it sold for two shillings per Quarter cheaper than Straw-dryed Malt, nor was this Quality of the Wood-dryed Malt much regarded by some of its Brewers, for that its ill Taste is lost in nine or twelve Months, by the Age of the Beer, and the strength of the great Quantity of Hops that were used in its preservation."

Did you follow that? Wood-dried malt had a horrible taste, but some London brewers did once use it because it was cheap and after long aging in a heavily-hopped beer you didn't notice the vile smokiness any more.

I will admit that all the fuels used in the drying of malt, apart from coke, exposed the grain to some degree of smoke. However, the straw-dried brown malt preferred in London was the least affected. That was the very reason it was valued above the wood-dried variety. In "Town and Country Brewery Book" (approx. 1830, p.47), there is a chapter about what can go wrong during malting. Smoking malt was seen as a serious mistake:

"The third error consists in the drying of malt. They are apt to be tainted by the smoke, through the carelessness, covetousness, or unskilfulness of the maker. Every care ought to be taken to guard against this accident as one of the most prejudicial that can befall malt drinks."

As brewers and malsters were doing their best to avoid it, I find it unlikely that much smokiness was perceptible in finished porter. Remember that it was being aged (in the case of the earliest porters, four to five months). If nine to twelve months was enough to rid beer of the stench of West Country malt, then a couple of months would have been plenty for the far milder straw-dried malt.

Let's sum up those points:
  • there were several ways of making malt, only one of which left it with a strong smoky taste
  • most drinkers couldn't stomach the taste of beer made with smoked malt
  • smoked malt was only popular in the West Country
  • London brewers had occasionally used it, but only because it was cheap, and when they were sure that the smoked flavour wouldn't be noticeable in the finished product
  • the straw-drying method was usually employed in the Southeast, the main area supplying malt to London.

Yes, smoking enhanced the flavour of brown malt. That's the reason for all the glowing testimonials I've quoted. I could continue being sarcastic and find more scathing period comments about smoked malt, but I think I've made my point. It's the Millwall of 18th century malts - no-one liked it, but its fans didn't care.
My conclusion
I haven't found any 18th century source with a good word to say about smoked malt. Nor one that mentions porter being brewed from it. There is evidence to the contrary in abundance.

Porter was not smoked, nor were any other 18th century London beers or ales. If London brewers did, reluctantly, use smoked malt they made sure that it couldn't be tasted in the end product.

There's no reason why you shouldn't use smoked malt, if you like the taste, in your porter. Just don't feel obliged to do so for the sake of authenticity.

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