THIS FOURTH of July, celebrate the holiday with the beer style that defines America’s independence from the British: Porter.
Yes, I know it’s a bit dark for warm weather. Don’t worry. Its alcohol is fairly low (about 5-6 percent) and its roasted flavors pair wonderfully with hamburgers or grilled chicken.
But there’s an even bigger reason to enjoy porter this weekend, namely patriotism.
“To say it is equal to any of London, the usual standard for excellence, would undervalue it, because as it regards either wholesome qualities or palatableness, it is much superior . . . “
That’s physician, scientific thinker and author James Mease, writing 199 years ago on the eve of the War of 1812. For the early part of its history, American porter was all about patriotism, not to mention the young nation’s distaste for all things English.
Porter was a wholly British invention, an aged, slightly sour ale that was brewed dark and strong, earning its name because of its popularity among carriage porters.
Its export to the Colonies helped define the superiority of our overlords. The professionally trained English brewed with the finest roasted malts; the primitive rabble of the Colonies substituted with molasses and licorice.
Not surprisingly, Colonial boycotts of British goods only occasionally targeted those luscious shipments of porter. You can imagine the patriot Samuel Adams eyeing wooden casks of fine English ale loaded aboard the ships in Boston Harbor and suggesting, “Hey, let’s dump the tea into the harbor instead. “
Kicking redcoat butt changed things. Complaining shortly after the Revolution that “we have already been too long subject to British prejudices,” George Washington launched a “Buy American” campaign, declaring, “I use no porter or cheese in my family, but such as is made in America; both these articles may now be purchased of an excellent quality. “
His favorite: the Philadelphia porter made by Robert Hare, a British-trained brewer who loathed the English.
By most accounts, it wasn’t just patriotism that gave American porter its reputation for excellence. There are reports of shipments leaving Philadelphia and making it to Calcutta, India, without spoilage. Meanwhile, writes Mease, repressive English duties on malt and hops forced Britain’s brewers to dumb down their famous product with additions of aloe, tobacco, quassia root and sulfates.
By the early 20th century, with Burton pale ale on the rise, porter was all but extinct in the United Kingdom.
In America, the style survived largely because German immigrant brewers – whose crisp, pale lagers would eventually dominate – adapted their early recipes to produce a dark porter made with lager yeast. The hybrid variety is still alive in the form of Yuengling Porter, black, roasty and mildly hopped, but light-bodied like a lager.
In the early ’70s, San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing returned us to the early porter that quenched the thirst of our young nation. Brown, smooth and robust, it’s a sublime celebration of darkened malts and fresh hops.
Back in Philadelphia, where it all began, Yards brews George Washington Tavern Porter just blocks from Robert Hare’s old brewery. It balances dark malts and molasses with an aggressive but compatible portion of Willamette and East Kent Goldings hops in a recipe taken from George Washington’s papers.
Today, dozens of American craft brewers view porter as the perfect palette for more adventuresome flavors. Vanilla, coffee, chocolate and smoked malts often find their way into the barrel, with results ranging from curious to astounding.
Try one of these this Fourth of July: Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, Smuttynose Robust Porter, Sierra Nevada Porter, Deschutes Black Butte Porter, Rogue Mocha Porter, Avery New World Porter, Stone Smoked Porter.
Summer quenchers with Joe
Cool off with the fun taste of beer floats this afternoon at Bell’s Beverage (2809 S. Front St., South Philly). Try oatmeal stout with vanilla ice cream, wheat beer and your favorite fruit sherbet or your own sweet and creamy mix. Joe Sixpack will be serving up scoops and suds in a free tasting from 4-6 p.m.