Porter: what you ought to know

The back room of the Gardeners Arms, Oxford, March 2008. A bunch of ratebeerians are doing what they do best; talking about beer. Specifically, the difference between stout and porter. It's not just young turks mouthing off; the debate was well-reasoned and informative, as is often the case when you have the encyclopaedic knowledge of Chris Owen and Steve Pereira in the room. I knew a little about the subject but learned much that day by keeping my ears open and my mouth shut.

Fast forward three-ish years and I'm now starting to take ever more of an interest into the dropped stitches in beer's rich tapestry. I've started to read 'The Brewing Industry In England 1700 - 1830' by Peter Mathias which invariably draws me into a lunchtime of Googling for the source documents that he references. Particularly as the book opens with the introduction of porter, described by Mathias as "an invention exactly equivalent in its own industry to coke-smelted iron". He acknowledges that the facts surrounding porter's birth are scant and derived mainly from the same source. Which immediately made me want to go digging.

What I found really opened my eyes, not just to the sheer determination of beer historians to unearth the facts from the historical mire but moreso about the clear, cogent and open way they go about it.

It all started with this piece by Martyn Cornell, examining in detail the source of porter history. And then his follow-up article after Dr James Sumner brought more evidence to Martyn's attention. Which led me to reading Dr. Sumner's journal article on how he sees porter as a 'retrospective invention'. And then back to Martyn again. And off to Ron Pattinson, courtesy of one of the blog's comments.

There's total transparency by Martyn in the first piece, with corrections scored-through and remaining visible. Respect between writers in acknowledging differing points of view. Genuinely useful comments by contributors who add detailed background knowledge and original thought into the mix.

I've leaned more about the history of porter - and the determination of beer historians - in the last couple of hours than I've leaned in the last three years. If you haven't already, do go and read those articles for yourself.

I get the feeling that, as I'm now compelled to follow up footnotes and source documents for the sheer brilliance of history that lies beneath, it's going to take me a long time to read Mathias' book. I'm looking forward to every lunchtime of it, no matter how long it takes.