How To Brew English Porter

by Steve Thanos | Updated: October 13, 2020

English porter in Britain is simply known as “Porter.” The use of the term “English porter” is used to differentiate between other porters in the BJCP guidelines.

The history of beer can sometimes be intriguing,, confounding, and funny; often at the same time. The confusion starts when beer geeks like myself try to dive into the history of a particular style.

Oftentimes what we think are historical facts is nothing more than just rumors. These rumors get passed on for so long; they become less conjecture and more fact. As is the case when diving into the history of the English porter.

Blending the Three

Porters have been around since the early to mid 1700s. There has been a common belief that Porter was first introduced by a brewer by the name of Ralph Harwood.

It is said that he crafted a blend of beers known as “three-threads.” This was a beer blended from equal parts of mild (or young) brown ale, stale (or aged) brown ale, and twopenny (or pale ale).

Another Possible Story

There are some stories out there that say the “three-threads” story could also refer to the combining of the three waters during brewing. Many early brewers would use one grain bill to create three different strength beers.

The first batch would be a strong beer, then a second beer would have less available sugars, but enough to make an average strengthened beer. Finally, the third beer would be what was considered a “small” beer.

Competition Forces Change

Yet another possible genesis of this incredible style was the improvement of what was known in London as brown ales. With competition forming heavily from brewers of pale ales, this new style grew quickly in this now growing city.

What’s in a Name?

No matter the style’s origin, porters were enjoyed by the London working class. This working class included porters, who hauled goods around the busy city. The porter was and still is a solid beer style enjoyed by many beer drinkers.

Style Profile for English Porter

Appearance

An English porter is brown in color with hints of mahogany when hitting the light just right. Clarity of this beer should be good.

Aroma

Malt character is strong here. Mild roast character with some very low chocolate notes. It may have some grainy, bready, and caramel notes as well. Hop aroma should be low,

Mouthfeel

The mouthfeel is light to medium and not nearly as heavy as a Baltic or Robust porter.

Taste

The flavor of this beer will match the nose on it. The malt character is the main attraction. Roast, chocolate, toast, and caramel can be pretty complex but should not overtake the flavor of the malt.

A heavy hand with the black malt must be avoided when deciding on the recipe. Too much of the black malt will lead to a burnt, acrid character that is off-putting. Hop character is subtle if at all noticeable.

Food Pairing

English porters pair wonderfully with smoked, roasted or grilled meats. It also pairs well with barbecue, wings, braised dishes, and chili. Don’t be afraid to use a little beer as some braising liquid or incorporated with chili or even as a marinade.

Gruyere cheese is a good pairing if you are interested in some beer with your charcuterie board. A nice English porter would also pair well with dessert as well, especially if peanut butter and chocolate cookies or brownies are served.

Tips for Brewing your own English Porter

Grain

An English base malt should be used to make sure this beer is uniquely English. Maris Otter or English pale malt is the way to go. Brown malt is also a historical necessity when making up a recipe.

Traditionally, brown malt would make up the bulk of the grain bill. Roasted malt, chocolate malt, or black malt or a combination of the three can make up the last part of the grist. Historically, dark sugar was an extensive part of the recipes for English porters. The sugar was cooked down during the boil, often darkening the color of the beer.

Hops

Traditional British hops are a good choice. Hops such as Fuggles, Northern Brewer, Goldings, Challenger, and Northdown are a few to choose from for this style. There is very little hop flavor and aroma in an English porter.

Bittering hops at 60 minutes will be where you start. If you are interested in adding a little flavor, a small hop addition at the 20-15 minute mark before flameout of some German noble hops such as Hallertau or Saaz.

Yeast

A British yeast with moderate attenuation and low to moderate esters is what you are looking for with this style.

Wyeast 1998 London ESB, and 1028 London Ale and White Labs WLP002 English Ale are both good choices. Safale S-04 or Danstar Winsor are the dry yeast choices.

English Porter By the Numbers

  • Color Range: 20 – 30 SRM
  • Original Gravity: 1.040 – 1.052 OG
  • Final Gravity: 1.008 – 1.014 FG
  • IBU Range: 18 – 35
  • ABV Range: 4.0 – 5.4%

Martin Keen’s English Porter Recipe

Grain

72% 6 lbs Maris Otter Malt

10% 1 lb Brown Malt

10% 1 lb Crystal 45

5% 8 oz Chocolate Malt

3% 4 oz Crystal 80

Hops

1.5 oz East Kent Goldings – Boil 60 min

.5 oz East Kent Goldings – Boil 10 min

Yeast

1.0 pkg Wyeast London Ale 1028

Mash at 152°F (66°C) for 60 mins

Boil for 60 mins

Transcript: We’ve got a good one this week, uh, brewing the dark and malty-style of English Porter. And I’m going to brew this one while experimenting with shortening my brew day.

Hey, hello. I’m Martin Keen taking the Homebrew Challenge to brew 99 beers in 99 weeks. And because I am brewing every week, I am obsessed with optimizing my brew process. Anything to make the brew day shorter. Well, that’s going to save me a lot of time over 99 brews.

So I’ve been doing a number of things to shorten the brew day. And, um, th let me show you an example of one of them. And one of those things has been to prepare my ingredients, measured them out and then crushed them all ahead of brew day. So in fact, down here, I have my Porter ingredients already milled and ready to go. So just pour them in once I’ve got the, um, the water up to strike temperature.

And in fact, I have been batching this up, so I actually have the next one, two, three, other beers as well, already measured out and crushed up as well. So that I just do this, like in one big batch once a month, and I have everything ready to go for the entire month’s brews.

English Porter or Brown Porter is a bit of a delicate balancing act. It’s a dark beer of course, but we want to avoid any roastyness or burnt flavors to the beer. And to really highlight the sweet caramel Malty-style of this.

We’re looking at building a beer with an original gravity of 10 49, which should give us an ABV of about 4.90%. The way we’re going to get there is for base malt going to be using Maris Otter that will make up 72% of the grist then for specialty malts.

Well, I think Brown malt is a really important key ingredient in this beer, and we’re using 10% Brown malt. Also using 10% of crystal 45 to get that dark color, we’re looking for going to be using chocolate malt, 5% chocolate malt, and they’re going to be using crystal 80 as well, at 3%.

Shortening the Brew Day

There’s really two areas where the majority of the time is spent the mash and the boil. So let’s talk about the mash first, cause that’s what I’m doing now. Now everybody knows that traditionally a mash is 60 minutes. So maybe even 90 minutes, but yeah, 60 minute mashes. Now I have long since abandoned that. In fact, when I start mashing now, I typically don’t even set a timer, I just let it go.

And when I’m ready, I will check the preboil gravity of this beer. And if it reaches what Beer Smith is telling me, I need it to be, then I just cut the mash off and move on to the next stage. Now I know that over at brulosophy, for example, they’re short and shoddy recipes. They’ll often mash for like 20 minutes. And there’s a bit of a loss of efficiency there that you just make up for by adding a little bit more grain.

Um, I’ve seen other people say, Oh, let’s just cut it to 30 minutes. But I think just saying 30 minutes where we’re just trading in one round number 60 minutes for another 30 minutes, is it really done then?

Well, I know that with my system, I typically am done after about 30 or 40 minutes. Um, and I’m just not going to get any more efficiency by mashing any longer. So I kind of tempted to go with 30 minutes, but then I looked online and I saw a number of people talking about the impact of a short and the mash time has on attenuation.

What that’s referring to is the difference between the original gravity at the start of fermentation and the final gravity at the end. And what people were finding was that with short 30 minute mashes, they would often not attenuate all the way down to final gravity. The final gravity number would end up being a little bit higher than expected.

Now I have no idea why that is and what sort of chemical reaction is causing that. But what I did take from the forums that I read where people were saying at a 30 minute mash, there was kind of like a 50/50 chance as to whether you would have these attenuation issues or not.

Whereas with a 40 minute mash, it seems to not be an issue whatsoever. So I’m going to go with a 40 minute match, which I think is long enough to get the full efficiency out of my system while hopefully avoiding any attenuation issues.

Then the other most timely area of the brew day is of course the boil. And yet traditionally a boil is also 60 minutes. And this is a timing that I have been following pretty much religiously. I always boil my beers for 60 minutes. Why 60 minutes? Where you’ll often hear that burning for 60 minutes will remove any perceptible DMS. So it’s important that you boil that long. I’ve seen a lot of studies that really say at the Homebrew level, that isn’t the case. You can boil for much shorter and not have any perceivable DMS.

The other area that it affects of course is hop utilization. The longer these hops are in the boil, the more utilization you will get and therefore the more bitterness and IBUs you will get out of a beer. So if we’re going to shorten the boil, we need to address how many hops we add in at what time during the boil.

So if I go from a 60 minute boil to a 30 minute boil, then I need to address how many bittering hops I add in. And to figure out what I should do, BeerSmith to the rescue.

English Porter Brewing Process

So here I have my recipe for English Porter. This is the 2.5 gallon batch. And you can see that I’m going to be adding East Kent Golden hops as my bittering harp, and my hop at the end as well. I’m going to split a bag. Three quarters is going to go in as the bittering hop. And the last quarter is going to go in as the flavor and aroma hop. And that’s going to give me an IBU of about 30.

Now I have this recipe scaled to a 30 minute boil, and you’ll see now that with the same hop additions this time at 30 minutes and at 10 minutes, my total IBUs are now 23, as opposed to 30. So I need to add more bittering hops into my beer to get to that same bitterness because I’m doing a shorter boil. So if I change this from 3/4 an ounce to 1 ounce, we’ll see now that my overall bitterness is 30 IBU, which is the same as the original recipe.

So shorter boil means you’re going to need to add a little bit more in the way of hops into your beer.

Now we did cut the mash out exactly 40 minutes, then took a pre boil gravity reading. That gave me a reading of 10 22, which when adjusted for temperature is 10 38, which is exactly the pre boil gravity that Beersmith was telling me I should expect to get. So, so far so good.

So here we go. Then 30 minute boil going to add in my East Kent Golding, a charge here straight away at 30 minutes, this will give me 27 IBU. And then I will add the rest. This is about 3 IBUs worth of EKG, will go in at 10 minutes. So let’s get this in for 30 minutes.

The other impact or shorter boil means is that there’s going to be less evaporation. So you’re going to need less water. Now with a typical 60 minute boil. Beersmith is telling me I would need 4.1 gallons of water at the start, but with a 30 minute boil, I only need to start with 3.8 gallons. So there is going to be less wort in here and it’s going to be boiling for less time. I’m hoping an additional benefit apart from the time saved here is that I’ll also how now have less dripping from this crappy ventilation hood.

Boil is done. Boy, that was quick when you’re used to one hour boils, 30 minutes, just, it was really fast. Um, okay.

Yeast is Wyeast 1028, this is London Ale. I’m going to add this in. Now that I have the worts transferred into the fermentor and chilled to 68 Fahrenheit. Gravity has come out at 10 49, which is exactly what we were looking for.

So this Beer Smith stuff, really seems to work. Now, the last thing to really check on is the attenuation. We’re expecting this beer to come down to 10 11. So we’ll see if the shorter mash had any effect on that. Oh, and I guess the other thing to really check on is how it ends up tasting. Speaking of which…

Right, English Porter – Lauren here to try it, welcome. Hello! Right now, this is one of my favorite styles of dark beer. So I’m definitely looking forward to this one. Uh, now you did the pouring. What was your opinion on the, uh, the appearance of this beer?

It is very, very dark. Um, the pouring, it, it was kind of nice to pour. Um, I did notice that the, the head doesn’t stay as long as some of the other beers. I don’t know if that’s a factor. I’m not too sure. I’m not a big Porter drinker, but, um, it is very, very dark.

Yes, it is. Okay. So let’s see if we get any sort of a aroama off of this Porter. I guess it smells like a Porter. Should I think getting anything? I think as small, as like very light as opposed to dark.

Yup. Yup. And actually I think, uh, you might, it’ll be interesting to see what you think about the taste because an English Porter is not the same as, uh, an American Porter or just sort of a regular porter you get at a craft brewery. So, okay. So light is kind of the keyword for this.

So let’s see what you get on the taste. So me, what I can taste is I can definitely taste that it is a Porter, but as you said about like the American difference to the English, um, it is more subtle than an American one. It still has like that punch of a Porter, but it isn’t as strong and I guess pugnant as an American.

Yeah, absolutely. So just like real life, you’ve got English understated and the American whew. Look at us kind of thing. I think we’ve porters that, that definitely goes with it as well. So even a little touch of sweetness, I think, yeah. I was going to say it has a hint of like a chocolatey taste to it.But it does well, we’re going to be taking a break from English beers and moving on to Scottish beers starting next week. So I think we’re going to have you back for Scottish light and we’ll see what you think of that one, but for now cheers!

I am the former President of my homebrew club, Plainfield Ale and Lager Enthusiasts (PALE) in the western suburbs of Chicago, IL. I brew on my BIAB system with my incredibly patient and understanding wife, adorable 9 year old daughter, and 12 year old brew dog.