How To Brew Pre-Prohibition Porter

by Steve Thanos | Updated: August 13, 2021

Pre-Prohibition Porter, like so many, was a beer style brought over by English colonists during the early days of the Uniteds States.

Sometimes called a “Pennsylvania Porter,” “Philadelphia Porter”, or “East Coast Porter.”

Pre-Prohibition Porter is a beer that has both English and German brewing legacies.  

Robert Hare

Robert Hare of Philadelphia was credited with commercially brewing this beer in 1776. As an anti-imperialist, Hare was forced to flee Philsdelphia and head to Virgina during the British occupation of Philadelphia between 1777-1778.

George Washington was the biggest fan of Hare’s porter. Hare’s beer was in high demand due to Washington’s “Buy American” policy in 1789. 

German Brewers

American porters were popular at this time in the United States. German brewers brought their lager yeasts with them to America.

This was the birth of the Pre-Prohibition Porter, a porter brewed with a lager yeast. The result was a clean porter that did not have the fruity ale yeast remnants.

Brewed Porters

Brewed porters were basically made the way most beer was made at this time. Dark malts were added to the grist that imparted the dark color and roasty character. 

Rack and Brew Porters 

Rack and Brew porters were pale beers, usually pale ales, cream ales, or lagers, then a darkening agent added to the beer. The darkening agent was called porterine.

Porterine was usually made with corn syrup and boiled down until it was black in color. Usually these beers lacked the roasty character that we expect from porters and stouts. 

Style Profile for Pre-Prohibition Porter

Appearance

Pre-Prohibition Porter is dark brown to nearly black in color with ruby or mahogany highlights. Beer is relatively clear. Light to medium tan head is persistent.  

Aroma

The aroma is grainy with low levels of dark malt. Low hop aroma. Low to moderate low levels of DMS is acceptable.

Many versions of the style have low levels of caramel and biscuit aroma. Low to none at all fruity esters. Clean lager profile. 

Flavor

Grainy base malt flavor with low levels of chocolate or burnt black malt notes. Also, low levels of caramel, biscuit, licorice, and toast notes. Corn/DMS flavor acceptable at low levels.

American hop bitterness is low to moderate and American hop flavor is low to none. Balance is between the malt and hops. Beer has a moderately dry finish. 

Mouthfeel

Medium light to medium body. Moderate carbonation, low to moderate creaminess. A slight astringency from the dark malts. 

Tips for Brewing your own Pre-Prohibition Porter

Grain

The grist for this style starts with Six-row. 6-row is usually kilned to a darker color, 6-8 SRM. It has a good bready flavor and a deep nutty character that works well with dark beers.

This is followed up with a half pound of 45L British Crystal and a quarter pound of Carafa II. The rest of the grist can be Chocolate Rye, Pale Chocolate, or Chocolate malt. 

Hops

The total IBU level for a Pre-Prohibition Porter should be between 20-30 IBUs. You have the choice of adding them all at once as a bittering addition at 60 minutes or add some at 60 minutes and the rest with 25 minutes to boil.

Northern Brewer is a good choice due to its woody character.  

Yeast

There is a wide selection of yeast to choose from for this style. They include the following: 

  • White Labs: East Coast Ale (WLP008), American Lager Yeast (WLP840), German Lager Yeast (WLP830.
  • Wyeast: American Lager (2035), Bavarian Lager (2206)
  • Dry Yeast: SafAle S33, or S05. 

Pre-Prohibition Porter By the Numbers

  • Color Range: 18 – 20 SRM
  • Original Gravity: 1.046 – 1.060 OG
  • Final Gravity: 1.010 – 1.016 FG
  • IBU Range: 20 – 30
  • ABV Range: 4.5 – 6.0% 

Martin Keen’s Pre-Prohibition Porter Recipe

Grain

  • 68%              8lbs 8oz       Six-Row Pale Malt
  • 17%              2lb                Flaked Corn
  •   9%              1lb                Flaked Rye 
  •   4%              8oz               Caramel 60
  •   2%              4oz               Carafa II

Hops

  • 1 oz         Galena – Boil – 60 min
  • 1 oz         Galena – Boil –  5 min

Yeast

  • 1.0 pkg   California Lager  Wyeast #2112

Transcript: Today on the Homebrew Challenge, we’re going to take a look at the history of Porter. (Not, not yet.) As I brew a pre-prohibition Porter.

I’m on my way to Atlantic of brew supply for a notable ingredients pickup.

This is the bag of ingredients that will get me to 99 beers. And I have to say a big thank you to Todd from Atlantic brew supply, who every week provides me with one of these bags of pre-measured and pre-milled ingredients for the recipes and really helps make my life easy.

So we’re going to be mashing this beer at 152 Fahrenheit that is 67 Celsius. Let’s get it in.

Now, the other significant thing from just picking up the ingredients means that I’ve now made all of my recipes, believe me, I did not enter this challenge with 99 beer recipes already made. But now I’ve got all the ingredients, it does mean that I’ve figured out how I want to make each one of my beers.

I think it would be interesting to go back and look at some of the earlier recipes I made and see if I’d make any changes based on just the experience of really dialing in what I think I like in a beer and what I think works for me, but I don’t really see me going back through all 99 again, just to see if I could come up with a better recipe.

Mash is not looking exceptionally dark just from the grains yet, but that’s going to change and I will leave this mashing for about an hour.

So the recipe for this beer, well, what makes a pre-prohibition Porter “Pre-prohibition?” Basically it’s six row malt and flaked corn are the characteristic ingredients. So I’m looking to build a beer here with an original gravity of 1.057, around five and a half percent ABV.

Now 68% of the grist is going to be six row malt. And then 17% is going to be flaked corn. To that I am adding at 9% of flaked rye, 4% of caramel 60 and 2% of carafa II.

So let’s talk a little bit about the history of the beer style of Porter.

Emoji Martin, take it away. Thanks Martin. The story begins 300 years ago. This fellow is Ralph Howard, a London brewer in the 1730s and the father of Porter. He became famous for his beer that he called Entire. Back then beer was often served as a blend of different beers. Each poured from a different cask, each cask was called a muck, and each beer that came from that was a thread.

A muck of beer might consist of multiple threads. Entire became a stable of the blue collar clientele of the blue last pub. Many of whom worked as porters. Soon the beer itself became known by the folks that drank it. Porter.

It’s a nice story, but well, it’s unlikely to actually be true. At first stop this isn’t Ralph Howard. I couldn’t find a picture of him. This is Arthur Guinness, founder of Guinness Stout.

Beer writers, including Michael Jackson, and have found mentions of Porter dating back to before how its creation and historians think the whole Porter origin story may trace back to the misinterpretation from a letter written about beer taxation in the 1720s.

It seems more likely that Porter emerged as an aged version of brown beer. But what is likely true is that the name Porter did indeed come from the beer’s popularity with the porters who worked carrying goods throughout London.

For the hops for this beer, I’m actually just using a single packet of hops. I am using Galena now. Galena was developed in Idaho in 1968. So not really authentic pre-prohibition, but I think this will fit the style quite well.

So I’m going to add half of this in, at the start of the boil at 60 minutes. And then I’m going to throw in the other half with five minutes to go, just to give a little bit of the character of Galena, which the packet describes a sweet pear, pineapple lime, black, currant, and grapefruit.

Just using a little bit of moderation. I think we’ll just give it a really nice aroma and looking overall for a IBU here of about 28 for the style.

Now this will be my fourth Porter as part of my 99 beers and the previous three, well, they’ve all been quite different. I started out with a Baltic Porter, which is quite high gravity and also brewed as a lager.

The beer, it came down to 1.021, which is a robust 8.1% beer. This one I think is a combination of roastyness and quite a bit of sweetness.

So that was one of my favorite dark beer stars, English Porter, where for some reason, although I hadn’t even made it yet, I decided to give American Porter a bit of a ribbing.

I can definitely taste that it’s a porter, but it is more subtle than an American one. It still has like that punch of a Porter. Yeah, absolutely. So just like real life, you’ve got English understated and the American woo look at us kind of thing. I think with porters, that that definitely goes with it as well.

And then finally I did come on to the beer style of American Porter and really quite enjoyed it.

Something that’s a little bit different to the English Porter that we brewed. And I think that really all comes down to the fact there’s more hops in this. Um, and definitely in the finish of the beer, I am getting a bit of bitterness, um, yeah. Bit of hop flavor to it, which wasn’t present in, in the English one.

Yeah, I can, Yeah. I can taste a little bit of the better with like the mouth feel like the after taste.

So how will pre-prohibition Porter stack up against those… One way to find out?

So I’m quite enjoying this whole clean in place and transfer in place system that I tried out a couple of weeks ago, uh, uh, I use the CIP ball just to spray some star san in this, uh, fermentor here. And then I transferred directly from my plate chiller straight into the top of this fermentor. And this just sits here. I didn’t have to move it.

Now in terms of yeast for this beer, I’m using California lager yeast. This is wyeast 2112. And I’m going to be fermenting this one, fairly warm for a, for a lager.

This is designed typically for sort of California Common style beers. You’ll see, you’ll see this yeast I’ll use a lot for that. I’m going to apply it to this Porter as well.

So I’m going to ferment at 64 Fahrenheit or around 18 Celsius. That was it. Just one clamp to do up rather than having to put the glycol in and then clamp this lid down and all that. This is much more convenient.

Okay. So we’re going to leave this fermenting and uh, come back to this in about four weeks for the tasting.

So it’s tasting time and welcoming Dean to the tasting. Thank you, Martin. So we were just chatting before we got started here. I think neither of us let’s try to pre-prohibition before. I know this will be a first for me, for sure. Yeah.

So in terms of color, I mean it’s dark Porter looking kind of beer, isn’t it?

It’s very dark, very inky almost well. That’s nice. You could tell me what this smells like? I’m not sure if I could tell you what this smells are no, sorry. I smell some roast and it’s a very nice, no, no, uh, no discernible hop aroma. It’s not on, it’s not a hoppy smell.

To me. Yeah. Kind of, uh, I’m thinking English Porter when I’m spelling this, because there isn’t the hoppy to it. Right. Um, I like to say roasty/malty. Maybe a little bit of sweetness.

I’m ready. All right. Well, let’s go for it. Let’s give it a, give it a taste. That’s nice. Quite nice. Nicely carbonated kind of a good balance between the, um, the maltiness too. It’s not subtle, very subtle maltiness and the roast, but it’s not bitter by any stretch of the imagination.

Yeah. I think the thing that makes it pre-prohibition is the fact that there’s corn in here, which I would never think to add to this sort of style. And then if you could pick that up a bit.

I’m not sure that I detect it. It’s subtle. Yeah. And the, in the lager, I think it was quite obvious in the Porter. I don’t, I don’t detect it.

So not so much. No.

So I want to ask you a little bit about you because you actually owned a brewery?

I was one of the co-owners of a, of a brewery called Thirsty Nomad brewing in Charlotte, North Carolina. That must’ve been a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun. Uh, I learned a ton. I was, uh, one of the assistant brewers there. And so I got a chance every, uh, every week or so to, uh, spend my Saturdays brewing beer.

Well, Dean, thank you very much for a tasting. Thank you for allowing me to participate Martin. I appreciate it.

Oh, it’s great to have you here and next week we’re transitioning into a beer, which well, I think it’s probably going to amp up the weirdness a little bit as well. So, um, until then 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.