The streets of early 19th century London must have been quiet. No automobiles motoring by or lorries rumbling, no pedestrians chatting on cellphones or televisions blaring advertisements in shop windows. Citizens would have been traipsing home from work or heading round the pub, pushing babies in their prams and getting the latest gossip on street corners. I can imagine the smells wafting from filthy gutters and deposits made by horses chomping at their bits, harnessed to ubiquitous carriages. The occasional bird chirping or street urchin hawking newspapers might have been the only sounds on October 16, 1814 – that is, until those horses bolted. People looked around, wondering what might have startled them, as quizzical looks dawned across their faces as a thunderous roar continued to build in the distance.
Just then, nearly 1.5 million liters of dark brown porter came hurtling down Tottenham Court Road, destroying two homes and caving in the wall of the Tavistock Arms Pub, trapping a teenage employee. At least seven people were killed as the wave of beer washed into intersecting streets and flooded the basements of the tenement dwellings of St. Giles Rookery. A vat had burst at the Henry Meux & Co. brewery just up the road, liberating 610,000 liters of the umber-hued brew and becoming the first domino in the chain of storage tanks on the brewhouse floor, ultimately sending more than 320,000 imperial gallons into the streets of London.
A tragic accident, to be sure, though found to be an Act of God in court, relieving the brewery of responsibility. But at two centuries removed, one might be excused for having visions of Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin thanking the Lord for answering their prayers and spending the afternoon frolicking in the alcoholic Schlitterbahn. The brewery has since been demolished, and the Dominion Theatre now sits on part of the site. A local tavern, the Holborn Whippet – just a 10 minute walk up Bloomsbury Way – has started holding an annual commemorative event, brewing a special release English Porter to mark the occasion. This year, they’re marking the 200th anniversary with a cellar full of porters, and if you can’t pop over to London this weekend, you might hoist a glass of any of these excellent porters.
Harviestoun – Old Engine Oil
Just hitting Texas shelves last year, this Scottish brewery produces one of the best English Porters on the market, and the Engineer’s Reserve edition is the currently the highest rated on Beer Advocate. Old Engine Oil also has one of the best names on the market, perfectly describing the sable brew as it pours pitch black into the glass. A tawny head, aroma of sweet malts, with a mild bitterness and notes of coffee, OEO marches into the castle of the wicked witch with authority.
Samuel Smith’s – Famous Taddy Porter
A quintessential English Porter with a practiced complexity, Samuel Smith’s Porter is justly famous. Hailing from the oldest brewery in Yorkshire, founded in 1758, the well water and palpable history gives this brew its classic terroir. Nutty and slightly roasty, the addition of cane sugar lends a lingering sweetness to the palate. All of the Tadcaster brewery’s offerings are top notch traditional English ales. With so many choices among the craft beer boom, it’s easy sometimes to overlook the classics.
Historically, stouts have simply been stronger, more robust porters. But the lines have long been blurred, with sometimes only subtle differences between the two. Founders Brewing is well known for their stouts, especially the seasonal Breakfast Stout, but they also produce one of the finest porters in the country among the American skein of the traditional English style. Velvety smooth with hints of chocolate, the typical American hop dosage complements the caramel malts for a nuanced finish.
Ballast Point – Victory at Sea
San Diego’s Ballast Point is perhaps best known for their Sculpin IPA and variations thereon, but the limited release porter Victory at Sea is not to be missed. Taking a few stateside liberties with Old Blighty’s style, they’ve played off the subtle sweetness of a traditional porter and its caramel malts with the addition of vanilla and coffee to come up with an ale reminiscent of a Mexican mole, savory roasted notes with a dessert-worthy aroma.
Karbach – Hellfighter
Here in Houston, stouts have long been the crown prince of dark ales, from Saint Arnold’s venerable Winter Stout to young upstart Buffalo Bayou’s Gingerbread Stout. But Karbach has always done things a little differently, and their winter seasonal Hellfighter they’ve dubbed an Imperial Porter. Firstly, that means it’s quite a bit stronger than a typical porter, clocking in at 9.8% ABV. One of the finer distinctions between stouts and porters is the former’s focus on roasted barley and the latter’s chocolate malts. Hellfighter certainly hews to this metric, but it’s actually the bourbon barrel-aged version that has garnered the most attention. Released periodically as part of Karbach’s F.U.N. series, Bourbon Barrel Hellfighter has a big boozy nose and high octane sweetness on top of the rich base beer’s body. It’s highly sought after and hard to come by, but thankfully Karbach now plans to roll BBH out of the F.U.N. series and make it its own line, the first of which will be a vanilla bean variation due out EOY or early 2015.
Whether you choose a traditional English Porter or a boundary-pushing American version, hoist a glass today in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Great London Beer Flood.
But let’s not pray for history to repeat itself, Barney Gumble.Share this: