The Original Flag Porter bottle
How authentic can a
traditional beer be?
At Brewlab we attempted to
answer this question by brewing a beer based on as much contemporary knowledge
of the period as possible, both scientific and observational. We advise many
brewing clients on brewing techniques and many are keen to produce traditional
beers but are unsure of how well their character matches the actual beers of
The idea to achieve a
contemporary traditional beer thus grew from a mix of historical vision and
laboratory challenge. The vision for this beer was to recreate a porter beer
from the past. Ideally a porter in its heyday of the early to mid-Victorian
years and one to test drinkers who still retained a memory of the classic beers
from their own youthful drinking. As well as assessing porter recipes our
challenge was to analyse any surviving bottles of porter to determine the character
of the style.
The Pitfield brewery in
London first conceived of recreating a porter as one of their Christmas beers
in 1987 and obtained an 1850 recipe from Whitbread. Although very brief this
formed the basis of the first brew and achieved considerable acclaim when
assessed critically during the frosty Christmas period.
porter features by Brewlab led to further brews commissioned by the Flag
Brewery which was then based at the Pitfield brewery. Continued interest in the
style led to the instigation of a Porter workshop on the 23rd of April 1988 to
discuss pertinent questions which had arisen about the style. A number of these
related to recipes and others to character and flavour.
What exactly was the
dominant flavour of the beer?
What colour would it
have been and how well would the hop addition balance the dark malts?
The workshop was
addressed by Dr John Harrison a professional chemist and founder of the famous
Durdon Park Beer Club and writer of the book “An Introduction to Old British
Beers and How to Make them
” in 1976.
At the workshop John
presented details of historic porter brews with recipes and details of malt
compositions. In addition a number of trial and commercial porter brews were
tasted for assessment by experienced beer tasters including Michael Jackson.
Not every question was answered but a motivated audience left the session keen
to develop and taste more porter brews.
A few weeks before the
Porter Workshop a technician working at Brewlab had been diving in the English
Channel just of Littlehampton and noticed an ancient bottle on a shelf behind
the bar of a nearby pub. On idly asking its origin he was told it was a bottle
of Porter from the “Bottle Wreck” a short distance into the Channel.
established that the Bottle Wreck was the remnants of a sailing barge which
sank in 1825 carrying a consignment of bottled and cask Porter, pottery and
sundry items. Many of the bottles remained intact as they had corks tightly
sealed with wax.
We were informed by the
technician that more bottles could be retrievable and Brewlab sponsored a dive
to obtain fresh samples. These were duly retrieved and eagerly awaited at the
laboratory. Delivery was on the Thursday before the workshop and left no time
for full analysis. One bottle was brought to the session and opened to
illustrate the immediate character of the beer with especial interest in
looking at the colour and flavour.
The Original Flag
Two features were
immediately apparent. One was that the beer was far lighter than expected.
Although this could have been caused by light damage this was less likely for a
beer in a black bottle which had lived out most of its 163 years in a dark and
gloomy seabed covered with sand.
The second feature was
that the flavour had deteriorated both by staling and leakage of seawater. The
aroma was of a stale, musty cellar with the background pungency of old port
while the taste was of ancient leather and salty sea spray.
Whilst draining the
bottle a sediment was noticed. A sample was taken and observed under the
microscope where yeast cells were seen amongst the many deposits. Many of these
cells were dead and empty but a few appeared to be intact, or at least shrunken.
Analysis of the beer
later in the laboratory indicated that the alcohol level was 6.3% by volume and
the colour a very light 90 units. While these issues were easily addressed a
major question had appeared –
Could the yeast be
recovered from the sediment?
Could it be assessed,
measured, even resurrected?
However, the bottle
opened at the workshop it was potentially contaminated and could not provide a
reliable source of yeast. Any samples cultured up might have arisen from the
atmosphere and, while the White Horse pub hosting the event boasts a
scrupulously clean cellar, any air will contain some yeast and bacteria
possessed two bottles and a second was opened under sterile conditions, samples
removed and immediately transferred to nutrient growth media. Careful culturing
was now conducted and, as hopefully expected, microbial growth appeared.
Initially this proved
not to be yeast but moulds and bacteria. Two moulds and five bacteria were
initially recovered. Further culturing did produced viable yeast. While yeasts
are poorly resistant to stress and ageing it is likely that a few cells
survived the long period of rest, particularly because of the dark and cold
conditions. A sample from behind the bar would have had less chance of
Once yeast were seen
purification was performed and the yeast was eventually trailed in a test brew
of Flag Porter.
By the time of this
trial brew a number of recipe features were defined and the beer was modelled
on the brown porter style prevalent at the turn of the nineteenth century
around 1800 rather than on the richly roasted Victorian porters. This would
have been more typical of the porter likely to have been carried by a ship on
the south coast in 1825.
We believe that the
beer is authentic within the limits of analysis. It is impossible to say
whether the yeast provides the full character of the beers of the time. It is
only one strain and we would expect most beers of the age to use multiple
strains. However, its spicy and estery character is distinctive and does blend
well with the brown malts and moderate bitterness.
The Taste Test
One test of the beer we
were particularly keen to perform was a sampling by people who could remember
drinking the beer in its original condition. Since true porter declined after
the First World War and ceased in 1970 we looked for drinkers in their
eighties. One, a Mr E. Poutard who first drank porter in 1913 carrying jugs
from the local pub in Peckham to his mother. Mr Poutard tried a sample of the
Flag Porter and confirmed his memory.
“This bottle of porter
is much purer but it tastes like real porter. It is a good pure drink”
Mr Poutard served in
the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry in the First World War in France, Ireland
and Turkey. On the day before the Armistice in 1918 he was gassed with 10 other
soldiers. Only two survived and Mr Poutard needed months to recover. Unable to
stomach solid food soup and porter formed an important part of his recovery.
Points for Further
Further analysis is
possible on the yeast and beer sample and we are looking to determine a more
exact profile of the ester flavours and, if possible, the origin of the staling
compounds. We will also look to confirm the malt and hop components by mass
spectroscopy and assess the identity of the other microorganisms by DNA
No beer can ever be
exactly true to its origins but we believe that we are as close as we are
likely to get, or almost, - until we can retrieve another bottle.