Porter Brewing in Glasgow

If you like a bit of porter, you probably know at least a little about London porter brewing; some classic examples might even spring to mind, like Fuller’s London Porter, or something more modern like The Kernel’s 1890 London Export Stout. You certainly know about Dublin porter, given the ubiquity of Guinness. Glasgow porter is less well known. Nevertheless, porter was once one of the city’s biggest exports and we had notable brewers with their own approach to the style.

This bit of brewing history is one which influences Epochal’s beer. Our recent release, The Fixed Stars, is one of a series of beers directly inspired by the writings of one Glasgow porter brewer, James Steel. For the inaugural blog post, I thought I’d say some things about porter brewing in Glasgow to give you an idea of where Glasgow fits into the broader story of porter.

The Rise of Porter Brewing in London

Porter first appeared in London in the early 1700’s with the earliest known reference in 1721. It developed from other brown beers popular at the time which, on account of their tendency to be aged in barrels called ‘butts’, were known as brown butt beer (lol). It’s worth noting that, at this time, ‘ale’ and ‘beer’ were essentially terms used to differentiate hopping rates, with the expectation being that an ale would be lightly hopped whereas beer would be hopped more heavily. So a brown butt beer, then, is brown, well-hopped and aged in oak (butts).

A number of efficiencies were made to the production of these beers (unsurprisingly, given the industrial revolution was on its way) to give us 18th Century porter in its paradigmatic form. Perhaps the most important was the introduction of vatting.

Butts hold about 500L, have horizontal staves, look like a pretty archetypal sort of barrel and would typically have been aged in cellars. Aging beer in cellars, however, has a few shortcomings. One is that space is fairly limited, the other is that, in a poorly ventilated cellar, there’s a fairly serious danger of suffocation caused by the Co2 emitted by fermentation.

In architecture, if space is at a premium, it’s best to build upwards: if you want lots of space in the centre of New York City, you don’t build a massive bungalow, you build a skyscraper and vats are the skyscrapers of barrels. They are large, vertically staved and, on account of sitting at ground level (or on stilts) and expanding upwards, can be built to hold almost any quantity of liquid, as long as you can make big enough staves.

Vats at Barclay Perkins

The largest in the world now is in France and was designed for producing the wine-based aperitif, Byrrh. It holds a million litres. The biggest porter vat on record, at London’s Meux brewery, held over 3 million litres and was constructed, amazingly, in the late 1700’s. So the shift to vatting allowed brewers to vastly increase their production.

A further efficiency came when brewers realised that, instead of aging all their porter for a medium amount of time, they could age the vatted beer for an extra-long period and then blend a portion of it with completely unaged beer (one part aged to two parts unaged). This created a beer which was more cost efficient to produce and which combined the funky flavour of the aged beer and with the freshness of the younger beer, with this latter also providing the fermentables needed to keep the beer ticking over in casks.

What’s more, because porter is both delicious and highly ageable, it’s also highly exportable. Once you’ve made a lot of beer, what you really need is a market to sell it into. On account of the sophistication of British networks of trade, and the depredations of empire, London porter brewers had access to more or less the entire world as a market for their beer.

The result was that porter brewing became wildly successful. Henry Thrale (inventor of the imperial stout, no big deal), for instance, sold his brewery to Barclay Perkins for £135,000, which was a hell of a sum of money in 1781. Barclay Perkins went on to become the biggest brewery in the world.

Porter has long had an association with the working classes of industrial cities and, in fact, its name comes from its specific association with the street and river porters of London who were early adopters of the style.

In the early 1700’s, ‘stout’ was a term used to indicate strength, and so there are references to pale stout, simply meaning a strong pale beer. Presumably because of the popularity of porter at the time, ‘stout’ gained a particular association with the style and was eventually shortened to ‘stout’, indicating a strong porter.

There are various other contemporary definitions which attempt to carve out differences between stout and porter but I’ve never found any of them very compelling. So, when it comes to my own beer, I use the terms in this old way – the lower gravity examples are labelled porter, the stronger ones, stout.

The Rise of Porter Brewing in Glasgow

The success of porter brewing in London enticed brewers elsewhere to get in on the action. One of the early adopters was Glasgow’s Anderston brewery, one of the cities earliest major breweries, which started production of ales in 1762 and began producing porter some time shortly thereafter.

Anderston brewery was owned by Murdoch & Warroch, whose senior partner, George Murdoch was a provost of the city and was declared by King George III to be "the handsomest Scotchman" he had ever seen.

"Gorgeous" George Murdoch

One of the key markets Anderston brewery wanted access to was in Dublin, where there was a lack of competition from local brewers on account of some rather unfair tax laws which disadvantaged Irish brewers. Competition for the Dublin market, however, meant that porter had to be top notch to be successful there, and Anderston brewery were keen to up their porter game.

In 1775, a porter brewer called Nathaniel Chivers wrote to Anderston brewery offering to become their head brewer. Anderston politely declined but offered to hire Chivers as a consultant to teach them what he knew about porter brewing.

In the end, Chivers spent a year at Anderston brewery working on their porter processes until they were producing confirmed bangers. After which, Chivers was supposed to have returned to London since he had signed a contract promising that he wouldn’t teach anyone else in Glasgow how to make porter.

To, one imagines, the consternation of the owners of Anderston brewery, Chivers instead heads across Glasgow to the Struthers brewery on Kent Street, where you’ll currently find the beloved Glasgow gig venue, The Barrowland Ballroom, and starts brewing porter.

When challenged, he points out that he’d promised not to teach anyone else how to brew porter, but hadn’t promised not to do it himself. The legal dispute which arose, and which seems to have been something of a landmark case in intellectual property law, therefore concerned whether the other people working under Chivers at the Struthers brewery would have picked up the secrets of porter brewing from his activities. Sure enough the judge decided in favour of Anderston brewery Chivers was forced to stop brewing porter in Glasgow.

It's some vindication of the verdict that by this point the Struthers brewery had picked up enough that they continued to make porter of exactly the same quality without him, faring so well that they moved to larger premises, building the Greenhead Brewery on what’s now London Road. So Chivers left Glasgow with two major, high quality porter brewers in the city, which is no mean feat.

There are rumours that Chivers next went to Dublin where he met Arthur Guinness and taught him the secrets of porter brewing. If true, that would make Chivers one of the most influential brewers in history. Unfortunately, despite the coolness of the story, there’s no documentation that I could find to confirm it.

That said, it would certainly make perfect sense for Chivers to go to Dublin to ply his trade as a porter consultant. After all, he’d been sending liquid CV’s to the city from the Anderston and Struthers breweries for some time, and his court case finished just in time for a change in the anti-Irish tax laws which had impeded the activities of Dublin brewers. This caused a frenzy of porter-focussed brewing activity in the city which definitely involved a number of porter consultants. It’s possible that some in Dublin might even have known about the court case – it was big enough to make various papers. If any readers happen to know something more concrete on the matter, I’d be delighted to hear what became of old Chivers.

Either way, he played a profound role in establishing the highest quality porter brewing in Glasgow.

The Appearance of Black Malt

So by the late 1700’s, Glasgow is well on its way to becoming a rather porterish place. The next major event to discuss, one which in my mind marks a sort of mid-point in the history of porter brewing, concerns a major change in how porter recipes were put together.

The change took place because the hydrometer, though invented some time earlier, had (along with the thermometer) become generally adopted as an essential piece of brewing equipment.

Previously, porter was made entirely of brown malt, of a sort which no longer exists, known as diastatic brown malt. Pale malt existed but was expensive and so was generally only used for pale beers. What brewers began to realise, with the help of their hydrometers, was that pale malt, though more expensive per bushel (the volumetric grain measurement used at the time) was actually cheaper in terms of bang for your buck because so much more malt sugar could be extracted.

So whereas previously, considerations of cost effectiveness had favoured brown malt porters, brewers now realised they were incentivised to make as much use of pale malt as possible, even in porter brewing.

The question which then arises is how to make a dark brown beer like a porter out of mostly pale malt. In the quest for a solution, an intense period of experimentation began which included consideration of some illegal options such as dark caramel syrups (which, since beer was taxed on the malted barley used in its production, was a form of tax evasion).

The answer was come upon by a man called Daniel Wheeler who, in 1817, filed a patent for black malt – a product created by roasting malted barley in a manner similar to coffee. This was found to very effectively give the colour and flavour wanted in good porter and was adopted by all major porter brewers very quickly for the time – a matter of a few decades. The technique was so effective that we still make our porters and stouts this way today – we use a base of pale malt with roasted grain for colour.

So, from 1817 onwards, a rapid shift takes place in porter recipe construction: there is a move away from a single malt grist of diastatic brown malt to a base of pale malt with an addition of black malt for colour.

The next question which suggests itself is how to combine these grains. After all, we still have brown malt as well as the milder amber malt available, which could still be added in smaller quantities if desired for flavour purposes. In the end, brewers took different views about this, which is a great thing because it’s what leads to geographical variations in porter recipes.

Previously, whilst differences in water supply, climate, variations in brewing process and so on would all have led to certain geographical differences, at the level of recipe, all porters were made of 100% diastatic brown malt. With the rise of black malt, we see different approaches to porter recipes appear in different places.

In London, for example, a combination of pale malt, brown malt and black malt was settled on as the paradigmatic porter grist. In Dublin, Guinness seem to have settled on the simpler combination of pale and black malt, omitting brown and amber. In Glasgow, as we’ll see, the top porter brewer argued for a combination of pale malt, amber malt and black malt.

James Steel

As I said, I often think of the rise of black malt as marking a midway point in porter brewing history. If figures like Nathaniel Chivers, George Murdoch (owner of Anderston brewery) and John Struthers (of the Gallowgate Brewery and then Greenhead Brewery) define the first half of Glasgow’s porter brewing story, James Steel defines the second.

He was born in 1821 in Calton in the East End of Glasgow and grew up in his father’s brewery on Tureen Street near Glasgow Green learning about both brewing and engineering. His father died young leaving the brewery to James as the oldest brother. He proved himself such a successful brewer that, in 1853, he purchased the Greenhead Brewery from John Struthers’ son, Robert.

Incidentally, this is the same year that the Loch Katrine water connection to Glasgow was made to curb the outbreaks of cholera which the city regularly suffered. This is the water source Steel used in brewing - his writings include an analysis of its composition – and as it still serves the whole of the city of Glasgow today, it’s the one we use at Epochal, which is neat.

By this time, the Anderston brewery was no more, leaving the Greenhead Brewery as the top porter brewery not only in Glasgow but, perhaps, in Scotland. There were bigger breweries, of course, such as Tennents, William Younger and McEwan’s, but these were pale ale or lager breweries rather than dedicated porter producers. Of these latter, The Greenhead Brewery was the largest I’ve found.

It's also in 1853 that, according to Steel’s obituary, he invented the Steel’s Masher, a grain hydrating device that was described as revolutionising the brewing process at the time and which was so well designed that it’s still in fairly wide use today. He also, sort of perplexingly, jointly invented a train brake around this time, which also saw use.

Five years later, in 1858, he expands his production to pale ale and mild brewing by acquiring the Craigend brewery in Edinburgh. Steel takes on a partner in 1865 to form the Steel Coulson partnership which went on to expand the pale ale operation to the Croft-an-Righ brewery on Abbeyhill. This is probably the height of Steel’s career. He’s come from, in relative terms, quite humble brewing beginnings and now jointly owns one of the top 5 brewing endeavours in Scotland, with the other larger entities being century-old beasts like Tennent’s and William Younger.

Edinburgh Ales and Glasgow Stout

At this point it’s worth mentioning than Steel had an infamous temper. According to his diplomatically phrased obituary in the Brewer’s Guardian, the Steel Coulson partnership collapsed on account of “an incompatibility of temper on the part of Mr Steel”. So Steel left the brewing enterprise which he had built and used his share of the money to strike out on his own again by purchasing the Windsor brewery in Birkenhead near Liverpool, which came with a number of tied houses.

If I may be forgiven a brief aside on a non-beer topic: there was a great logician working at this time, Augustus de Morgan. If you’ve done an undergraduate logic course, you might remember the so-called De Morgan laws – some compelling wee chappies governing the interaction between ‘and’, ‘or’ and ‘not’. The Epochal beer, Siphonaptera, is named after one of De Morgan’s poems.

It turns out that James Steel, at the time he was working in his Birkenhead brewery, was into his logic and paradoxes too, and in fact corresponded with De Morgan on the topic (with De Morgan recording him as one of the lunatics who continued to believe you can square a circle). In fact, Steel seems to have published a book on the topic called:

“The Exact Numerical Quadrature of the Circle Effected Regardless of the Circumference: And the Commensurability of the Diagonal and Side of a Square Demonstrated: with a Copy of the Author’s Unsuccessful Application to the Late Royal Commission on Science for Permission to Give Evidence Before the Commissioners; Also a Copy of the Propositions Submitted to Them, which the Author was Prepared to Substantiate; and with Proofs in Extenso of the Six Propositions, Numbered Respectively 1, 2, 16, 20 and 22 Each of Such Demonstrated Propositions of Itself (irrespective of the others) Being Entirely Subversive of the Newtonian Mathematical-Mechanical Philosophy”

They don’t make book titles like that anymore.

Unfortunately for Steel, his Birkenhead endeavour was a complete failure. One potential reason for this is that Steel doesn’t seem to have been very business-minded. His obituary records:

“His many patents would in most other hands have yielded a large fortune, while his malt masher changed the whole system of brewing, and is in use in almost every brewery in the world. The Steel-McInnes brake cost Mr. Steel several years labour and a sum exceeding £10,000 to be perfect. He sold it to the Westinghouse Company for £2,000, and it is now in use on all our railways under that firm’s name.”

So it doesn’t seem entirely implausible to assume that his lack of business acumen might have contributed to his failure in Birkenhead. What secured his complete financial ruin was a speech he gave as chair of the Scottish Wine and Spirits Benevolent Institution Dinner, in which he reflected, with characteristic candour, on the behaviour of four employees of the local magistrate in their dealings with the alcohol trade. His assessment seems to have been so incendiary as to have generated legal action which, on account of his refusal to apologise, wiped out the rest of Steel’s financial security.

It's some testimony to his likeability that his friends are recorded to have collected several hundred pounds at this stage to help Steel look after himself and his daughter, however his obituary also records that he didn’t need the money since he’s recently been employed by MacLachlan’s back in Glasgow at the Castle Brewery in Maryhill. This opened in 1898, three years before Steel’s death in 1891, so he seems to have lived out his last years in a fairly cushy job, back home in Glasgow telling people how to make beer.

It’s around about the time of Steel’s financial ruin that he seems to have decided to write a brewing textbook, which he first published in 1878. Indeed, he didn’t have the money to publish the book himself, instead writing a very flattering dedication to Hugh Baird of The Great Canal Brewery (about 2 minutes-walk from where Epochal brewery is now) and, later, of Baird’s Maltings, which continues to be a major operation to this day. Steel’s dedication asks big Shug to fund his book and, given the presence of the dedication in the final article, he seems to have obliged.

I’m glad he did, because Steel’s book is an amazing piece of writing. It’s entitled A Selection of the Practical Points of Malting and Brewing for the Use of Brewery Proprietors.

It’s not uncommon for a writer on a technical topic to explain in the introduction why they have written their book. Steel is no different, but in his own classic style, he explains that he’s written his brewing textbook because the extant ones are, in contemporary terms, shite. He calls other beer writers ‘quacks’, and endorsers of ‘super-scientific mysticism’. Indeed, he goes through them by name: Richardson “gives a thick volume on brewing, but tells absolutely nothing”, “Mr Black” (a respected chemistry professor at the University of Glasgow) is mocked for thinking that whenever fermentation goes wrong, it’s because of ‘electricity’ (tbf, lol). Another respected writer “indulges in a treatise on brewing but says nothing of practical use.” Steel calls his own book a “catechism”, of course.

What’s funniest about this is that Steel is basically right. His criticisms do identify genuine shortcomings of these other books which he surpasses. In fact, I think it’s arguable that Steel’s book is the best there is at the time that he’s writing. It’s only surpassed by later writers who managed to combine knowledge of chemistry, microbiology and practical brewing expertise in a way which hadn’t previously been possible. Steel predicted this too, to his credit, saying that Chemists weren’t much use in breweries at the time of his writing but that they were likely to be essential once the gap between their scientific knowledge and the practicalities of brewing had been bridged.

This, I think, is Steels real legacy: seemingly compelled by poverty, he wrote one of the 19th Century’s great brewing books. It’s a useful book to read concerning Edinburgh ale brewing, but the real gold in the book is the account of porter brewing in Glasgow which, I think, stands alone as the only detailed account of porter production in the city.

Steel’s Glasgow Porter

The real magic of the book is in the detail of Steel’s descriptions. So nuts-and-bolts are his instructions that he includes technical drawings of brewing equipment of his own design – a maltings for making the best pale and amber malts, a water tower for properly treating brewing liquor, a pressure-boiler for high-temperature porter boiling, a mash tun (complete with Steel’s Masher, naturally) for porter production which keeps the pale malts separate from the dark so that the paler spent grains can fetch more money from farmers as cattle feed, and so on.

One of his strongest commitments is that brown malt is crap. It is, he says, “a mere waste of grain” which “should be removed from the category of malts”. He advocates instead for amber malt in large quantities, giving a smoother roasted character.

He also argues for vatting which, by this time, has become unfashionable. In London, by 1880, brewers had shifted to cheaper, unaged porter and, where aging was required, it was done in smaller trade casks. In Steel’s view, this led to too much nasty sediment in the final casks – it was better to age the porter in vats and allow it to settle before transferring clear beer into trade casks or bottles.

Despite his penchant for vatting, he didn’t use the classic, London blend of 1 part aged to two parts unaged porter. Instead, he preferred to use 85-90% fully attenuated, aged beer, adding only enough fresh beer to carbonate the mature stuff sufficiently.

Carbonation, by the way, was high. He said porter should be “soft and full”, but also should maintain “a gaseous, refreshing quality”, even at gravities as high as 1.090. I’m immediately put in mind of the Belgian brewing tradition, which was heavily influenced by the Scottish one at this time, and which has put much importance on the ‘digestibility’ of dry beer.

When it comes to amber malt, it composes, at a minimum, roughly a third of the grist and, in the lower gravity beers, nearly half. The effect of this is peculiar and important. It yields a lot of malt flavour, of course, which in a contemporary beer might result in a higher than desired finishing gravity and a deal of sweetness. However, due to a combination of secondary fermentation with Brettanomyces and dry hopping, gravities of well matured porter can end up much lower. This gives a delicious and unique combination of intensity of malt flavour with refreshing dryness which I’ve come to think of as part of the target of Glaswegian porter and historic porter more generally.

To give a sort of summary of Glasgow porter a-la-James-Steel as a style, or a collection of styles, it’s dark brown, brewed with pale, amber and black malt and allowed to mature in wood until well attenuated but not excessively, acidically old. It’s then blended with just enough fresh beer to (highly!) carbonate and matured again in final pack. Aging should vary from about 6 months for light porter to 18 months for strongest stouts.

Steel Coulson without Steel

If you’re wondering what happened to Steel Coulson after Steel left, it continued with great success. The Greenhead Brewery continued to make porter in Steel’s vatted way, which we know because of a book published in 1895 by Alfred Barnard, Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland. In a rather amazing 4-volume work, Barnard annoyed brewers across the land by requesting extensive tours so that he could record what he saw. He did the same thing, by the way, with distilleries in his The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, which is popular enough that you’ll find it in reprinted form in distillery gift shops across Scotland to this day.

At the time Barnard visited the Greenhead brewery, we can tell from the detail of his descriptions that they had over 1.2 million litres of porter aging. Incredibly, there's an picture of the actual Greenhead Brewers from this period, c. 1890. It's quite something to be able to put faces to the beer.

Greenhead Brewers c.1890

The brewery continued production well into the 20th Century, steadily shifting its activities from brewing to bottling the brews of others until it ceased brewing entirely in the 1940’s. It was sold to Calder's in 1946, whose name you can see in the picture of the brewery building below.

Greenhead Brewery post-1946

Steel Coulson’s Edinburgh brewery continued its activities longer, until brewing there finally ceased in 1960, 95 years after the partnership was first formed.

Whilst the decline of Scottish brewing in the 20th Century was rather sad, we’re lucky to have texts such as Steel’s from which to draw inspiration.

On the off chance that some intrepid reader has made it this far, I’d like to congratulate you on your fortitude!

Slainte Mhath!





Full academic-style citations are a bit much for a brewery blog post, but I do want to include some sources here, partly to direct interesting parties to further reading, partly to give credit to a couple of beer historians from whose heroic work I have drawn great benefit, namely, Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson.

Martyn Cornell’s books ‘Beer: The Story of the Pint’, ‘Gold, Amber and Black’, as well as numerous blog posts on the topic of porter, are well worth a read. Ron Pattinson’s ‘Porter!’ is essential reading and his ‘Scotland!’ and ‘Scotland! Vol II’ are, in my view, without equal on the topic of Scottish brewing history. On economic issues, Ian Donnachie’s History of the Brewing Industry is great. James Sumner’s recent book, Brewing Science, Technology and Print 1700-1880 is also really good on this period.

Older books were also referenced. For Glasgow porter brewing and Nathaniel Chivers, I drew from the second volume of Glasgow, Past and Present (1884), which is a fun book. There’s also John Levesque’s book (1837), based on his claimed 40 years’ experience at Barclay Perkins, which includes juicy stuff and corresponds to the period of shift from 100% brown malt porter to recipes including black malt.

Biographical information about James Steel can be found in his obituary in the 1891 issue of the Brewers’ Guardian.

I’d also like to recommend the Scottish Brewing Archive Association, membership of which is very cheap and comes with a hard copy of the journal, which often includes a lot of great stuff – it’s well worth chipping into this good cause.

Information about James Steel’s approach to porter brewing comes from the horse’s mouth – his 1878 book, A Selection of the Practical Points of Malting and Brewing, can be found online for free in pdf form. He also has a slightly later book, A Supplement to Steel on Malting and Brewing, published in 1888 which is interesting but adds little of substance to the general outlook. If you’re very keen to read it, you’ll have to visit a brewing archive with a copy, like the Scottish Brewing Archive at the University of Glasgow. Maybe they’ll digitise it at some point.