Malin Norman



What started as a local beer in London took off and became the world’s first favourite beer, only to disappear and then arise in popularity again. Martyn Cornell is writing a book about the fascinating history of porter, and we had a chat to hear more.

Martyn Cornell is an award-winning and widely published historian of beer, brewing and beer styles. His books include Beer: The Story of the Pint (2003), Amber Gold and Black, a history of beer styles (2010) and Strange Tales of Ale (2015). Martyn is currently working on a new book, this time about the history of porter. Initially writing a chapter about porter for The Geography of Beer by National Geographic, three years and heaps of research later, Martin is now turning his extensive findings into a whole book of its own.

Why write a book about porter?

When I researched porter for National Geographic’s book, I uncovered more and more interesting stories. For example how Britain exported porter to India and it became even more well-liked than pale ale, how porter later spread around the world and became the world’s most favourite beer, and how it was considered good for you and a restorative and cure-all drink.

Gradually, the popularity slumped and porter became a poor man’s drink. It nearly died out actually, only to revive again recently. I wanted to find out what made it such a popular beer in different parts of the world, and how it managed to revive after almost disappearing.

Just briefly, what is the story of porter?

Originally, this was a local beer in London called Brown Beer made with local ingredients and drunk by the working classes. The beer probably changed due to the increased tax on malt; brewers had to use cheaper malts and less volume, and increased the amount of hops. They started using smoky malts and aging the beer in wood barrels, and all sorts of interesting things started happening to the beer, bringing lovely estery flavours although the high amount of hops kept the sourness at bay.

Brewers learned to age the beer in larger vessels, which cut down the level of oxidation, and they added roast malts. Porter became a more satisfying beer and the public loved it. Today, a majority of brewers are making a porter or a stout and many top-rated beers on RateBeer are imperial stouts.

What is the difference between porter and stout?

This is the big question that everyone keeps asking. Originally, the only difference was that a stout was a strong version of a porter, otherwise the ingredients were the same. Eventually, due to high taxes on alcohol, stout became weaker in strength but was still called stout.

Nowadays, you can’t draw a line between them. People try inventing things such as robust porter, but there’s no such thing historically. There is a tremendous range of different beers named porter available with a huge variation of flavours with real coffee, real chocolate, liquorice, and fruits etc.

Any good porters to recommend?

Okocim Porter: the very first Baltic porter I tried, made in Poland. I thought to myself; “where has this beer style been all my life?

Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout: a recreation of a beer originally brewed by A Le Coq Brewery in Estonia. It is brewed once a year and aged on barrels for 18 months.

Guinness Foreign Extra Stout: still a first-class beer with deep, roasty, bitter flavours. One of few beers to be the same as it would have been in the 19th century.


Martyn’s book about the history of porter is due to be released early next year. In the meantime, check out his award-winning blog Zythophile for more interesting stories about beer.


Photo: Elevate on Unsplash; Martyn Cornell; Harvey’s Brewery; Guinness

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This entry was posted on August 18, 2020 by in Beer, Blog and tagged , , , , , , .
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