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When I lived in England in the middle and late 1970s, I felt it my duty to fully investigate the country’s beers, even though I was only 18 years old when I arrived in Liverpool on a foggy Sunday night in June of 1974. My first residence was in a pub in a village in East Anglia where the only Yanks the locals had ever seen were on TV – Columbo, Kojak and John Wayne movies were television staples there. It was rural and agricultural, and nary a tourist was ever seen.
In my desire to assimilate, I drew no lines. I drank bitter, barleywine, lager, pale ale, stout, Scotch ale and probably a few other styles I don’t recall now. Porter is the one style I am certain I never ran across in all that time. In the country where it was born, porter had disappeared in the 1970s.
Not that I knew that back then. I didn’t discover porter until I returned to America and eventually ran across Anchor Porter. I went on to brew my own porter, and then the craft beer evolution/revolution happened and porter was back.
I’ve done plenty of research on the history of porter and have come to the conclusion that its true history will remain a mystery. There are oft-repeated stories of a particular London bar owner of the early 18th century who created porter with a hand-poured blend of three different beers, and the mainstay of his customers worked as porters, hence the name.
Having worked as a porter at the downtown Minneapolis Foreman & Clark store just before I shipped out to England on a Norwegian tanker, I can tell you with absolute certainty that the position of porter literally means “low man on the totem pole” – tote that barge and lift that bale kind of stuff.
So I can see how a group of them might get a charge nipping into a pub for a special drink hand-mixed just for them by the guvnor.
I’ve imagined what those three different beers might have been that this barkeep might have mixed, and I think perhaps an aged ale with a tart wild yeasty bite, the house ale and a strong ale. That would produce quite a unique taste.
I find many porters boring, as if they are nothing more than weak sisters of stout. Not so with Edmund Fitzgerald Porter from Great Lakes Brewing Co. of Cleveland, Ohio. This beer is what I imagine an English porter might have been in the Georgian period. It has character, depth and a rollercoaster of flavors. On top of the base darkness rides a beautiful coffee-like bitterness and something just a little bit tart and wild.
Here’s what the label says: “Robust and complex, our Porter is a bittersweet tribute to the legendary freighter’s fallen crew – taken too soon when the gales of November came early.”
That’s pretty good. The cause of the Edmund Fitzgerald’s sinking remains a mystery, just like the history of porter. With the 40th anniversary of the tragedy, I would recommend getting acquainted with Edmund Fitzgerald Porter.