George Washington, born this month in 1732, comes down to us through the centuries sounding impossibly high-minded. The boy who couldn’t tell a lie, the unanimously elected president who reluctantly accepted power, Washington seems much stiffer than his contemporaries. While we know Thomas Jefferson maintained a wine cellar at Monticello, and John Adams was said to favor Madeira, it’s hard to imagine that austere-looking man on the quarter sipping anything stronger than tea.
In fact, the first president was partial to a style of ale called porter, which makes him something of a follower of fashion. Porter was the first mass-marketed, must-have beer. In early 18th-century London, pub-goers enjoyed a mixed beer cocktail that blended brown ale, the more modern pale ale and an expensive dose of stale (meaning aged) beer. The mixture was called “three threads.”
It must have been costly and tedious for a publican to maintain stocks of all three ingredients. Canny businessmen saw an opportunity to brew an all-in-one beer that combined in one cask the characteristics of all three threads and was less expensive than the individual beers. The new beer was initially called “entire butt” (a butt is a sort of barrel) and later dubbed “porter” for London’s messengers and “hauliers,” who were the Internet and FedEx of their day.
Porter became so popular that it changed the face of English brewing. It allowed some entrepreneurs to specialize for the first time in brewing on a large scale, supplying beer to pubs, many of which ceased brewing their own beer. By the early 19th century, London’s rich porter breweries had grown so huge that the failure of a vat at the Meux Brewery sent a tide of beer through the narrow streets that knocked down buildings and killed eight people.
Porter was the first beer to be shipped from London to other parts of the country and eventually exported overseas. Within a few decades of its invention in the 1720s, it was the favorite beverage of young George Washington.
Beer had a central place in colonial culture. The early settlers brought from England a sensible distrust of drinking water, which could be a source of disease. Beer was the beverage at the table for all ages. It was thought to have healthful properties and formed the basis of many home remedies. Beer was also the drink of moderation. The colonial era in America saw some of the highest rates of alcohol consumption in our history. Beer and cider were promoted over spirits in attempts to regulate public drunkenness.
Although most households still made beer for family consumption, the tavern was a vital institution that supplied professionally brewed beer and much more. For many small towns, the tavern functioned as meeting house, courthouse and the seat of local government. It was also the center of political discourse. According to historian Gregg Smith, Washington “felt the best possible forum for political discussion was over a pint of porter, and in the comfortable confines of a tavern.” Given his fondness for imported porter, Washington made a personal sacrifice when he supported the 1774 non-consumption accord, in which the Second Continental Congress voted to encourage the public to do without goods from England.
Luckily, Washington was able to find a domestic supplier, brewer Robert Hare of Philadelphia. According to Stanley Baron’s Brewed in America, Hare was the son of an English porter brewer who emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1773 and probably brewed the first American porter. In a letter to General Lafayette many years later, the president could report, “I use no porter or cheese in my family, but such as is made in America; both these articles may now be purchased of an excellent quality.”
Washington also brewed his own beer. He recorded the recipe in his own hand in a notebook that is housed today in the collections of the New York Public Library. He called it “small beer,” usually the term for low-alcohol beer. In this case, it describes a beer based on molasses, not barley, dating from Washington’s service in the French and Indian War, when barley was hard to come by. The language is archaic, but the steps are clear enough for any home brewer to follow.
We’re not sure what early porter tasted like, but we know that it gave birth to its different, darker offspring: stout. Today, we expect porter to be deep ruby or brown-black but not opaque; roasty but not acrid; and in its finest examples, one of the roundest, most mellow and comforting of beer styles. Porter loves steak, but also full-bodied cheese and creamy desserts.
So celebrate George’s lighter side this month. This probably calls for a roast capon or so and a large haunch of wild colonial animal. Landlord, a flagon of your best porter, please.