Friday, March 4, 2016

#TheSession - Head East Young Man

The subject for this iteration of The Session, the 109th of its ilk, is being hosted by Mark Lindner over at By the Barrel and the theme is 'porter'.

Forgive me if I am being cynical, but I imagine that many a post on this topic will find its way to London, to tales of three threads, entire butt, and industrial romances involving the working men of that great entrepôt. I want to leave London behind though, I also want to disregard Dublin and its history of porter brewing, and head to lands where beers morph from the original into something distinctly native, and are then re-exported to the wider world.

Naturally, being an intelligent reader, you immediately knew that the lands of which I refer were in the east rather than across the Atlantic. Sure, not as far to the east as India, but east to the Baltic Sea, on to Russia, the once key market for many a British brewer to send strong warm fermented dark beers, and the court of Catherine the Great (hence the name 'Russian Imperial Stout' - not made in Russia, but for the Russian imperial court).

During the reign of Catherine the Great, the great cities of the Hanseatic League were still major trading ports on the route from Britain to Russia, cities evocative in mercantile history like Hamburg, Lübeck, Stettin, and Danzig. As the strong dark beer made its way from the ports of England to Russia, I imagine the ships' captains stopped into various cities along the way. Perhaps as they plied their trade along the Baltic coast they sold some of their stock of beer, and a taste for strong dark beer took hold. It is not so great a stretch of the imagination to think that enterprising brewers in these cities created their own version for local sale, using ingredients and methods local to them, and thus out of the strong stout porters sent to Russia was born Baltic Porter.

Generally speaking the local ingredients and methods were heavily influenced by the lager brewing traditions of Central Europe, and so on the southern side of the Baltic, their porter was cold fermented and lagered, while those made on the northern side, in Sweden, maintained the warm fermentation approach. Eventually Baltic Porter became associated mainly with cities in modern day Poland, though examples of the 'style' (for want of a better word) can be found throughout central and eastern Europe. Clearly I am about to argue from silence, but I imagine the Českobudějovický Porter advertised below had more in common with Gdańsk than London.

The history of porter is in many ways the forerunner of the pale lager revolution of the mid 19th to mid 20th century kicked off by Josef Groll and his Pilsner, and is a powerful reminder of the power of trade to shape societies far from the original source of the product being traded. So in drinking porter look beyond London and head east young man.

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