Lost to History: East India Porter

For centuries, beer has been known as a popular alcoholic beverage around the world. While we all know of the beers we are familiar with today, have you ever heard of East India Porter? It was actually a very popular beer in India before the popularization of pale ales. In fact, East India Porter was the main beer sent to India from Great Britain before the introduction of pale ales. Learn more about this recently discovered brew, including its rich history and flavor, in this article about East India Porter.

East India Porter: The Forgotten Beer Lost to History

For centuries, porters and stouts were among the most popular styles of beer. But while these historic brews still enjoy plenty of recognition today, there is one ancient beer style that’s all but lost to history: the East India Porter.

As the name implies, East India Porter was originally brewed for export to India. It was the go-to beer for those in charge of provisioning ships for the long voyage east, and it dominated the beer trade for more than a century.

The Rise of East India Porter

The development of East India Porter began in the late 1700s with traders from Europe looking to capitalize on the booming East India Company. With the company’s trade network spreading across an immense area, its officials needed a reliable supply of beer to stock their ships. Consequently, the company’s provisioners turned to a stiff dark beer—known as porter—for the long journeys.

At the time, porters and stouts were monstrously thick brews. Crafted in London and Bristol, they typically weighed in at four or five times the strength of ordinary beers. As a result, they were ideal for surviving a multi-month voyage. Furthermore, once the beer reached its destination, the extra strength also meant that it could be enjoyed over an extended period of time.

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By the 1820s, porter and stout had become so commonplace in Britain that brewers were able to create numerous new varieties to better suit the diverse markets. This included the East India Porter, with its inky black color and exceptionally robust flavor profile.

What Was East India Porter?

East India Porter was an immensely strong, sweet and heavily-hopped variety of porter. Made with a high proportion of brown malt, and aged for several weeks, it was significantly stronger than ordinary Irish porter. Typically weighing in at around 8 or 9 percent ABV, it was nearly twice as strong as a standard IPA.

Due to the high alcohol content, East India Porter was capable of surviving the long journeys to exotic destinations. To keep the beer taste fresh, brewers often added extra hops to their recipes and fermented the beer at higher temperatures. This not only added complexity to the flavor profile, but it also helped the beer last longer.

East India Porter was strikingly dark, with a deep mahogany color and reddish-black highlights. Its aroma was dominated by roasted malts, with notes of dark chocolate, coffee and molasses. On the palate, the beer was sweet, with a toffee-like character and hints of licorice, raisins and black cherries.

The Beer's Decline

East India Porter dominated the international beer trade until the mid-1800s. Exported to countries all over the world, the beer was a major part of the British Empire’s trade. But by the late 19th century, the style had begun to fade away slowly.

The beer’s decline was pushed along by two pervasive trends. Firstly, lighter-style, bottom-fermented lagers had become all the rage. Developed expressly for export, these beers were more versatile and able to survive even sweltering temperatures. As a result, the need for heavy, dark ales dwindled.

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Secondly, the continued rise of anti-alcohol sentiment across Britain significantly affected the industry. Starting in the early 20th century, ardently anti-alcohol campaigners pushed for strict regulations and high taxes. As a result, porters and stouts, including East India Porter, began to fall out of favor.

The Forgotten Beer

Today, East India Porter is all but forgotten. Considered too heavy and unhealthy to compete with lighter-style lagers and ales, it has effectively vanished. Who could have guessed that pale ale wasn’t the only beer sent to India? That porters and stouts—including East India Porter—were often the most popular styles?

East India Porter may be lost to history, but its legacy remains. Paying homage to this lost style, craft brewers around the world recreate recipes from centuries past, allowing beer aficionados to enjoy a glimpse of beer history.

  • Alcohol By Volume (ABV): 8-9% ABV
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