How Taxes and Technology Led to Today’s Porters

If you love beer—particularly porters—then you have two reasons to celebrate this week!  This week sees the birthday of Michael Jackson, considered one of the best beer writers of our time, and also marks the creation of Daniel Wheeler’s innovative malt-roasting process, which led to the porters we enjoy today.


The many shades of malts.

The many shades of malts.

It’s All in the Roast

The most important factor affecting a beer’s color is the malt—specifically the amount of roast. Malts that have been kilned or roasted longer will impart a darker color to the beer, along with some toasty or caramel notes. Maltsters can control the degree of roast by adjusting the temperature of the kiln, giving brewers a wide range of colors and flavors to work with.

Tools and Technology

Daniel Wheeler’s malt roaster was the result of both the Industrial Revolution and the expectations of beer drinkers. Emerging technology had given brewers better tools and more insight into their brewing process, and in 1784 they were introduced to the hydrometer. For the first time, brewers were able to accurately judge the alcohol content of their beer. This led to the creation of the word “stout” and gave brewers the ability to determine which malts were most efficient—that is, which had the most fermentable sugars poised to be turned into alcohol.

They learned that brown malts, which had been the sole malt used in porters, actually provided less fermentable sugars than pale malt. On the surface, brown malt was cheaper than pale malt, but the difference in yield negated the seeming advantage and proved that the brown malts were actually more expensive when targeting a higher gravity.

light roast

Lightly roasted malts

Taxes and Bans

Many brewers began brewing with pale malts instead, but they did not lend the same color porter-drinking beer lovers were used to. To satisfy consumer expectations, some brewers turned to adjuncts to darken the pale brews, such as licorice, burnt sugar or condensed wort. But sugar, the most common additive, was not taxed, so in 1816 the British government declared that only water, hops and malt could be used in beer, and added sugar to the list of banned ingredients.

black malt

Black malt

Taking the Black

Enter Daniel Wheeler. Wheeler had previously been working as sugar roaster for these very same brewers, and he used that experience to build his malt roaster. Wheeler’s kiln could roast the malt for more than two hours at 400°F, resulting in a deep, dark malt that would add a lot of color to the beer. Wheeler patented the process on March 28, 1817—hence the name patent malt or black malt—and the malt was quickly adopted for use by the London brewers.

Black malts are still commonly found in today’s stouts and porters, where they add color as well as flavor. While too much can make the beer unpleasantly bitter or charred tasting, small amounts of black malts can help control sweetness while contributing a roasty tone. Black malts also bring a dark, fruity note to the beer, accenting other dark fruit or port-like characteristics.

A Toast for the Toasted

So pour a glass of something dark and drink a toast to technology, taxation and Daniel Wheeler! And raise a glass to Michael Jackson, too, who loved to explain it all to us.

About Calee

Promoted to Editor of MendoBlog on 1-27-2014.
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