Prêt-à-Porter: Ready for Porter!

The foamy head of porter.

The foamy head of porter.

In a country where decent, good-quality beer is available at ridiculously low prices, home brewing, when looked at from a purely pragmatic point of view, is probably a foolish and expensive waste of time. Why go to the trouble of making your own beer — a concoction which may or may not turn out fit for human consumption at the end of the four week brewing process — when you could breeze into your local supermarket and for a song stock up on the delightful local beers, Mahou, Cruzcampo or San Miguel? The answer is not a simple one and would probably reference stubbornness, pig-headedness, contrariness and the quixotic search for “that perfect glass of beer”.

Or maybe it’s as simple as once you’ve been bitten by the home brew bug there’s no going back. I started down the road to yeasty perdition in my early twenties and there’s still no sign of me pulling over and asking for directions back onto the highway known as normal life.

Bottling porter.

Bottling porter.

I have observed over the years that home brewers are characterised by a mixture of optimism (one must be of a cheery disposition to credit that one’s mash will eventually yield a product of sufficient quality to evade comparisons with paint stripper), romanticism (is not the desire to brew an India Pale Ale to beat all India Pale Ales not on par with the aesthetic ambitions of a Byron or the wilful naivety of John Lennon?), masochism (who else outside of a nunnery would enjoy the hours spent rinsing bottles?) and fetishism (oh, the heady aroma of hops and in-line air filters!!). The other obvious “ism” to augment this list would be alcoholism, but I fail to see how a home brewer could be accused of addiction to alcohol: could someone that is prepared to wait weeks for their hit be considered an addict?

A jug of porter.

A jug of porter.

The beer I’m currently brewing — to be ready by St. Patrick’s Day — is porter. A sort of distant cousin (or even forebear) of the more familiar stouts such as Guinness and taking its name from its popularity among port workers, porter could be described as a “legacy” beer. In the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, porter was one of the most widely-drunk of the many indigenous beers and ales available in Ireland. Over the course of last century, however, its popularity declined, with consumers’ taste shifting towards the smoothness and fuller body of stout. Just like its cousin, porter is black. Its head tends to be less creamy and more foamy than stout and its taste is typically harsher, more hoppy — sour even. A friend of mine once opined that it is porter’s sourness that renders it alien to the modern, pampered palate and because of this the stuff would be considered almost undrinkable in today’s world.

40 pints of plain!

40 pints of plain!

I have to admit that porter is an acquired taste. For home brewers who like to keep a stash of their old brews, porter is, in the words of Flann O’Brien “your only man”! It will easily keep (and improve) in the bottle for well over a year. In some parts of Ireland porter is used as a synonym for beer. I recall my father shouting over the back wall to a neighbour to ask him if he was going out later on for pints of porter (pronounced porther). By the way, the “pint of plain” referred to in O’Brien’s famous poem “The Workman’s Friend” is none other than porter:

When things go wrong and will not come right,

Though you do the best you can,

When life looks black as the hour of night –

A pint of plain is your only man.


When money’s tight and hard to get

And your horse has also ran,

When all you have is a heap of debt –

A pint of plain is your only man.


When health is bad and your heart feels strange,

And your face is pale and wan,

When doctors say you need a change,

A pint of plain is your only man.


When food is scarce and your larder bare

And no rashers grease your pan,

When hunger grows as your meals are rare –

A pint of plain is your only man.


In time of trouble and lousey strife,

You have still got a darlint plan

You still can turn to a brighter life –

A pint of plain is your only man.


About ucronin

Microbiologist, brewer, writer, fan of James Joyce, guitar player and gardener, U. Cronin was born in the county town of Ennis, Co. Clare. He's spent much of his adult years moving country — between Spain and Ireland — and at present he is to be found back in his native town. Author of five novels and working on a sixth, U. is back in the lab and engaging his passion for looking for bugs using very bright lasers. Let's hope it turns out well!
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5 Responses to Prêt-à-Porter: Ready for Porter!

  1. My Irish hubby loves porter. We’ve not tried brewing at home,’cuz just like you’ve said , beer is fairly inexpensive here. A nearby bar had started making adult root beer with 19% alcohol by volume! They put vanilla ice cream in it for a float. Drop me on my butt! Good stuff!

  2. Stan says:

    To my dying day I won’t forget the homebrewed beer you gave me in Cork city years ago. Distinctive, tasty, and powerful! Best of luck with the batch of porter. On Paddy’s Day I’ll raise a mug in your direction. (Probably a mug of herbal tea, but anyway.)

  3. Pingback: Very Inspiring Blogger Award – Thank You Ultan, of Get Behind the Muse! | Midwestern Plants

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