Caught by the River

Pint by the River – Brew by Numbers 03/03 Traditional Porter

Ben McCormick | 24th June 2014

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By Ben McCormick

Magnus Magnusson would not approve. And I can’t put my finger on quite why either, but I’ve started several articles for this irregular column this year, yet failed to finish any. Whether it’s down to lack of inspiration, innate laziness or a first-ever bout of the fabled writers’ block, I’ve typed enough words to fill a magazine at least twice over, but despite this, I’ve not been able to file a single full article for months. It’s almost as if I’ve forgotten how, while in the meantime, the folder marked ‘incomplete’ mimics my waistline and grows larger by the hour.

True to form, it’s taken me several attempts and I nearly gave up on this one as well. Thankfully, someone asked me to write about porter for a magazine that’s out in September (meaning I at least stand a chance), so that’s enabled me to put in some practical fieldwork in advance. Another bottle of inspiration, then.

I’ve been meaning to profile Brew by Numbers for some time. Housed in a railway arch along what is rapidly becoming known as Bermondsey’s Beer Mile, the brewery was set up by Tom Hutchings and Dave Seymour following an extended period of home brewing and got its big break in 2012 thanks to the helping hand of the Craft Beer Company’s management, who began stocking their beers. Having enjoyed some success there, the pair invested in new kit and premises and began brewing on a commercial scale. Now they’re deservedly attracting attention.

In fact, it’s in no small part down to the friendly advice and help they gave me while I was completing a feature for a home brewing magazine that I finally took the beery plunge into the heady world of beer making myself. That they’ve kindly given my first brew a qualified thumbs up is a source of genuine pride.

Would that I could put together something as accomplished as this. Billed as a traditional porter, there’s every chance this has been embellished even though it claims to be based on London’s traditional recipes, of which there were doubtless a fair few. It’s unlikely the Barclay Perkinses and Whitbreads of the 18th and 19th centuries – breweries famous for London’s ‘signature beer’ – had the kind of ingredients at Brew by Numbers disposal and I suspect the latter have enjoyed this advantage.

That said, 03/03 Traditional Porter has that thick, pungent smell of proving wholemeal bread when poured and it tastes as if they’ve at least stayed faithful to the standard Bramling Cross porter hop. It’s said porter emerged in London to challenge the rising popularity of pale country ales that were gaining a foothold in the capital. Many commentators say it was brewed to replace ‘three-threads’, a mixture of different ales loved by the beer-drinking populace at the time, although there’s no real proof of that. It almost certainly wasn’t ‘invented’ by one brewery, as claimed by countless beer writers who should really know better. But perhaps a murky, unclear history befits a drink as dark and mysterious as this. What’s certain is that it became one of the most sought-after beers among London’s fetching and carrying population – hence the name – and for a while was the world’s predominant ale.

Drinking this, you can see why. Dough is supplanted by benevolent treacle, which then rounds on you like a turned animal and bites hard on the tongue. You feel the sting of a thousand drunken workers cast out into London’s dank, wet, cold nights following a porter-filled evening at the inn. Reassuring, soothing and with enough of a brusque nature to bring you out of your reverie with a few choice, sharp words. The only things I can’t for the life of me fathom is why on earth this drink almost went out of existence and why it’s taken me so long to wax lyrical about it. Happily, this is one thing I’ll finish at least.