Wednesday, 16 November 2022

Irish Pub History: Mulled Porter on Tap...?

Mulled porter, ale or especially wine are not exactly an unknown concept to most people, as these types of drinks have indeed been around for centuries - I even wrote about them here and listed some recipes - and I would think that very few of you are unaware that the 'mulling' refers to the spicing and heating of an alcoholic beverage. (Incidentally there seems to be no agreement in any online dictionary sources as to where the term ‘Mull’ comes from in this context but surely it comes from a contraction of muddle meaning to mix? Or at least comes from the same original source.) But while looking up references on how beer was served in Irish public houses, I came across repeated references to 'Porter Mulling Machines' right through the second half of the 19th century which got me thinking what form these could have taken, how they would have been heated, and how they worked. The word ‘machine’ can be a bit a little confusing, but my belief is that during this period it did not mean what we think of in our heads these days, of something filled with gears, axles and cogs, it – like engine – was just a general 'something' that replaced a manual form of doing a job or helped someone with that task. A ‘beer engine’ used for serving cask ale is a good and appropriate example of the use of these type of words.

Those mentions I found in newspapers – often for the sale of contents of a public house – often listed the name ‘Merry’ as the supplier or maker. More research uncovered a ‘Lawrence & Richard Merry’ as manufacturers of beer engines, bottling equipment and other barware in this period. They were proficient in a variety of metals such as copper, pewter and brass, and were also gasfitter and plumbers. They had won a gold medal at the Irish National Exhibition in 1883 for the quality of their wares, and I believe they enterprise may have started off as pewter manufacturers. (There is also a Martin Merry mentioned in the 1840s supplying similar equipment and based on Aungier Street, not very far away from where Lawrence and Richard were based at 25 Bride Street.)

Sadly, I can find no mention of their specific ‘Porter Mulling Machine’ but I have found a few English patents and designs for beverage mulling machines which used gas as their heat source, and given the Merry’s expertise with metals and gas, I think it is not unreasonable to assume that the ‘machines’ they supplied were quite like these?

Here is one such design in an Advertisement by Smith & Phillips - Gas Engineers in 'A Shilling Cookery for the People' by Alexis Soyer which was published in 1854. This one appears to have four sections for different drinks and four taps.

There were other patents during that decade too such as this one from Henry Remington from 1856 (English Patent No. 1783) which was gas heated too and contained two chambers for holding the heated beverages as well as a reservoir of hot water that heated the beer and maybe wine or ale, each with separate taps. (I have seen mention of similar in the sale of contents of a spirit grocer in Wicklow in 1873, which mentions that the mulling equipment also had three taps and in 1877 there is an advertisement in The Belfast Telegraph for 'a first class porter muller, all pure copper, well tinned inside, three apartments[sic], for porter, ale and water,' which certainly sounds like the boiler shown here.)

I have no proof that the Merry’s machine was anything like these (so I could be completely wrong) but I think it is reasonable enough to assume it was at least similar in design – like a heated copper barrel with the gas heat source below although if it was just for porter then it may have had just one - or two - compartments. As I stated above, the Merrys were gas fitters too and some of those mentions of the sale of the contents of public houses even list gas fittings with the bar items for sale. I also found a newspaper reference of a fire having been caused by a faulty porter mulling machine in Glasgow in 1881, which would point to gas being the likely heat source for this type of bar equipment. Also, slightly earlier in 1877 a spirit grocer in Newry is selling a 'copper keg, with brass hoops, in two divisions, heated by gas, for mulling porter, and boiling water' according to the town's Reporter newspaper. This seems to confirm that the heat source is indeed gas, and also that these boilers were quite ornate in appearance like the images above.

There other mentions of mullers elsewhere too, The Belfast News-Letter in November of 1867 has a timely advertisement from Bloomfield's in John Street which invites publicans to look at their prize-winning and improved mullers so that said publicans can give their customers 'a pot of mulled porter this winter.' A London maker - Byron - is also mentioned in an advertisement in 1880 in The Belfast Telegraph, and Dublin's Freeman's Journal lists two for sale in 1882, one made by Merrys complete with stand and another three compartment version from a maker called Curtis. James Campbell & Co. of Mary Street and Jervis Street in Dublin had a new design of porter muller back in 1859 according to The Advocate too, so we can see that there were a number of suppliers and makers of porter mullers.

As well as the fire in Scotland mentioned above there was a fire in Dublin in 1884 according to the city's Daily Express, as in April it was reported that

'About twelve o'clock noon yesterday a fire broke out at the publichouse Nos 1 and 2 Wood Quay, the property of Mr O'Kelly. The Fire Brigade were quickly on the scene and within half an hour the fire was extinguised. It is beleived to have originated through a leakage of the gas pipe used for heating the porter muller, the shop flooring thus becoming ignited. The damage done to the property was slight.'

(It is probably worth mentioning that this property is the long gone and much lamented The Irish House ...)

Mulled porter appears to have been relatively popular in public houses Ireland at this time – perhaps less so elsewhere - and there were even specific lemon and spice extracts and liquid spiced syrups available to the publican to quickly and easily spice their porters. It would be great if some of the dispensers still existed in public houses somewhere in the country – if you spot one please send me a photo, as it would be great to see that at least one has survived – ideally with an ‘L & R Merry’ stamp.

It would also be nice to be able to walk into a pub in Ireland now and get a glass of spiced porter in a nice pewter mug on a cold winter’s evening, served from a shiny brass and copper barrel on the bar – perhaps we need to campaign for the reinstatement of porter mulling machines?

Liam K.

All written content and the research involved in publishing it here is my own unless otherwise stated and cannot be reproduced elsewhere without permission, full credit to its sources, and a link back to this post. Images are via Google Books and newspaper research via The British Newspaper Archive.

1 comment:

The Beer Nut said...

The serving temperature of porter is only going in one direction, and it ain't up!