Prior to the 17th century, almost every beer was dark in color. The reason - dark malt. One of the most basic ingredients of beer, malt is also the primary contributor to the color of beer and most malt used prior to 1600 tended to be darker in color than many malts used today.
Before it can be used to brew beer, malt needs to be dried and in centuries past, the drying process usually consisted of heating the malt. Furnaces and kilns in use prior to 1600 tended to produce uneven, unreliable temperatures which led to dark colored malts that created dark beer.
In the early part of the 17th century, trees were fast disappearing from the forests of Europe and the search for an alternative to wood burning ovens became increasingly important. As wood became scarcer, the concept of using coke (charred coal) for fuel became popular and in 1642, a coke oven was used for the first time to dry malt in Derbyshire, England. And although it took many more decades for the process to become widespread in malt drying, a revolution had begun. The Industrial Revolution, in fact.
Coke became a superior fuel to wood and regular coal, because the "coking" process eliminates most of the foul, smelly elements of the coal. Once "coked," coal becomes a much cleaner burning fuel and ovens fueled by coke dry malt with much less contamination to the malt, leaving it cleaner in taste. Advances in oven technology during this time also allowed for better temperature control of coke ovens, making it possible to dry malt at lower temperatures, leaving the malt pale and light in color.
In the 17th century, dark beers like Porters and Stouts dominated the beer industry, but by the early 18th century, beers were being brewed in and around London using pale malt. Coke dried malt could be kept at a lighter, paler color throughout the malting process due to the lack of soot caused by contaminants in coal and wood fueled ovens. The more highly hopped English Pale Ales enjoyed some success, they were still not brewed in quantities as large as the popular (and cheaper) Porters and Stouts.
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