Beer Styles: Two Dark Classics – Porters and Stouts – Part 1


The history and development of stout and porter are intertwined. The name “stout” as used for a strong dark beer is believed to have come about because strong porters were marketed under such names as “Extra Porter”, “Double Porter”, and “Stout Porter”. The term “Stout Porter” would later be shortened to just “Stout”. For example, Guinness Extra Stout was originally called Extra Superior Porter and was only given the name Extra Stout in 1840.

To get a better understanding of what a stout is, we must first take a look at an older, classic dark beer style known as the Porter. Porters history extends back to the early 1700s, but a more modern version, the American porter, includes black patent malt, which dates back to 1817. Porter is a dark style of beer developed in London from well-hopped beers made from brown malt. Porters display dark malt flavors like chocolate and roast without intense acrid or burnt flavors that you typically find in stouts. Brewmasters at the time discovered that their inexpensive base brown malt was mediocre at best in terms of sugar yield, so they began adding slightly higher priced pale malt into their grist. When taxation of beer and malt came about in 1722, brewmasters had even more reason to cut the malt bill and use pale malt for efficiency’s sake. The move towards pale malt at the end of the eighteenth century, however, led to a great disparity in beer color and strength, as one can imagine, so brewers began experimenting with the addition of burnt sugar. Not only did this alter the flavor of the beer, it was also considered illegal by the English government due to the perceived evasion to the malt tax. In 1816, the use of caramel coloring was banned by Parliament. To cut cost even more, but still have their beer maintain strength, they would add adulterants to it such as cannabis, along with some other mind numbing substances.

Porters made without black patent malt are known as English porters. When black patent malt is used properly, in the right beer, nothing can replace it for what it lends to a beer. Black malt primarily gives a highly roasted flavor, that carries some bitterness and acidity. But it can also show a deep fruity character reminiscent of currants, blackberries or raisins. It gives deep contrast to a round malty beer by giving it some elbows, without being too aggressive. Most importantly, even in very small quantities, it provides a drying quality that brightens up the finish of any beer.

The name, porter, was first recorded in the 18th century, and is thought to come from its popularity with street and river porters. The story of Porter begins with the Industrial Revolution in England in the mid eighteenth century. Many farmers were forced off their land leading them to start new lives in urban areas. At the same time, projects to open canals and improve harbors not only would lead to more availability of raw materials and to the opening of outlying markets. Low-cost brown malt was arriving in London and was quickly adopted as the standard malt. Even with the addition of new malt, the English stuck with their tradition of brewing beer at different strengths, and the strongest of the beers brewed with brown malt was aged long enough to take on a slight acidity (likely due to reactions with microorganisms present in barrels), customers affectionately called “stale.” Despite the public preferring a bit of age on their beers, many asked to blend several ages together for the desired taste. Brewmasters did not agree and began selling off younger “running” beers after fermentation was complete. Those who could afford it began taking up stock in fresh “brown beer” and aging it themselves for a year or more until the preferred flavor was obtained.

There are a few different porter styles out there. The ones we will talk about today are the English porter, the American Porter, and the Baltic porter. The English porter/the original porter, was born in the 1700s, supposedly the result of blending old (as in stale or sour), new (brown ale), and Mild beers to make the beers more palatable. But modern English porters come in two styles: Brown and Robust. Brown Porter is more malty than hoppy, similar to brown ales, with flavors like bittersweet chocolate, caramel, or toffee, without any significant quantity of roasty-ness. Basically, a Brown Porter is a kind of heftier brown ale. Robust Porter, as the name suggests, is a bit more intense, thanks to the use of roasted and/or black patent malt, sometimes with substantial hops.

Blurring the lines between porter and stouts, the Baltic Porter – basically an English Porter that’s been fortified with higher alcohol content to withstand a journey across the Baltic Sea, where the style continued to evolve thanks in part to influence from the Russian Imperial Stout style. It’s a porter that can drink like a stout, except with a lighter body. While its malt flavors can get deliciously complex with flavors of molasses, coffee, chocolate, licorice, and toffee. The roasted quality never quite steers to dark/burnt porter flavor. Instead you have a roundness that’s picked with a higher ABV and echoed by some fruity esters. American versions of this style porter may be barrel-aged, upping the complexity.

Inspired by the English Porter, American Porters take the depth and complexity of the classic porter style to uncharted, craft-brewed territories. Since there are a few kinds of porters, the American Porter pays homage to the style in a few ways: using smoked malts to play up the roasty depths of a Robust Porter with a “Smoked Porter” style, or meeting (and surpassing) the higher ABV of the Baltic Porter with the American Imperial Porter style that can hit 10% ABV and beyond. You will also notice a much stronger bitterness in the American counterpart. But variety in American Porter, as in craft beer, abounds. Just expect malty complexity, and possibly aggressive hop notes and bitterness.

Check back next week, to learn more about the characteristics of different stouts, such as the English stout, Sweet/Milk stout, Oatmeal stout, Irish stout, American stout, Oyster Stout, and the Imperial stout.

Bottoms up!

Categories: Ale, Barrel Aged, beer styles, Black Ale, Lager, Porter, Stout, UncategorizedTags: , , , , , ,

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