This edition in our Get to Know a Style series will focus on the counterpart to the IPAs: the porter. An old style that has seen extensive evolution, porters are dark and robust beers marked by their roasted malt flavors. A beer born of the industrial revolution, craft brewers are elevating the humble porter with quality ingredients and careful craftsmanship. There are several different variations on the porter style available; let’s take a look at where to start and what to expect from the darker side of craft beer.
In the early 18th century, before the India Pale Ale (http://www.beeroftomorrow.com/gtkas-india-pale-ales/) was developed,the most popular beer in Briton was not a single beer at all but a blend of the two of three ales served at most pubs. These mixed pints were an attempt by London’s working class to have a tasty, yet affordable, beer. As a way to tap into this market and remove the need for blending individual pints a new beer was developed by brewers that used a new process for processing the malted barley. The barley was dried over a wood-fire which resulted in a dark color and even a smoky flavor. The beer brewed with this “brown malt” was then aged in gigantic wooden vats, some reaching 750,000 gallons in capacity by the late 18th century. The beer aged in these vats would mellow and begin to develop a sour quality that was prized by the consumer.
As brewing technology developed along with the industry brewers discovered the brown malts used to create porters were not as cost-effective as traditional brewer’s malts. New processes were developed to roast malts in huge drums, and these roasted malts could provide porter’s signature color at less cost to the brewer. Porters, especially in London, enjoyed great popularity through the 19th century, though those beers were quite different from the sour brown-malt-based porters of the previous century.
But eventually tastes changed, and porters began to decline in popularity. By the beginning of the 20th century the popularity of pale ales had nearly eliminated porters from British pubs. The decline was so precipitous that not only did the word “porter” begin to lose its meaning and become synonymous with “stout,” but London brewers didn’t even produce a true porter during WWII and the post-war years. It took the birth of the home-brew scene in American during the 70s to bring porters back to the consciousness of the modern beer drinker.
Porters, as a family, are all dark ales that range from a deep ruby to a opaque dark brown and that feature a malty flavor and often a distinct roasted quality. They have a fuller body than most pale ales, but much less of a hop presence and so they taste much sweeter. English porters are generally around 5%ABV while American porters tend to be stronger and feature a fuller flavor.
The porter family has many branches, though only three styles are officially recognized by the Great American Beer Festival (the preeminent governing body for beer nomenclature): Brown Porter, Robust Porter, and Baltic Porter. Brown porter is the traditional English-style porter, while the robust porters are the most common version of porter being made by American craft brewers and are slightly stronger, fuller in body, and hoppier. The Baltic Porter is actually a very dark lager that was developed in Eastern Europe in response to the popularity of the Imperial Russian Stouts of the 18th century.
The beer described by the term “porter” has changed so many times over the years that today nearly any dark ale can be called a porter. When looking for a representative porter to experience you want an ale with more roasted flavor that fruity flavor, and with more body than a pale ale but less than a stout. Additional flavors-providing additives are popular in modern porters; with the most common examples being coffee, chocolate, or smoked malt.
What to Drink
Traditional or Brown Porters
A rare-bird in pubs these days, brown porters are mostly found in the import sections of your favorite bottle shops. Our favorite of the traditional english porters is the London Porter from Fullers Griffin Brewery. This is a slightly stronger version of the brown porter, but the deep flavor, creamy mouth-feel, and subtle earthy tones provided by the traditional English hops make this a perfect entry point to the world of darker beers.
Some other options for brown porters:
- Sammuel Smith: Taddy Porter
- Deschutes Brewery: Black Butte Porter
The robust porter is so much more common with American craft brewers that it is sometimes called an “American Porter” or just “porter” and there are so many great examples that it’s tough to pick a favorite. Here are a few of our favorite California-born options:
- Sierra Nevada: Porter: A simple but delicious example that highlights the roasted barley with a distinct caramel sweetness.
- Anchor Brewing: Anchor Porter: Anchor has been brewing this beer for 40 years, and it is a dark-fruit-lovers dream. Chock-full of fig and plum sweetness balanced by very subtle European hops this beer can open your eyes to the different flavors possible in an ale.
- Stone Brewing: Smoked Porter: The titular smoke flavor in this porter is subtle and you never feel like you’re drinking a campfire. The coffee and chocolate notes stand out,and this version is considerably more bitter than the other examples. They occasionally offer a versions with vanilla bean added, and this should not be missed if you have the opportunity to try it.
Baltic Porters and Imperial Porters
Baltic porters are pretty tough to find these days as well, with most examples being produced in Eastern Europe still. Great Divide Brewing makes a smoked version that is lower in alcohol. Much more common today, as part of the overall trend to bigger, stronger beers, is the Imperial Porter. These beers can surpass 10%ABV and the good examples complement the sweet roasted flavor with more hops and a sharper alcohol bite.
- Flying Dog Ales: Gonzo Imperial Porter: This beast of a beer is a tribute to Hunter S Thompson, and it lives up to its name. The 9.2% brew is deceptively easy-drinking with enough hop-bite to balance the intense dark-sugar sweetness.
- Hangar 24: Chocolate Porter: Raw cocoa nibs amp-up the chocolate flavors of this 8% beer, and vanilla beans are added for further the complexity. A fantastic beer to serve at the end of a meal.
- Ballast Point: Victory at Sea: This example uses cold-brewed coffee and vanilla beans and its flavor is very complex and unique. The richness of the flavors and body of the beer mask the 10%ABV and make it’ll sneak up on you if you’re not careful.
As you can see, there are a huge variety of different porters available, and we encourage you to not write-off the style if you’ve only tried one or two examples. If you are looking for something different than your go-to IPAs and that you can have a couple pints of we’d suggest a Fullers or any of the Robust Porter examples above. If you’re looking for a complex beer with strong flavors that will stand-up to food or dessert, then try an Imperial Porter. One thing you should keep in mind is serving temperature: all of these beers taste better after warming up. We recommend drinking them no colder than 50°F, and we think they are even better when closer to 60°F.
Are you a fan of the porter style? Let’s hear about some of your favorites in the comments.