Porter & Stout
Porters and stouts are two common beer styles which you have probably heard of, but what are they and how do they differ? To answer these questions we first need to look at which one came first, the answer to which is definitely the porter:
The porter is a type of dark beer which first touched taste buds in the 1700s; it built London’s largest breweries, quenched the thirsts of America’s revolutionaries, and travelled the world, adapting itself as it went. To this day, the porter is still a beer style which is well-known and respected amongst beer drinkers across the world, despite the fact we’re not exactly sure what it tasted like in its prime.
These days, the best porters are well balanced and aromatic, possessing large notes of rich chocolate along with hints of coffee, caramel, nuts, and at times a slight smokiness, they usually come with a dry, or even slightly acidic, finish.
The porter was originally popular amongst the working classes, from which it gets its name; porters at the time were strongmen for hire, who would transport shipments of produce, fish, and dry goods on their backs from merchant storehouses to London’s public markets. Over time, its popularity spread across the land and for most of the 1700s, the porter reigned as the beer of choice in England. As such it became big business, with porter production reaching its peak in the 1820s. Around this time in Ireland, too, the original brown porter of London became a popular beer. As brewing techniques improved throughout the Industrial Revolution in England in the 19th century, so did the porter. Now porters could be brewed using pale malt, with the newly invented black malt used for flavour and colour. Technological advances also allowed brewers to experiment more, and some porters began to be brewed stronger. These beers were referred to as “stout porters”, the precursor to the modern stout.
The stout really started coming into its own when Guinness exploded onto the scene and as people fell in love with its rich creaminess, the porter started to fall away. By the early 20th century, stouts were seen as a completely separate beer style, with porters coming to mean a dark malt liquor, produced partly from brown or black malt with 4-5% alcohol. Whilst stouts referred to a stronger porter, containing more dissolved solids and an alcohol content around 6-7%.
Only in the last few decades has the porter made a return, particularly in North America, where the beer is now a reputable, nearly gentrified, craft beer style, far from what it once was. Nowadays most modern craft brewers take porter to have more chocolate and coffee-like flavours compared to brown ales, but less than a stout. Most keep to a medium strength, usually under 6% ABV, with many British varieties coming in even lower than that. In addition, modern porters can even be dry hopped, commonly with very un-English Pacific Northwest hop varieties, and such beers may be labeled as American porters.
Today, the stout contains many different types, the most common of which is the Irish dry stout, popularized by Guinness. Regardless of the dark colour, draught Irish stout is a rather light style, not often exceeding 4% alcohol. Another common stout is the oatmeal stout, in which oatmeal is added, producing in a richer, smoother mouthfeel with a full head. There is also the sweet stout, or milk stout as it is also known, this is brewed with the addition of lactose.
All of these subtypes are generally characterised by their dark colour, which is usually an opaque deep brown or black, along with a distinct roasted character which is commonly sensed as dark chocolate or coffee. Both of these traits stem from the use of roasted grains which is used to brew this style of beer. Traditional English stout recipes depend on bitterness resulting from the roasted grain to deliver a dry finish and therefore generally display little hop character. American craft-brewed versions on the other hand usually have a much stronger hop presence with less reliance on the roasted grain.
So we now know that the two styles are closely related, with the stout evolving from the porter. But what are the key differences? Well the line between these two styles is without a doubt blurred. The porter has changed so much in its nearly 3 centuries of existence, to be frank, its current form is not all too different from a stout. With modern craft brewers now brewing porters which are stronger than most commercial stouts, yet classifying them as porters, meaning that the distinction is becoming less and less clear. Nowadays, the only real distinction which can be made between the two is the presence/amount of malted barley, with porters making use of malted barley and stouts being produced using unmalted roasted barley, which is where the coffee flavour most people relate with stout comes from.
|Buzzwords||Dark Malts, Coffee, Chocolate||Dark, Burnt, Roasted|
|Appearance||Medium brown to very dark brown/almost black. Can have ruby highlights.||Jet black. Dark brown is also acceptable, usually opaque.|
|Aroma & Flavour||Strong malt flavour featuring a lightly burnt character with chocolate and/or coffee flavours. Dark malt dryness present in the finish. A good porter avoids clashing of the hops and the malt.||Moderate to strong aroma of roasted malts, usually with roasted coffee or dark chocolate quality. Medium to low hop aroma.|
- (Not making sense? This will help.)
Almost jet black, this is one of the most famous modern porters around. Roasted grains, chocolate with burnt toffee, this comes alive in your mouth, rich in flavour and texture with noticeable bitterness.
A light milk chocolate taste with a sweet malt finish, this porter is one of Sierra Nevada’s most popular beers, with herbal hints which persist over the malt. This is cleared up in the end by sufficient hop bitterness to produce a well-balanced, classic porter.
Appears dark brown as you pour, but jet black in the glass, this porter is a bit more traditional. Earthy hops and burnt caramel flavours hit you initially, these are later offset by a fair bit of bittering.
Pours dark brown with a thick tan head which produces very nice lacing. Taste is particularly rich and very smooth, stout silver medal winner in 1988 and 89. Has very pronounced roasted flavours.
A 6% ABV oatmeal stout, packed full of dark roasted coffee and chocolate aromas, combined with dark fruit. A husky malt presence is definitely there, alongside a fair bit of hop flavour and bitterness, with an almost creamy mouthfeel.
Black in appearance, noticeable coffee and smoke aroma straight after the pour. This is followed up in the flavour with smoke, roasted malts and some slight charcoal coming to the fore, with a medium body.
Did you know?
When the porter trade was at its peak, some of the vats used were so large that breweries would organise promotional dinners for their clients inside them when they were empty. The world’s largest wooden fermenter at the time could hold around 32,500 hl (around 715,000 gallons) and was built by the Meux brewery. Unfortunately, in October 1814, one of these ginormous vats unexpectedly burst, unleashing a charging river of porter to onto the nearby streets, causing mass devastation and leading to the deaths of eight people as a result of drowning, building damage or by alcohol poisoning from the seemingly free beer supply in the gutter!
Other Important Varieties
The number of other important porter varieties is far less than for the stout, which seems strange seeing as the stout evolved from the porter. Nevertheless, the best known porter variety is the Baltic porter. Originally brewed for the Baltic trade, this is a stronger version of porter, which is still made in various countries around the Baltic Sea, such as Finland, Sweden, and Estonia. In flavour, they may seem like less roasty stouts and in strength they are close to barley wines, at 7% alcohol and above. For this reason they are clearly designed for sipping rather than gulping and are often cold fermented with lager yeasts.
For the stout, the list is much larger, with oatmeal stouts, milk stouts and imperial stouts all being popular varieties still brewed and enjoyed today. As discussed earlier, the oatmeal stout involves the addition of oatmeal, producing a richer, smoother mouthfeel and head. Usually using around 30% oats which are added during the brewing process, these stouts don’t often taste like oats, the inclusion is simply for the improved texture.
The milk stout, also discussed earlier, is brewed with the addition of lactose. Lactose is a form of sugar and therefore these stouts have additional sweetness. But wouldn’t this sugar be broken down by the yeast during fermentation and converted into alcohol? No, because yeast is incapable of breaking down this form of sugar, meaning it persists through the brewing process.
Lastly we have the imperial stout, first brewed in England for Emperor Peter the Great of Russia; it is now popular among craft brewers, predominantly in the United States. These stouts are typified by an alcohol content above 8%, with the best examples being full bodied, particularly rich, and complex. Most are accompanied by other flavours and aromas, such as dried fruit, coffee, and dark chocolate.