Porter: The Most Misunderstood Style of Beer

Porters

L-R: Maine Beer Co.’s King Titus, Pretty Things’ Once Upon a Time 1855, Harviestoun’s Old Engine Oil, Salopian Brewery’s Entire Butt, and D. Carnegie & Co.’s Porter.

Poor porter.

If there was a contest for most misunderstood beer style, the woebegone porter would probably win. IPA’s are perennial favorites, stouts are synonymous with winter, but porters are the forgotten little brother, constantly fighting for attention and respect.

A quick scan of beer literature (don’t worry, I did it for you) reveals a mess of confusion about exactly what the difference is between porters and stouts. A little more reading and you start to get to the bottom of it: there is no clearly delineated difference – in fact, it’s often in the eye of the beholder.

There’s even debate over the origin on the name porter. The most popular story is that porters were first brewed sometime in the 1700s for transportation workers, hence the name “porter.” Some say the porter began as a blend of different styles of beers poured into a single barrel. The mixed style was sometimes colloquially called whole cask or “entire butt.”

To sum up the two styles up in a nutshell, porters are darker beers, characterized by pale malt flavors (toasty, caramel, mild coffee) and low to moderate hop bitterness. Stouts are almost always roastier, darker, higher in alcohol, and heavier in body. Stouts have little or no noticeable hop character while porters feature hops more prominently.

I love a good stout – they’re some of the best beers I’ve ever had – but, in my humble opinion porters are more drinkable, a better year-round brew, and easier to pair with dinner.

In a bid to win back your affections for this underrated style, I’ve brought a few porters into our Cambridge shop that I’m pretty excited about. Here they are, in no particular order:

Salopian Brewery’s Entire Butt – Shrewsbury England (4.8% ABV)

This is a really great example of what a classic porter supposedly tasted like. The brewer mixes a whopping 14 different malts and three hop varieties to produce a big, dark brown, beer that’s popping with complex aromas of coffee, toffee, and subtle chocolate. The malts are well-balanced by mild hop intensity.

D. Carnegie & Co.’s Porter – Stockholm, Sweden (5.5% ABV)

One of the more stout-like porters on our shelf, this inky black brew is on the thicker side and full of dry mocha, dark burnt raisin, and subtle dark bread flavors. This porter was first brewed in 1835 and at one point its relative strength meant it was only available by prescription at Swedish pharmacies. This is also apparently a great aging beer, with aficionados reporting it gets better and better up to and beyond 10 years.

Harviestoun’s Old Engine Oil – Alva, Scotland (6% ABV)

Named after the viscous engine oil Harviestoun’s founder worked with while developing engine prototypes for Ford, Old Engine Oil is an extremely black brew with a boatload of flavor to boot. The beer boasts a delightful creaminess, with toasty undertones and a nice malt backbone. The first time I drank it, it screamed malted milkshake. It seems like a great candidate for a beer float. I’ll let you know how that works out.

Pretty Things’ Once Upon a Time 1855 – Westport, MA (6% ABV)

Back State-side, we have a wonderful porter from our friends at Pretty Things, a tenant brewer currently doing their thing in Westport, MA. The bottles on our shelves were actually brewed in November 2012 so they should be even better than when they were first bottled.

This particular beer was part of their Once Upon a Time series which featured beers brewed as they would have been in a particular place, at a particular time. The beer was brewed according to an English brewer’s recipe from Dec. 6 1855. The result? A surprisingly hoppy porter with subtly smoky malts.

Maine Beer Co.’s King Titus – Freeport, ME (7.5% ABV)

This is a pretty high on the alcohol end of the spectrum for a porter, but we’re going to give them the benefit of the doubt that it’s not a stout. The brew boasts a relatively heavy mouth-feel with plenty of chocolate and roasty flavors. As with most of Maine Beer Co.’s brews it’s well balanced by the hops.

Teddy Applebaum is the Beer Buyer and BBQ Grillmaster (as well as part-time cheesemonger and chef) at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.

  • tim

    London Porter by Red Squirrel Brewery is great example of the style. Well worth seeking out!