It's about the beer
Gina Miller and Bill Keeper
Hey Bill, I found myself at our special watering hole and saw they had Smuttynose Robust
Porter on tap. Come on now, why not just call it a stout? This is not a new topic in the beer
world but the question usually is what's the difference between a porter and a stout, not a
"robust porter". And now while I'm asking, could you tellme what the heck is the difference
between an imperial porter and a stout? I had a Flying Dog Imperial Porter yesterday and it
was a great stout!
Of course I know the accepted theory is that the term "stout" derived from requests for "a stout
porter," Porters may have come first but to me stouts have always seemed like a best friend’s
older brother: mysterous, dark, and brooding, yet surprisingly mild and low in alcohol content.
The porter, on the other hand, seems like the neighborhood prankster, you know, he's there
ready to pull off a practical joke but you never can catch on before you fall for it.
Most people can name a stout or two that they enjoy, but coming up with a short list of porters
is always more difficult. Few porters enjoy the popularity or ubiquity of a Guinness or a
Murphy’s. I understand that to the beer judging professional a stout features a predominance
of roasted flavors, in contrast to a porter’s overtly hoppy and caramel flavors, but to most of us
who just love beer, the distinction, especially with "robust porters" is a little vague. To be polite
let me say that the differences are...... subtle.
Recently I've noticed the revival of beers being called porter and upon inspection saw that
even the different in alcoholic strength between those and stouts has vanished. Many brewers
are currently making “stouts” that are weaker than their “porters”. As for me, I don’t believe it’s
at all possible to draw a line and state there is a huge difference between most of the dark
beers being brewed today: It's impossible to strictly say “everything over here is a stout and
everything over there is a porter.” You can’t even draw a couple of meaningful Venn diagram
circles and label one stout and the other porter: in terms of strength, ingredients, flavor and
appearance )with the exception of “milk stouts”).
I suspect that when a brewer brews something today he or she calls “stout” it is simply meant
to mean that it will be a dark beer while if it is named “porter”, the beer is very probably only
meant as a nod at an idea of authenticity but nothing more.
Next time I'm in a pub maybe I should just say give me a "dark beer" since the rest doesn't
seem to matter much to today's brewers.
That's it from me, chug-a-lug, Bill.....see you next month.
Gina, why do you always seem to make me disagree with you? After all, I don't like being right all
the time. Ha. First let me tell you that when I brew I would never put roast barley in a porter...and
I would never make a stout without it. So there's difference number one.
I went back to some of my beer history books and found that in the latter half of the 18th century
and the first part of the 19th century, stout, more particularly brown stout, was simply the name
for the strongest version of porter. By the mid 1800s brewers' recipes for porter and stout began
to diverge – but the stouts were now getting less patent malt than the porters and more brown
malt ,making the stouts sweeter and less dry than the weaker porters.
In general porters are dry, with more intense malt and hop flavors than stouts. The great Michael
Jackson defined stout as an extra-dark, almost black, top-fermenting brew, made with highly
roasted malts. In porters you'll likely find some spice and chocolate notes and a slight
sweetness. They can be well hopped, ranging from bitter to mild bitterness with a color that
ranges from brown to black.
It doesn't get more official than the BJCP style guidelines and they list three distinctive types of
porters (no, stout is not one of them) - robust porter, brown porter, and Baltic porter. If you think
porters taste exactly like stouts and stouts taste like porters I don't think you'll ever pass their test.
Try this taste test. Get a porter and stout from the same brewery and see if you can tell the
difference. I guarantee you be able to tell the Founders' (or any other major craft brewery) stout
from their porter. Do that for four or five breweries and you'll soon develop you own definition of
each style so you'll never have to suffer the indignity of simply ordering "a dark beer".
Now that I've helped you see the difference, how about telling me how you a porter and a stout
differs from a schwarzbier? That should keep you busy until next month's article.
Here's looking at you, kid! See you next month.