Few beers fit the season like a Baltic porter does winter and early spring. Siblings of the Imperial stouts, Baltic porters emanate from a swath of countries from Sweden to Poland, wending around the Baltic crescent and deep into eastern Europe. Descendants of the lineage of British porter exports in the 18th century, they range in color from mahogany red to inky dark, and pack a substantial dose of flavor and alcohol. These strong beers can approach barley wines in fortitude, Imperial stouts in complexity, and liqueurs in after-dinner contentment value.
Baltic porters are deep, dense and thoughtful beers. As they borrow much from other, more familiar styles, they have many layers of flavors. Sweet, soothing maltiness akin to the finest German bocks is present. Rummy, raisin and licorice notes similar to an old ale reside in the profile. The character also has hints of chocolate and coffee, and at times, a roasted background. All co-mingle into a smooth, silky flavor that is contemplative but robust. Hops rates are noticeable in the dark versions but understated in the lighter-colored ones. Satisfying indeed.
The Baltic porter brewers have borrowed style and technology from Germany, England and the Czech Republic, creating a somewhat hybridized category of strong beer. Some Baltic porters are top fermented and true to their roots, but others, unlike the porters of London, are bottom fermented, producing a soft roundness in the beer. These brews range from 5.5 percent to over 9 percent ABV.
Baltic porters share some traditions and characteristics with Imperial stouts, and at times are almost indistinguishable from them. These two styles do, in fact, have a common origin and traceable history. British breweries of the 18th and 19th centuries were famous for their stouts and porters. Seeking to expand markets and satisfy allies to the east, the British exported their dark ales to northern ports by way of the Baltic Sea, touching Scandinavia, Finland, the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia, western Russia, and continental European port cities. These export ales were made stronger and hoppier than normal, which enabled them to endure the voyage. The extra alcoholic strength was no doubt a welcome attribute in those countries with harsh winters and a taste for the robust.
With distribution routes by both land and sea, it wasn’t long before Imperial stouts and strong porters made their way into many markets, from the northern port cities into landlocked eastern Europe. The style’s far-reaching appeal convinced many local breweries to make house versions. To this day, each region gives its porter a distinct stylistic interpretation. The farther one gets from England, the less these beers resemble the originals.
Generally speaking, Slavic and Baltic breweries produce strong porters as bottom-fermented lagers that resemble bocks in strength and flavor. Scandinavian brewers use top fermentation and their porters retain the dark roasted malt character.
Traveling through Porterland
The port cities of Sweden are a relatively short sail from Britain and thus provided a convenient and lucrative market for the British export ales. The first porter brewery in Sweden was established in 1791 by Brit William Knox in Gothenburg.
D. Carnegie and Co., Sweden’s largest brewery, produces the Baltic porter that most resembles the original porters of London. This holdover brew, called Stark Porter, is a gem. Like a London porter, it is of moderate strength, deep black, and top fermented. It is available throughout North America.
If ever there were a country where a strong, dark beer would be most comforting, Finland would be it. It is a country that combines quaint, rustic traditions with a progressive outlook to the future. Finland produces a porter in the Baltic style that is a bit stronger, rich and roasty, and still top fermented in the London tradition. It is produced by the Sinebrychoff brewery of Helsinki.
Like Sweden, Finland has had many restrictive and antiquated brewing laws over the years. Thankfully, many of these laws have now been discarded. Sinebrychoff, or simply “Koff,” takes advantage of this loosening by producing its strong Baltic porter. The beer has been brewed since 1957, and its revival pays tribute to the London-style exports of yesteryear. Could there be a better way to finish off a sauna than with a restorative Koff on a brisk evening? Finland is enjoying an enthusiastic rebirth of interest in craft beers. Both domestic and imports are featured at the very popular Helsinki Beer Festival, now in its fifth year.
Estonia has been brewing beer of some sort for over a thousand years. The first written reference to beer in what is now Estonia dates to 1284. In modern times, political unrest left the country’s brewing industry somewhat shaky until quite recently. Estonia’s brewing industry was in terrible shape just 10 years ago, but two old breweries, Saku and Tartu, founded in the early part of the 19th century, have recovered nicely. The country now boasts a couple of world-class breweries that produce potent and flavorful porters.
New legions of craft beer drinkers in Estonia can now enjoy several strong, bottom-fermented specialties from Saku and Tartu. The porters are hard to come by, but shouldn’t be passed up if available. Both the Tartu and Saku porters are noticeably influenced by central European lager brewing traditions even though the country lies very close to Finland. They resemble the strong lagers of Germany in many ways, and lack some of the roasty character of their ancestor, London porter.
Poland’s Stellar Selection
Of all the Baltic porters, Poland has the best variety and the easiest to acquire, perhaps owing to the country’s brewing history and geographic location. The middle of the 19th century is generally regarded as a watershed for refined brewing technology. Chief among these advances was a more thorough understanding of bottom fermentation and lager beer production, which became the standard method in Germany, Bohemia and Austria. Polish breweries adopted this lager technology from their neighbors (much of Poland was actually under German and Austrian control during this period).
Today, there are roughly 80 active breweries in Poland. They primarily brew pale lagers, similar to German and Czech pilsners, and dark lagers that remind one of a Munich dunkel. Several breweries produce excellent strong porters. These are the truly hybridized versions of the Baltic style, and because of the bottom fermentation, the mellowest.
Be wary; they are the strongest as well, reaching 9.1 percent ABV. Rich with licorice or molasses character and a wonderful maltiness, they are not unlike doppelbocks from Germany. The roasted character is subdued, which allows the malt to shine through, and the brews take on the deep mahogany color of a dark lager.
Poland also has a fairly significant hop-growing region, producing fine Lubulin hops that naturally find their way into some of the porters, adding yet another unique, local and delicious touch.
Eastern European beers are somewhat in vogue these days, so pay attention to the selection at your package store, as some of these beers may crop up due to demand. Versions from Okocim, Zywiec, Kozlak and Dojlidy are available in some markets. All are delicious and well worth exploring.
Whether your idea of enjoying winter is a tough day on the slopes or an evening with a crackling fire, comfort food and a good movie, Baltic porters are just the remedy to warm your spirit. As the snow melts and you switch to lighter beers, cache your leftovers and look forward to next winter.
Carnegie Stark PorterABV: 5.5
Tasting Notes: Located near Stockholm, Sweden, this brewery was founded in the 1830s by Scotsman D. Carnegie, originally in Gothenburg, and its porter has been brewed since 1836. Stark Porter measures in at 5.5 percent ABV. Deep black and dry, in most respects is very reminiscent of the premium porters of London. Rich, smooth and well balanced with a light molasses and coffee character, it pours with a sustaining, thick head. The bottles are vintage dated and can keep for several years. This top-fermented brew is a throwback to Sweden's early brewing era.
Sinebrychoff PorterABV: 7.2
Tasting Notes: Brewed in Helsinki, Finland, by the country's oldest surviving brewery, founded in 1819 by Russian Nikolai Sinebrychoff. It is believed that "Koff" has been a porter brewery since its inception. Substantial in strength at 7.2 percent ABV, the brew is malty, with a nice bitter, roasty finish. Black as night, with a long-lasting creamy brown head. This beer survived Finnish prohibition.
Utenos PorterABV: 6.8
Tasting Notes: A beer new to the US import market from the Utenos brewery in Utena, Lithuania. Utenos porter is the softest of them all. It has a round, malty caramel flavor and aroma and measures just 6.8 percent ABV, but is quite robust. It displays a beautiful crystal-clear garnet color and is bottom fermented. The flavor is rich, full bodied, and ultra smooth. The brewery proudly proclaims, "This beer has been admired by connoisseurs for many years. Utenos porter offers exceptional indulgence." They are justified in making such a claim.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is a research analyst at Duke University in Durham, NC, and an award-winning homebrewer.