Brewing Baltic Porter
Our beloved porter has seen it all. It went from the rough-hewn, smoky seminal macrobrew in early 18th-century England, to the first truly international beer in the 19th century, to near extinction in the 1970s, all in a span of 250 years. It was thankfully resurrected by CAMRA and American microbrewers in the 1970s. Today, “porter” is rather diverse, with English and American prototypes; plain, robust and imperial versions; and most enigmatic of all, Baltic porter. Baltic porter is rooted firmly in the heyday of English brewing, but tailored to the circumstances and bottom-fermentation methods of Baltic and Continental European brewers. Unique among porters, they often use atypical ingredients, though those are easily obtained. Fermentation requires some forethought, as always, but nothing unusual. Baltic porter is something of a hybridized beer style, impressive brews that are well worth investigating.
The mighty British beer exporters of the 18th century are famous for “inventing” the global India pale ale. Truth be known, porter was also shipped to the tropics. These visions of ships boldly navigating treacherous maritime conditions to exotic ports over several months with cargo eagerly anticipated by thirsty legions of expatriates craving casks of perfectly matured ale are romantic indeed. Many of those brewers also shipped their wares closer to home, with one coveted market to the east in Scandinavia, Russia and Eastern Europe. People of these cool regions preferred the darker, sweeter beers of London and Burton to the dry and hoppy IPA, favored in the subcontinent. Strong renditions of porter and stout were a natural for these northern markets. The relatively short, tempered trip left the product much like that which left port in England. The cold waters provided optimal conditions below deck, a smoothing, lagering period of sorts. And, unlike India, the climate afforded relatively long storage times once delivered. Bottom-fermentation and cold-conditioning were the norm here, influenced by brewing pioneers in Bohemia, Austria, Germany and Denmark. Logically, these imported beers were eventually made locally, which in turn changed the style from London/Burton beer to lager-inspired Baltic porter. Naturally, local hops and malt were used, defining the Baltic style, and further separating it from its English ancestors.
Strong and Sturdy
The style in a nutshell can be described as a deep-brown, malt-accented, strong and rich beer, smooth, with a full body and velvety mouthfeel. There are notes of licorice, molasses, raisin, malted milk, chocolate and toffee, with subdued roast. Doppelbock meets old ale meets schwarzbier. Complexity is a keynote, and easily achieved through a careful selection of specialty and base malts. The malt or extract recipe need not be too complicated, as these flavorful specialty malts will carry the load. The full body is easily achieved via mash temperature, specialty body builders and proper attenuation to attain the signature opulence. Caramelized malts such as dark crystal and Caramunich are a must. Extra dark crystal (120°L), Special B (180°L) and CaraAroma (130°L) will add those subtle notes listed of toffee, raisin and molasses mentioned above. Aromatic malt (which must be mashed) will provide exceptional maltiness, as will a measure of Munich malt in the base, along with Vienna and pilsner malt. Extract brewers can use Munich or amber malt extract, alone or in conjunction with light malt extract to get the same effect. For an historical, more brusque edge, try a little amber or brown malt, but no more than 20 percent. Baltic porters are not black as most porters are, but do need a little bit of roasted character to make them authentic. Debittered roasted malt is best, but roasted barley or black patent will do in a pinch. Keep them at 3 percent of the grist, or about 6 oz. in a 5-gallon extract batch. Chocolate malt can be used in similar measure. For experimental purposes, try some rye, oats or wheat to add silkiness, or even a little rauchmalz (smoked malt) in a mash. Licorice or anise character comes from the dark malt, but certainly brewing licorice, star anise or molasses can be added. Be judicious, since those are powerful additives. Star anise is an especially excellent match with porter in my experience. ABV levels in commercial examples range from 5.5 to 9.0 percent, with most around 7 to 8, or roughly an OG of 1.070 to 1.080.
Hops are used at medium-to-low IBU rates, so decide if you want the malt to shine or exhibit more balance. Be reminded that even 35 IBU in an 8 percent ABV, malty beer might not be that noticeable. I generally go with 30 to 35 IBUs to satisfy my malt fetish. Northern Brewer, Perle and German Magnum are excellent for bittering, with traditional lager hops like Saaz, Hallertauer and Tetnanger adding an authentic touch for aroma, usually kept at a bare minimum. American hops with German pedigree such as Liberty, Mt. Hood and Crystal are also fine options for bittering and aroma, especially if you want to make a “New World” Baltic porter. Earthy varieties like East Kent Goldings, Styrian Goldings or Fuggles are certainly worth a shot also throughout the boil, especially for historical Anglo-porters.
Since Baltic porters are primarily made with bottom-fermenting yeasts nowadays, choose Bohemian (my preference) or Munich-style yeast (one suited for doppelbock) for that strategy. Top-fermented Baltic porters are found primarily in Scandinavia, and there are numerous yeast options for that preference. Choose one that is neutral and cool-tolerant to avoid ester production. Kölsch or altbier yeast may be a little too attenuative for this style (but not out of the question), but European ale yeast such as Wyeast 1338 or White Labs WLP011 favors production of the malty, full-bodied Baltic porter. California/San Fransisco lager yeast is also a smart choice. The very popular American ale yeast Wyeast1056 or White Labs WLP001 would work well here, as would a Scottish ale strain. All of those are ester-neutral if used properly, and will ferment vigorously at 55 degrees. In any case, read the specs carefully for any yeast that you choose. Cold-conditioning should be done with any of the yeasts chosen. Four weeks should do the trick, but six or eight is even better. Remember, smooth and malty is the hallmark of Baltic porter.
These are outstanding winter and holiday beers, and something to consider brewing this fall. This winter, enjoy the cool, smooth, and soothing pleasure of Baltic porter, and think about how your hobby makes elegance so simple.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning homebrewer and general hobbyist who thinks there is no more sublime marriage than that of art and science.