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.
Of all the Baltic porters, Poland has the best variety and the easiest to acquire.
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.