Porter today is far different from original, but not unlike those of almost 200 years ago. Black malt is the defining feature. The style guidelines used to critique beer, segregates porter into two styles true to the historical brews, those being either brown or robust porters. A third designation, Baltic Porters, are strong derivatives of porter and stout that were exported to Baltic and Eastern European regions. Most of the Baltics are bottom-fermented, but the Scandinavian versions are truly robust porters. Robust porters are far and away the most common of the three.
Being an ale, porter grists start with a sturdy backbone of pale ale or 2-row malt. English brewers have at their convenience some of the finest pale malt. The full-bodied, chewy quality of this malt is a perfect compliment for the specialty malts that embellish the character of porter. Even the lower-strength versions seem formidable. North American brewers most often go with 2-row that is grown throughout the heart of The United States and Canada. A fine malt in its own right, 2-row may be a bit lighter in character, but it also allows the specialty malts to be the headliner. In fact, it is the multitude of specialty malts that make porters unique relative to both one another and other styles. While a stout relies heavily on roasted barley, porters showcase black patent malt. This is not to say that a porter doesn’t contain some roasted barley though. Chocolate malt is more commonly found in porter versus stout. Body-building crystal or caramel malt adds a bit of sweetness and mouthfeel. Even Munich-style malts are used to give more malty complexity. Some adventurous modern brewers are going the historical route and using a modicum of brown or amber malt. The distinction between brown and robust porters may be blurred at times, but if one must pigeonhole, it could be said that a robust porter is generally deep red-black, slightly higher in strength, and relies more on black malt. A brown porter is indeed deep brown, features a chocolately forefront, and is slightly lower in alcohol. Alchohol by volume for all porters is generally between 4.0 and 5.5%, although some American versions can run up into 6 % or better, with a few “imperial” porters figuring into the mix also.
Porters are also intriguing because of their hop complexity. English brewers tend to stick to Fuggles and East Kent Goldings, but Target, Challenger, Northdown, and Progress are also used. They are hopped for balance. Americans might opt for English hops as a historical nod, but most put a stamp of their own on the beer. High-alpha acid hops like Centennial and Chinook are often evident in the background, and flavor and aroma hops present that familiar panoply of resinous, citrusy, and piney notes. Cascade, Mt. Hood, Crystal, Liberty, and Willamette are as at home in porters as they are in pale ales and are often as hoppy. Some of the subtleties of the hops might get lost in the deep-colored malts, but the marriage add depth and smoothness. In fact, porter can have a more rounded profile than some of the paler ales. It is not unusual to find a porter featuring 5 different malts and 4 or 5 different hops. Comparing American and London porters are like the proverbial apple vs. orange contrast, well-made ones of either are similar but distinctive enough for any beerhead.
Yeast choice adds a another subtle divergence among the porters. English yeasts tend to have a fairly strong influence, and accentuate the malt character of the brew, besides giving the brew that distinctive British character. Those brewed in America lean towards a cleaner yeast for the most part that minimizes the estery or fruity notes. The yeast does its job and then disappears, pushing the malt and hop character to the forefront. Some American yeasts do contribute some character, but compared to its British counterparts, quite subtley.
Porters are very common in both CAMRA-recommended real ale venues, and in brewpubs and microbreweries in the United States. They are, because of modest strength and complexity, a perfect brew to present as a real ale. Many outstanding English porters are exported, with some being brown porters.
On this side of the pond, porters might not be as favored as stouts, but are nevertheless, ubiquitous. Edmund Fitzgerald Porter from Great Lakes Brewing Co. is a cut above most. Most well-known micros produce outstanding porters that are easy to find, and almost any of your regional favorites no doubt offers one. Among the favorite styles of the brewers, it is almost always made with a high degree of proficiency. Porter is experimented with regularly. Smoked versions from Alaskan, Rogue, and Stone showcase the versatility of specialty porter. Mad River Brewings Scotch Porter uses both Scottish peated malt and German rauch malt in a burly, well-balanced porter. Highland Brewing’s Oatmeal Porter exploits the silky quality of oatmeal to enhance the smoothness. All of these fall on the robust side of the ledger.
For sheer versatility, porters are hard to beat, offering sturdiness on the one hand, drinkablility on the other. They can be the epitome of balance, or a dark beer for hopheads. The range of flavors in porter are almost unparalleled, and have as complex a malt and hop bill as any beer. Soothing enough for cold weather, modest enough for warm, porters may still take a back seat to stout, but they occupy the driver’s seat for many.