British brewers began “imperializing” ales over 200 years ago. Stout and pale ale were re-formulated as stronger variations designed for export: Imperial stout and India pale ale. Imperial stouts were sent to the relatively nearby Baltic regions as a pure commodity; India pale ale to distant India to gratify British troops.
The beer that emerges from this curious mixture of Olde English tradition, imperial intentions and bottom-fermented metamorphosis, is a robust but soft, formidable brew, with profound depth.
Lesser known among these imperialized brews are the Baltic porters. Fortified porter rode along with its more famous, formidable sibling, stout, into Scandinavia, Russia and Eastern Europe. The increased strength and soothing dark malt was a perfect match for the northern climate, serendipitously popularizing porter and creating a future local market. Baltic porter then evolved further, leaving its British ale roots behind in many cases, as Baltic brewers made their own versions using the prevailing bottom-fermentation and lagering methods. The expatriated brews were still dark and strong, but often came to resemble the strong lagerbiers of Germany.
Baltic porter is undergoing something of a rebirth today, as there is a trend to imperialize many beer styles. Some are brewed to approximate the original British ales, while others are true to the Baltic lager construct.
Along with the isolation and characterization of yeast, the evolution of porter as a style is one of the most compelling and important stories of modern brewing. Baltic porter, almost uniquely, is a wonderful consummation of both events.
Porter of 300 years ago was a blend of beers, combined artfully by private publicans before serving. The task of blending shifted to savvy brewers, the mixture then sold to pubs. The Industrial Age ushered in breweries able to produce massive quantities of beer, essentially flooding Great Britain with the brown brew known as porter.
Strong porters became known as “stout porter,” thanks to Guinness, and later simply as “stout.” They developed side-by-side with porter as distinct beers and later diverged as malting technology allowed brewers to tailor recipes with pale, roasted, black and caramelized malt in the early 19th century, eliminating the blending altogether. Even though paler beers were becoming more popular than porter and stout, the latter styles held on partly due to their appeal in other markets. As England was a powerful maritime merchandiser, export across the cold northern latitudes was easily facilitated.
By the late 18th century, England began exporting its renowned pale ale to India to quench the thirst and keep up the spirits of their troops. Famously known as India pale ale, it was brewed to a higher strength, attenuation and hop bitterness to withstand the trip and prevent spoilage.
Similarly, fortified porters and stouts were shipped to allies in the east. While not a long journey into the Baltic Sea, it is rather treacherous, sprinkled with hundreds of rocky islands and snug straits. The careful journey, made for the purpose of commerce, allowed access to innumerable beer-loving ports along the way in Denmark, Germany, Poland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Western Russia.
No doubt this was a much less detrimental trip to the beer than the one taken to India, as the water was cold and the duration relatively short. The methodical trip may have taken weeks nonetheless, inadvertently resulting in a smooth, essentially cold-conditioned beer once it reached its eastern-most destinations. Coincidentally, this was at a period when lager brewing was becoming more common throughout Europe at large, given the influence of Germany and Bohemia.
The voyage also included intimate contact with the port city Copenhagen, gateway to the Baltic region, and home of the Carlsberg lager brewery, whose owners and brewers essentially invented brewing science. Owner Jacob Christian Jacobsen procured a lager yeast in Vienna, and employed it at his brewery in the mid-1800s. In 1883, Emil Hansen, a scientist working at Carlsberg isolated a single cell of the strain that became known as Saccharomyces carlsbergensis, a name that is still used collectively for lager yeast. This brush with Copenhagen may not have directly or immediately influenced the future of England’s strong exported porters, but nevertheless was a symbolic foreshadowing of their evolution.