Porter in all its forms may be one of the more misunderstood and underappreciated of all beer styles. Common porter was the dominant brew on the planet during the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries, bringing rock-star fortunes to the beer barons of London and great beer to a global clientele. Porter was sent to the East Indies well before India pale ale, and it was just as revered in the Baltic regions as it was at home.
The heartiest forms of the style survive today as Baltic and imperial porters. These two porter progeny represent a harkening to British maritime roots as well as a Continental modification. Siblings to the more famous imperial stouts, the strong porters became templates for brewers in Scandinavia, Russia and Poland and adapted to local brewing practices and preferences. Some versions are bottom-fermented, others top, and they range from malty brown to roasty black.
Porter was initially developed as a strong, aged, hoppy version of the sweet brown ales that dominated London during the early 18th century. The generous hop levels (making it beer rather than ale) and seasoned “stale” character offered a welcomed counterpoint to London browns. Porter was also brewed to compete with upstart pale ales. Both porter and London brown ale were made with brown, or blown, malt, cured over wood fires, a rugged, smoky product that was cheaper than pale malt.
Porter was brewed from a blend of successive mashings and was actually known as entire-butt beer, or simply “entire,” for the first few decades of its existence, “butt” being the 108-gallon cask used for storage. The maturation period of several months to a full year tamed the rough, smoky edge, but also unleashed the wild vinous and tart flavors from the wooden butts and their native microflora.
Entire became the beer of choice for the laboring class and acquired the slang “porter,” as it was so favored by the street and dock workers known by that name, many of whom loaded ships destined for Indian, Australian and Baltic ports. The hops and requisite beneficial aging ensured that it would arrive shipshape.
The Baltic fleets visited numerous ports along the coastal bays and inlets, many of which had established routes inland. This voyage may have been advantageous to the beer, as the conditions were cold and the duration relatively short, resulting in what was essentially a congenial period of cool, cellarlike conditioning. Baltic markets were particularly fond of the strongest porters (stout porter) and in return, would send oak for vessels and isinglass for finings back to Britain. The two materials were essential for production of fine ale, porter and stout.
The Russians concluded that it was nigh impossible to brew porter or stout without water from the River Thames, so the import of those brews was deemed critical. The empress herself insisted on a sustained supply for her and her court. Even when the Russian government imposed a tariff on nearly all British commodities in 1822, porter and stout were exempt, keeping the empress happy.
The brewing industry back in Britain was as robust and far-reaching as ever, especially for those who included these “imperial” dark beers among their offerings. Since the newly invented (1817) and patented black malt was still not in wide use, nor wholly embraced by London brewers, these dark beers were mostly brewed with copious proportions of brown malt.
“Imperial” also came into common usage as a means to designate a brewer’s strongest beer rather than something specifically made for the Russian court. Imperial stout, imperial stout porter, imperial London stout and imperial brown porter were a few of the descriptive names that brewers gave their products in advertisements. The extra designation of “Russian” was routinely attached in the early 20th century to market these creations.
The beers came from Yorkshire, Scotland, Burton (in Staffordshire) and Dublin, but London unequivocally had the best brewers for these because of experience, conditions and raw materials, especially Thames water. By the mid-19th century, roasted barley became a fairly common ingredient and helped create the pedigree for subsequent porters and stouts. Baltic, and especially imperial, porters would not be themselves today without noticeable additions of roast.
All of this explains how the Baltic regions fell in love with the strong porters and stouts of the 18th and 19th centuries, but doesn’t account for the actual brewing of porter in those regions. There were many breweries already in place: from Scandinavia, around the Baltic Russian rim and into Eastern Europe, many of which were poised to cash in on the love for porter.
The conditions were certainly different, being decidedly colder in northern and eastern environs, as were the brewing techniques, being heavily influenced by German bottom fermentation, especially on the Continent. This is where the Baltic style of porter really began to take shape.
Centuries of brewing in different regions of Europe meant that the yeast was selected over time to match the conditions of the brewery. Scandinavian yeast was different from that in Britain, which was different again from that of Estonia and Poland. Continental barley varieties differed from the British maritime cultivars, as did the malt, tailored specifically for the regional styles there.
The first Baltic brewery to specialize in porter was opened by Nikolai Sinebrychoff in Helsinki, Finland, in 1819. Its excellent porter is still made today, a remnant of the English imperial version with loads of roasted character and a base of kilned lager malts and German and Czech hops.
The Le Coq brewery was also opened in the early part of that century, in Tartu, in what is now Estonia. That site was selected because the water was deemed an excellent substitute for Thames water, the single most elusive and essential ingredient. Its beer relied even less on black or roasted barley, and tended to feature the toasty kilned malts favored by German and Austrian brewers. Those are also bottom-fermented and fully lagered, making for a rounded, bocklike profile.
Coincidentally, the early to mid-19th century was the period in which bottom fermentation and lagering were becoming the norm, as was the fine-tuning of malt production and scientific brewing techniques. This made for a perfect storm in the development of Baltic porter.
In the United States, brewers make the British- and Continental-inspired versions and will generally designate them as imperial or Baltic porters. Generally speaking of European versions, Scandinavian porters resemble those of London imperial pedigree, with a firm roasted presence and top fermentation, while those brewing to the east and south (Estonia, Lithuania and Poland) are similar to the über-malty doppelbocks, with a touch of roast and bottom fermentation. All are roughly 7 to 9.5 percent ABV, with modest to minimal hop presence.
Baltic porters tend to be the tamer of the two styles, but are uncompromisingly deep. They are a brilliant composite of English brewing tradition, intrepid commercial savvy and regional, stylistic metamorphosis. Much of the complexity comes from use of Continental malts such as the kilned Munich or Vienna types for that malty base, as well as dark character malts that contribute notes of raisin, molasses, caramel and licorice. The reserved measure of roasted barley lends a deep reddish-black color as the norm.
Imperial porters rely on a heavier dose of roasted barley or black malt. Fermentation byproducts are usually somewhat muted, without much estery character, a result of subdued fermentation temperature and yeast selection. It is a perfect strategy to showcase the roasty notes and other contributions from dark malts such as the raisin, molasses and licorice highlights.
Porter may not be as highly regarded as stout, but remember that once it was truly the king of the beer world. And at the very top of the heap are the imperial and Baltic porters, beer that will make anyone feel like royalty.
Sinebrychoff PorterABV: 7.2
Tasting Notes: Brewed in Kerava, Finland, by the oldest brewery (1819) in Scandinavia. This porter is the definitive example of the cross-pollination that gave rise to the Baltic style. A firm, rich base of Continental lager malts (Vienna and Munich) and noble hops (Saaz, Hallertauer) is complemented with chocolate and caramel character malts. It is top-fermented with yeast rumored to be from Guinness. Black as night, with a bouquet that offers bittersweet chocolate, malted milk and hints of vanilla and molasses. The medium-light body gives way to a well-rounded flavor of dark, semi-sweet chocolate, anise and some herbal hops. The semi-dry finish is silky and modestly bitter. A sturdy and captivating brew at 7.2% ABV
Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial PorterABV: 9.2
Tasting Notes: One of Flying Dog’s best offerings, this tribute to gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson straddles the imperial porter/stout delineation, much as the historical brews did. Opaque and black as ink on the pour with a sticky brown head that billows and persists for minutes. Some floral, woodsy hops precede a deep, rich aroma of burnt raisin, cocoa and licorice. The creamy mouthfeel unfurls flavors of earthy dark-roast coffee, more black licorice and a caramelized, dried dark fruit finish. A little alcohol burn in the end divulges the sheer potency at 9.2% ABV. As brazen, engaging and edgy as its inspirational namesake.
Zywiec PorterABV: 9.5
Tasting Notes: From the 14th-century southern Polish town of Zywiec, this bottom-fermented porter is an exquisite representative of the Continental style. The Zywiec brewery was founded in 1856, and the porter in 1881. It is reddish-black in color. The aroma is dripping with pure, sweetish malt, accented with molasses, chocolate and black cherry. Full-bodied and velvety on the palate. Hops make a cameo in the flavor, but the malty component dominates, backed up by prune and raisin, with a modest sweet chocolate finale. It is smooth and round, yet not lacking complexity and discreet componentry. It is reminiscent of both old ale and doppelbock. A better nightcap or dessert beer would be hard to find.
Smuttynose Baltic PorterABV: 9.2
Tasting Notes: The Smuttynose Brewing Co. of Portsmouth, NH, consistently produces stellar examples of traditional brews. Its Baltic Porter is among the finest made in North America. It is bottom-fermented and formidable at 9.2% ABV. Pouring nearly pitch black with reddish highlights with a head that stands up to the gravity admirably. A hint of smoke graces a hefty dark coffee, caramel malt aroma, along with some anise and vanilla. Thick in the mouth, it is somewhat sweet, but that is offset by the bitter black malt and noticeable hops. There is also chocolate and nuttiness, with that requisite dark fruit and molasses contribution from character grains. The finish is chewy and lingering.