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.
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.
From Imperial to Baltic
The popularity of this relatively exotic brew spurred the brewers that rimmed the Baltic Sea to produce their own. Though pale lagers were the rage of the day, strong and dark cold-conditioned beers had been brewed for some time. Breweries were set up to produce lagers, especially the forerunners of today’s ubiquitous Continental European beers, so that the manufacture of any was possible, including the original Baltic porters. It could be said that this undertaking shifted the strong porters from Imperial to Baltic.
The imperial stouts preferred by Russians retained the deep roasted character, while imperial porters underwent something of a transformation. Generally speaking, Scandinavian and Dutch porters resemble the London originals much more than do those from Estonia, Lithuania and Poland, whose Baltic porters are similar to doppelbocks with an extra measure of dark malt character. Poland especially boasts an assortment of superb porters, like Okocim, Zywiec, Kozlak and Dojlidy.
Though English breweries make very few, if any, imperial porters, American brewers have more than made up for this dearth in recent years. It is important to note that they are often made with ale yeasts in the U.S., but nonetheless an effort is often made to present the beer with the restrained roastiness of the true Baltic versions. In this respect, they are much like those emanating from Scandinavia: very dark, but smooth and velvety, and somewhat true to the original English Imperial porters. Sinebrychoff of Finland and a newcomer, Ølfabrikken of Denmark, are two highly-prized versions that fit that description.
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. In other words, a little of each chapter of its history is represented, symbolic of the transformation that has marked even the simplest of porters. Baltics are just another branch on the family tree.
Foremost, they are, to varying degrees, malty up front, exhibiting the best of the bock beers of Germany. Munich-style malts are commonly used as part or all of the base grist to achieve the sweet, rich, full-bodied character that is the signature of the style. A taste will reveal the caramelized nature of the brew, reminiscent of raisins, toffee, prunes, molasses and licorice. This is not unlike an Old Ale, and may be a derivative of either added caramel malt or prolonged kettle time, a process that offers unmatched complexity.
As Baltic porters can range from deep ruby to bordering on black, a small measure of roasted or chocolate malt might be added to the grist, generally in a restrained fashion to avoid the harshness or burnt quality that regular porter might have. There might be a hint of dark fruit, also owing to the dark malts. Lager yeasts are the norm, but the odd ale yeast employed under cool conditions (like a Scotch ale, not surprisingly given the climate), followed by traditional cold-conditioning provide the roundness that is the most appealing feature of the style. Hops provide balance, but nothing more, as the main event in these brews is the malt complexity and soft drinkability. Strength ranges from 7.0% to 9.5%.
Outside of the classics from Europe, it is becoming easier to find them on the menu of American breweries, some available widely in bottles. The Great American Beer Festival added the Baltic porter category two years ago. The entry numbers should continue to grow as American brewers look for that underrepresented style. The winning pro-am entry of 2006 (and silver medalist in 2007) was a Baltic porter from Foothills Brewing in Winston-Salem, NC. It is brewed with a Czech lager yeast and nine malts to 9.0% ABV. This sensational brew will be offered as a seasonal in the near future.
Perhaps it is because of their proletarian origin, or because of the consumer gravitation towards the more glamorous stouts, but porters always seem to be overlooked. Baltic porter is expanding its horizons both stylistically and commercially, some being drier and roasty like the English originals and others soft, brownish and malty like Baltic adaptations. More than worthy of exploration, with one in hand, winter will seem just a little bit warmer.
Okocim PorterABV: 8.1
Tasting Notes: The best of bottom-fermented Polish porters, Okocim is deep mahogany in color. The nose is predominantly malt, with hints of cherry and chocolate. The mouthfeel is opulent and creamy; the flavor has a hint of roast and licorice, and loads of malt and toffee. Hop profile is quite subdued. This beautifully elegant and complex beer combines all of its components superbly. The finish is sweet and satisfying, a perfect dessert accompaniment.
Sinebrychoff PorterABV: 7.2
Tasting Notes: Brewed in Kerava, Finland, “Koff” is the definitive example of the hybridized type of Baltic porter. It combines British (top-fermention and roasted character) and Continental (generous dose of Munich-style malts) components with great finesse. Koff is unfiltered, with a perfect smack of hop bitterness for balance. It pours black, with a well-sustained head. The aroma showcases malt, caramel, mocha and anise. Medium-bodied, the flavor has brown sugar and burnt chocolate, followed by a semi-dry, silky finish. One of the most underappreciated beers in the world.
Duck Rabbit Baltic PorterABV: 9.0
Tasting Notes: Brewed in tiny Farmville, NC, this highly-coveted seasonal is one of the best Baltic porters brewed in the United States. Brown, bordering on black, it is brimming with chocolate, malted milk and dark fruit in the aroma. There is even a hint of bourbon. Medium-bodied, the palate has burnt sugar and a bittersweetness reminiscent of Turkish coffee, with a touch of smoke. The full roast and malty background marry flawlessly. An outstanding nightcap or partner to dark chocolate desserts.
Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial PorterABV: 9.5
Tasting Notes: Brewed in Denver, CO, in truly the imperial style of porter, Gonzo has become an American favorite in just three short years. Black as ink, the bouquet is bittersweet chocolate, coffee and molasses, with a rather noticeable hop aroma. Raisin, licorice, dark caramel and coffee grace the flavor, with a distinct hop background. This brew has American footprints all over it. It is brawny and warming.