Porter is likely the world’s most confusing beer style. Attempting to unravel its inner secrets through diligent scholarship is futile: the more you study it, the more incomprehensible it becomes. A true shape-shifter of a beer, porter changes continually, generation after generation. In trying to decide what a porter should be today, the would-be porter brewer has to take an educated stab—then shut up and brew.
We will never know what the original porter tasted like. Never mind that the original porter wasn’t even called “porter” except in hindsight—but that’s another (confusing) story, one well-told in Martyn Cornell’s Beer: the Story of the Pint. Porter, as you may know, went extinct in its native isles when Guinness stopped brewing it in 1974; everything since then has been a recreation.
Britain in the late 18th century was an industrial powerhouse such as the world had never seen. Vast industrial capacity led to a burgeoning export market, and beer was a major player. The relatively undeveloped North, up the Baltic to Scandinavia and all the way to Russia, was thirsty for well-brewed beers. Rich brown beers were especially prized, first from Burton and eventually from London as well. A range of beers was shipped there, in various strengths, but most were relatively dark and sweet, as local taste demanded. All were strong to endure shipping; some were blindingly so.
As is usually the case, the people importing a beer eventually figure out how to brew it themselves, saving a buck or two while pumping up the local economy. Porter took hold in its chilly new homeland, boosted by Germanic lager traditions that arrived by way of Denmark, Prussia and elsewhere.
The inefficiencies of Communism created a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Perhaps “if it ain’t absolutely falling down on our heads, don’t fix it” might be more to the point, but updating moldy old beer styles had a pretty low priority in the face of the Cold War’s threat of total nuclear annihilation. This unique historical situation sustained a bit of old porter. It doesn’t explain how a few of these porters also survived in Scandinavia, but I’m sticking to my story. Baltic porters capture the imagination, transporting one back to an earlier era.
The first thing you notice about Baltic porters is that they are definitely brown, not black. There’s no mistaking this for a present-day stout. As you pour the beer, a dense, creamy, pale tan head arises. The beer is thick, chewy, smooth and sweet.
A taste reveals a smooth malty toastiness, considerable body, and a long bittersweet finish. Because these beers are lagered, they lack the fruity spiciness of an ale. And they are strong. At 7 to 8.5 percent or more alcohol, you can feel the effects pretty quickly. Baltic porter falls into the class of beers known as “velvet hammers.”
As the alcohol level would indicate, the gravities are fairly high, starting at 1060, but going as high as 1090. Bitterness is in the range of 20 to 40, which is modest considering the gravity, although earlier versions were likely higher.
Brewing requires no special techniques or equipment, but getting the malt character right requires the use of ingredients you might not be currently using. As a holdover technique from a couple of centuries ago, we’ll be using an amber or biscuit malt for a rich brown toastiness. A little more color and a very soft roast cocoa character will be added by some German roast malt (röstmalz or Carafa II). You may choose to brew with lager or ale yeast, but with ales, a relatively cool fermentation is preferred, and you should choose a strain (such as an altbier yeast) that is comfortable with cold conditioning.
As with many styles, Baltic porter offers opportunities for enlightened deviance. Brewed with 50 percent malted wheat, the milkshake texture is truly epic. Licorice abounded in the old recipes and fits well here. Additions of black pepper, ancho chile, star anise or toasted oatmeal would all create enjoyably twisted versions.
Brewing can be as easy or difficult as you want to make it. For the full or partial mashed recipe, a simple infusion will do. I’d keep it short and on the high side (30 minutes at 155 degrees F (69 degrees C) to create a partially unfermentable wort. Be sure to mash out by raising the temperature of the mash to 170 degrees F (77 degrees C), which will stop enzyme activity. On the other hand, this is a beer that would be improved by the use of a decoction mash, adding a layer of rich caramel-ness. This complex mash procedure is more than we can adequately cover here, but if you’ve got the chops, the time and the gear, by all means give it a shot.
For total authenticity, Polish Lublins hops would be a good way to go, but these may be hard to find. They’re related to Saaz, if that gives you any clues. Hallertau and Northern Brewer are both good choices, as well. A mild and mellow hop is best, as we’re not looking for any distinctive hop character, just enough bitterness to balance the considerable malt.
After enduring the long, slow fermentation, your parched palate will welcome this seductive blast from the past. Try it with a plate of fudge brownies. Mmmmmelts in your mouth!