What Is Porter Beer?

Porter

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Porter is a style of dark beer that originated in England during the 1700s. With the exception of Baltic porter, porters are brewed with top-fermenting ale yeast. These beers are known for their deep ruby brown to black color, dark malts that often impart chocolate and caramel flavors, and well-balanced, hearty characteristics. The style was all but lost following Prohibition in the United States but has been revived, primarily by craft brewers. Today, these dark beers are favorites for winter and the style's diversity offers options for year-round enjoyment.

Fast Facts

  • ABV: 4–12%
  • Bitterness: 20–40 IBU
  • Color: 19–40 SRM

What Is the Difference Between Porter and Stout?

Porters and stouts are closely related. Stouts originally may have been a style of porter that has developed into a distinct and separate category. The line between the two is often blurred in modern brewing, with brewers using one name or the other to describe an individual beer.

The two beer styles share many similarities. Most noticeable is the dark brown to black color that's often opaque but not cloudy. They generally rely on a pale malt base that is enhanced with dark malt—particularly crystal, chocolate, and black malts. Stouts tend to use roasted barley and porters generally do not. Additionally, a stout is typically heartier and thicker than porters. Either style may also be brewed with adjuncts for additional flavor. Chocolate, coffee, and vanilla are common, with some beers adding oatmeal, fruits, honey, maple, nuts, and other flavoring ingredients.

The history of both beers is difficult to trace. Porters were created in the 1700s, most likely when English brewers developed a blend of three styles of ale: old stale or sour ales, newer brown and pale ales, and mild (or weak) ales. It was a product of the U.K.'s Industrial Revolution and one of the first beers specifically formulated to cater to drinkers' tastes rather than ingredients on hand. The name is said to come from the porters (transportation workers) of Central London and stout was originally the name for the strongest porters.

Styles

There are many broad interpretations of the modern porter and a number of styles within this category.

English Brown Porter

English brown porters showcase the original characteristics of the entire porter style. Typically, the brew is very dark brown with some showing a red tint. It's almost opaque, though it should be clear when light does find its way through. The nose usually contains mild notes of roasted grains, chocolate, and toffee. There can also be undertones of coffee or licorice. The mouthfeel is thin but not watery. The flavor is always mild with none of the harsh or bitter notes of stout.

These porters are often made with Fuggles hops and British pale ale malts enhanced with brown, crystal, and chocolate malts. The alcohol is moderate, typically between 4.5 percent and 6 percent ABV, with an IBU range of 20 to 30.

Baltic Porter

Baltic porters are lagered and cold-fermented with lager yeast, so they're the exception to the porter's ale classification. Originally brewed in England and strong enough to withstand sailing across the North Sea, the style is now commonly brewed in Scandinavia, the Baltic States, Poland, and Russia.

These bold brews have the maltiness of a brown porter with the roasted crispness of schwarzbier (a black lager). Full-bodied with a mouthfeel often described as silky and creamy, Baltic porters often display a balance of smoke, roasted malt, and hoppy bitterness (35 to 45 IBUs) in the taste. The beers are deep ruby to black and can be cloudy. High in alcohol, they range from 7 percent to 10 percent ABV.

American Porter

The American porter is English inspired but has a distinctly American character with few style rules. Each brewer adds their own twist, though there's generally a nice balance of flavors. Some have big hop bitterness while others are as mild as the English style, and a few are excellent session beers. Generally medium brown to black in color, U.S. craft brewers like to experiment and produce chocolate, coffee, and vanilla porters. Many are also barrel-aged in former whiskey barrels. American porters may be a mild 4 percent to a stronger 7 percent ABV.

American Imperial Porter

As with imperial stouts, American imperial porters amplify every element of the beer style. They often have a moderate caramel, cocoa, and malt sweetness that complements native American hops. Every variable is up to each brewer's interpretation, so the malt and hops selection and the hoppiness changes from one beer to the next. They are almost always black and highly alcoholic, ranging from 7 percent to 12 percent ABV.

Robust Porter

Though not stronger in alcohol, robust porters are a more flavorful version of brown porters. The bitterness and roasted malt flavors are more pronounced. It's the porter style that often comes closest to stouts and brewers may choose one label or the other for any particular beer. The primary difference is that the roasted flavors come from malt, not the roasted barley of stouts. Robust porters do have the sharp bitterness of black malt with apparent hop bitterness (25 to 40 IBUs), both of which are offset by caramel and malt sweetness. The alcohol in these dark to black brews is generally a moderate 5.1 percent to 6.6 percent ABV.

Smoke Porter

Smoke porters are most often a robust porter with smoky flavors added with the use of wood-smoked malt. Brewers typically promote the type of wood they use, and each will impart different nuances to the beer's final taste. Most smoke porters don't have a big hoppiness, though the IBUs range from 20 to 40. These beers can get strong, and generally fall between 5.1 percent and 8.9 percent ABV.

How to Serve Porter Beer

Most ales are best served between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and porters follow this line of thought. Keep bottles in a cool place to get these "cellar temperatures" but avoid the refrigerator for the best drinking experience.

Nonic pint glasses are the preferred vessel for almost every porter. The bulbous, tall glass shows off the aromatic brews nicely while making them easy to drink. American imperial porters are often served in a stemmed tulip.

The typical beer pouring style is also preferred for porters: Tilt the glass to a 45-degree angle, gently pour onto the side of the glass, and slowly raise it upright. This should produce a nice balance between the beer and the foamy head.

Food Pairings

Porters are a complex combination of mild flavors, so they're often enjoyed alone. However, these brews pair well with almost any meat dish and a variety of cheeses and desserts. English brown and robust porters are excellent with grilled meat, gruyere cheese, and excellent with baked goods that include both chocolate and peanut butter. Try American porters with chicken—the imperials are impressive with chicken enchiladas. Smoke porters can handle grilled sausage and are delicious alongside campfire-cooked s'mores. For special prime rib dinners, give a Baltic porter a try.

Best Brands

Any well-stocked beer cooler should have at least a few porters available. Explore the options, including these trusted brews that showcase the style perfectly as well as specialty seasonal beers that appear in late autumn and winter.

  • Aldaris Porteris
  • Anchor Porter
  • Bell's Porter
  • Deschutes Black Butte
  • Founders Porter
  • Fuller's London Porter
  • Samuel Smith's Taddy Porter
  • Smuttynose Robust Porter
  • Stone Brewing Smoked Porter
  • Zywiec Porter