The Mod­ern Bat­tle of Porter vs. Stout

Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine - - Contents -

Want to get a brewer or his­to­rian re­ally go­ing? Ask about the dif­fer­ence be­tween porter and stout. While rooted in his­tory, the mod­ern rein­car­na­tions of these styles and sub­styles are dif­fi­cult (per­haps im­pos­si­ble) to dis­en­tan­gle.

Want to get a brewer or his­to­rian re­ally go­ing? Ask about the dif­fer­ence be­tween porter and stout. Un­like with other co­nun­drums in beer, Josh Weik­ert has ab­so­lutely no con­fi­dence in our abil­ity to reach a sat­is­fac­tory con­clu­sion as to the dif­fer­ence be­tween porter and stout. It isn’t that we lack his­tor­i­cal records to guide us; it’s that the long, quiet eras in brewing his­tory have washed out the dis­tinc­tions be­tween the two styles, in­so­far as they ever were sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent to be­gin with. Plus, the mod­ern rein­car­na­tions of these styles and sub­styles are dif­fi­cult (per­haps im­pos­si­ble) to dis­en­tan­gle.

LET’S DIS­PENSE WITH THE NON­SENSE

right away: any­one who thinks the an­swer here is “stouts have roasted bar­ley” can leave now.

There’s a rich blend of his­tory and anec­dote sur­round­ing the de­vel­op­ment of porter and stout from the eigh­teenth through the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­turies, par­tic­u­larly as it per­tains to the dif­fer­ences be­tween the dark beer prod­ucts of Lon­don vs. those of Dublin on the far side of the Ir­ish Sea. At­tempts to draw the di­vid­ing line based on the grist used are des­tined to fail since his­tor­i­cal porters and stouts each used pale malt, brown malt, choco­late malt, patent malt, and/or roasted bar­ley, de­pend­ing on the year and the brew­ery.

How­ever, there is one de­fin­i­tive fact we can ex­tract from the avail­able his­tor­i­cal in­for­ma­tion: in the years lead­ing up to the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, when a brew­ery pro­duced both a porter and a stout, the stout was the stronger of the two beers. There also ex­isted, for a time, a thing known as “pale stout” (not to be con­fused with mod­ern in­ter­pre­ta­tions of pale/white stout), and it was like­wise a stronger ver­sion of pale ale. Stout, then, was an in­ter­nal (brew­ery-spe­cific) dif­fer­en­tia­tor of rel­a­tive strength and lit­tle else. “Stouts” were gen­er­ally stronger, on av­er­age, than “sim­ply porters,” even be­tween brew­eries, but it wasn’t guar­an­teed.

Mov­ing for­ward in time, though, even that mea­ger dis­tinc­tion gets oblit­er­ated. By the time craft brew­eries get their hands on porters and stouts, there’s lit­tle mean­ing­ful dif­fer­ence be­tween them any­more, which means that we’re start­ing (al­most) from scratch. I qual­ify that state­ment only be­cause we did (and do) have rough ap­prox­i­ma­tions of sub­styles within the broader cat­e­gories of stouts and porters, as cod­i­fied by the likes of the Beer Judge Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion Pro­gram. Tak­ing a stroll down Style Guide Mem­ory Lane, we can ob­serve a steady co­a­lesc­ing of the sub­styles, in­formed by anal­y­sis of con­tem­po­rary com­mer­cial ex­am­ples.

Are the dis­tinc­tions drawn still some­what ar­bi­trary? Yes, with­out a doubt, but they’re not en­tirely ar­bi­trary. When taken as a whole, and viewed from a higher al­ti­tude with a wider lens, cat­e­gory-spe­cific dif­fer­ences can be gen­er­ally ob­served. Even bet­ter, the sub­styles are con­sis­tent (and more spe­cific) as we progress from the ini­tial 1997 guide­lines through the re­vi­sions in 1998, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2008, and 2015.

So, what might serve as dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing vari­ables? Let’s ex­am­ine the ev­i­dence.

▪ Body? Nope; both cat­e­gories fea­ture light to full-bod­ied sub­styles. ▪ Al­co­hol? No, try again; 4 per­cent to dou­ble dig­its on both sides. ▪ Es­ters? Maybe; porters gen­er­ally don’t have to fea­ture es­ters, whereas sev­eral stouts note them as be­ing present in at least low quan­ti­ties, but porters can still fea­ture mod­er­ate es­ters and only the freak­ish Trop­i­cal Stout re­ally “high­lights” them on the stout side of the board. ▪ Wa­ter chem­istry? Not re­ally; both style fam­i­lies note mod­er­ate-to-high car­bon­ate con­tent in their brewing wa­ter. ▪ Yeast strain? Al­most cer­tainly not; both porters (the Baltic) and stouts (the Trop­i­cal) might use lager yeasts, whereas the oth­ers use ale strains.

There are, though, two dis­tinc­tions, broadly speak­ing, that come to the fore: roast in­ten­sity and acid­ity.

Roast In­ten­sity

First, a brief dis­cus­sion of in­ten­sity vs. mag­ni­tude. For our pur­poses, in­ten­sity refers to where on the scale of the char­ac­ter of roast fla­vors the per­cep­tion lands—from light milk choco­late at the lower-in­ten­sity end up to burnt and acrid at the higher end. Mag­ni­tude refers to how “loud” that fla­vor is in per­cep­tion. So, for ex­am­ple, a beer with a hint of charred grain fla­vor would have a fla­vor high in roast in­ten­sity but low in roast mag­ni­tude. A beer with mild or smooth dark malt fla­vors (what you get from a Carafa Spe­cial III, for ex­am­ple), but lots of it, would be low in in­ten­sity but high in mag­ni­tude.

In­tense roast fla­vors are the norm among stouts, whereas they are prac­ti­cally op­tional among porters. Only the afore­men­tioned freak­ish Trop­i­cal Stout and the Sweet Stout re­ally gloss over the roast char­ac­ter, and even those make men­tion of roast ex­plic­itly, just at a lower per­ceiv­able level. The re­main­ing seven stout sub­styles in­di­cate mod­er­ate-to-in­tense, acrid roast.

Not only that, but the roast in­ten­sity is not sim­ply a func­tion of in­creased strength over­all—the ses­sion­able Ir­ish (Dry) Stout has “pro­nounced” roast fla­vor, while stronger ver­sions ex­hibit the same or even op­tion­ally lower lev­els of roast. By com­par­i­son, the Brown and Baltic porters are de­scribed as “smooth,” “mod­er­ate,”

So, what might serve as dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing vari­ables? Body? Nope; both cat­e­gories fea­ture light to full-bod­ied sub­styles. Al­co­hol? No, try again; 4 per­cent to dou­ble dig­its on both sides. Es­ters? Maybe; porters gen­er­ally don’t have to fea­ture es­ters, whereas sev­eral stouts note them as be­ing present in at least low quan­ti­ties, but porters can still fea­ture mod­er­ate es­ters. Wa­ter chem­istry? Not re­ally; both style fam­i­lies note mod­er­ate-to-high car­bon­ate con­tent in their brewing wa­ter. Yeast strain? Al­most cer­tainly not; both porters (the Baltic) and stouts (the Trop­i­cal) might use lager yeasts, whereas the oth­ers use ale strains.

and “re­strained” in their roast char­ac­ter, even when that fla­vor is rel­a­tively strong. Even the Amer­i­can (Ro­bust) Porter, which comes clos­est to em­brac­ing a “roasty” pro­file, checks up quite a bit: the de­scrip­tion notes that it should not be “overly acrid,” sug­gest­ing a strong roast in­ten­sity, but also notes that it can fea­ture “a bit of grainy, dark malt dry­ness in the fin­ish.” “A bit?” What kind of roasty beer can fea­ture “a bit” of dry roast in the fin­ish? The de­scrip­tion of even this “roasty” porter of­fers the roast char­ac­ters as an op­tion, not a defin­ing fea­ture. In­stead, the Over­all Im­pres­sion omits the word “roast” en­tirely, de­scrib­ing it as “a sub­stan­tial, malty dark beer with a com­plex and fla­vor­ful dark malt char­ac­ter.” By way of com­par­i­son, both the Trop­i­cal and Sweet stouts in­voke the “r-word” in their Over­all Im­pres­sions.

Acid­ity

Acid is also a use­ful dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing fac­tor here. Although the 2015 guide­lines back off of the claim, ev­ery set of guide­lines prior to that re­vi­sion note that Dry (Ir­ish) Stout of­ten fea­tures a slight acidic note from a blended soured ale (os­ten­si­bly a fea­ture com­mon to Guin­ness beers, but also noted in oth­ers). It’s also note­wor­thy that the Rus­sian Im­pe­rial Stout is specif­i­cally de­scribed as hav­ing a “slight vi­nous or port-like qual­ity, but shouldn’t be sour.” That “not sour” qual­i­fi­ca­tion might rea­son­ably be taken as ev­i­dence that a touch of sour char­ac­ter isn’t un­com­mon in stouts more gen­er­ally, in ad­di­tion to be­ing present in the Dry (Ir­ish) Stout par­tic­u­larly.

Suf­fice to say that there is no men­tion of acid­ity or sour­ness in any of the porters, be­yond flat refu­ta­tions: “no sour­ness.” This, too, might rec­om­mend to sus­pi­cion that it’s the stouts that ex­hibit acidic fla­vors, ei­ther by virtue of blended sour ale or in­creased acid­i­fi­ca­tion through the broader use of in­tensely roasted malts. In­tense roast and slight acid­ity could very well be added through roasted bar­ley—but that’s not unique. In­tense roast and acid­ity can be added by nearly any highly-kilned grain, so the blan­ket “roasted bar­ley equals stout” claim is still not par­tic­u­larly ro­bust (pun in­tended).

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