Article By: Lew Bryson
Then I grew up and had a beer, and ran into porters and stouts. The relationships of these beers makes for one very, very messy Venn diagram, with more circles than a UFO nut's cornfield, a lot of scratched-out lines and erasures, and some really odd intersections. Porter definitely came first, and stout came later, but the two have been quite prolific, with multiplying sub-categories. Grab a pencil and let's figure this out, because one of the enduring questions newly-minted specialty beer aficionados love to ask is "What's the difference between porter and stout?" You'll need an answer for them.
There's an easy answer, and it's pretty easy to nail down. Just go to the Brewers Association website, www.beertown.org, click on the Great American Beer Festival button and start going through the brewers' information. You'll come to the GABF Styles List for the beer competition. This year's category descriptions include Robust Porter, Brown Porter, Classic Irish-style Dry Stout, Foreign (Export)-style Stout, American-style Stout (essentially Foreign Stout with a barge-load of hops added), Sweet Stout, Oatmeal Stout, and Imperial Stout. Just read the descriptions and check out the differences.
Too much work? Okay, there's another easy answer, and the one that most brewers will give you off the cuff. "Simple answer to that is porter is all malt," said David Geary, founder of D.L. Geary in Portland, Maine, "versus stout, which is made from malt and roasted barley. True stout has roasted barley as well as malted barley, which gives it the chewiness that makes it stout. That's about it." But it's not that simple, either. There are stouts that don't use roasted barley, there are a few porters that have it (or enough heavily roasted malts that they develop that chewiness independently of the barley), and who's to say that the labeling is wrong?
Dave Howard, at Wachusett Brewing, laughed, and indicated that it's a vanishing difference these days. "It's very, very close," Howie said. "If you had a lighter porter and a really big stout, it would be clearer. But we like to put more stuff in it, there are so many good malts out there now. Porters have become the steroid-pumped athletes of the beer world. You can stand by and brew by tradition, and feel good, but you're not going to look too good compared to the big boys. Everyone's trying to be the big boy on the block today, and a porter just doesn't make it unless you beef it up." Howie freely admitted that he was guilty of beefing up Wachusett's Black Shack Porter.
Jeff Coleman, head of importer Distinguished Brands, brings in O'Hara Stout from Ireland and Fuller's London Porter. He stuck tongue in cheek and came up with this difference. "In America, most people would say a porter is a British version of a stout," he said, " if their name's O'Malley. If it's Churchill, they'd say it was an Irish version of a porter! It's pretty close: if you taste a porter and a stout on two different evenings without being told what you're drinking, you'd think probably it was just two different brands of the same kind of beer. Side-by-side, I think anyone could recognize the difference."
Jim Dorau, who brews both at Mercury Brewing - Ipswich Porter and the mighty, celebrated Ipswich Oatmeal Stout - thinks there's even less difference than that. "They're actually one and the same," he said. "After they started brewing porter, some people wanted it more stout, bigger, stronger. So they started making it bigger, heavier. It's a stout porter."
One and the same? Dorau's answer puts porter and stout where they belong: on a continuum of very dark ales. Porter is on the dark side of brown ale, the classic Guinness is black, and Dorau's Oatmeal Stout, like most imperial stouts, is positively inky, opaque in any thickness over one inch.
Craig Hartinger, who works with Merchant du Vin bringing in the well-known Samuel Smith Taddy Porter, Oatmeal Stout and Imperial Stout, gave that as his first difference. "With a stout, you really can't get light through the glass," he said. "With a porter you should see a deep red color." This idea of porter and stout as degrees of darkness among beers that are intrinsically related makes the most historical sense, too, when you consider how the two beers came to be. Porter and stout are two of the earliest invented beer styles, beers that were purposely designed for particular reasons. Porter was a London beer, and is traditionally dated to 1722, though beer called "porter" is older than that. "The origins of porter were in Shoreditch, in London," says Geary, whose Geary's London Porter is a carefully researched re-creation of an old London recipe. "It was a dock area, and the longshoremen were called porters. There's been some nonsense about them being railway porters, but it was way before railroads. They liked the beer, and that's what it became known as."
Porter was originally a mixed beer, made by mixing two or more 'threads', as they called the pouring stream of beer from different taps. Surprisingly, one of the "threads" in the more complex three-and-up threads beers was stale ale, aged ale that was left to go somewhat sour by intent. Mixing the threads was profitable, but time-consuming.
"Porter served a bunch of functions," Geary said. "It was a beverage to be consumed by the workers and their families; there was no pure water to drink. Milk, as a beverage, was probably unheard of. Wine, cider and beer were the only safe things to drink. They were traditionally low in alcohol. As near as I can tell, it looks like porter was about 3% by volume. The little storefront restaurants, if you could call them that, served huge quarters of beef made in cauldrons, essentially pot roasts with porter, and they were called porterhouses. That's where "porterhouse steak" came from."
In 1722, an enterprising brewer/tavern-owner (there were quite a few brewpubs in those days) named Ralph Harwood got the idea to brew a single beer to simulate the mixed threads of porter, what he called "entire porter". He brewed with a common malt of the time, brown malt, that was kilned over wood fires and added a brown color and a bit of a smoky flavor to the beer. By and by, he invented a way to brew a single beer that embodied the entire essence of porter in one barrel. One barrel, one beer, one pull: one drink was ready. Genius.
Partly genius, anyway. In a way that prefigures an unfortunate number of the past decade's microbrewers, Mr. Harwood was evidently a beer genius but a business idiot. After his invention of brewed porter, Mr. Harwood quickly disappeared into complete obscurity as ever-larger brewers took his idea and flooded (in one instance, quite literally) the market. In fact, Mr. Harwood's disappearance was so sudden and total, that some scholars believe his story to be too pat. Mr. Harwood may have been only a story, and porter a product of some unknown, unsung brewer.
However and whoever, entire porter (quickly shortened to be once again simply "porter") took London by storm. As the Industrial Revolution gathered speed, porter became the first "industrial" beer. Brewers became fantastically wealthy by the standards of the times, and were some of the first rich 'arrivistes' to come knocking on the doors of the aristocracy, demanding entrance on the strength of their money and power.
David Geary took much of the basis for his Geary's London Porter from a booklet of 35 pages, called "Every Man His Own Brewer", which was written in 18O2 by a disgruntled Shoreditch porter brewery employee who was giving away the secrets of the big porter brewers. "It describes porter in great detail," Geary said, "what it was, how it was made, who drank it, and what it was like. The interesting thing is the various combinations of ingredients. It's remarkable what they'd put in it to achieve different results. They would put capsaicin in it in the winter, and put laudanum in it for sleepy time. We, of course, don't use any of that. But it makes for fascinating reading!" Porter breweries grew larger and larger, with 5OOO-barrel vats ribbed with cast-iron supports, big enough spaces that brewers threw launch parties and served dinners for 1OO in the vats before their first use. And the bigger they grew, the more porter people bought. As Samuel Johnson famously noted to a friend at the public auction of a porter brewery, "We are not here to sell a parcel of boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice." In this era, Arthur Guinness opened a porter brewery in Dublin, probably dreaming with a bit of his own avarice. But while Guinness had craftily secured stupendously cheap land and water rights, he still had to make his porter with malt, and the British government had steeply raised the tax on malt. Guinness, in a stroke of genius, decided to replace some of his roasted malts with roasted barley not taxable under the law.
Not only did he save a few pennies on the barrel, Guinness invented a new beer: stout, or stout porter, as it was originally called. Stout was popular almost immediately, a hit with a nation already accustomed to dark beer.
In the second decade of the 19th century, another invention would cause stout's popularity to increase even more: the patent coffee roaster. Coffee was all the rage in London, and coffeehouses sprang up like well, like Starbucks. Again, in the spirit of industrialism, someone invented a coffee roaster to save the time of hand-roasting coffee beans in a pan on the stove-top. Brewers, or more properly, maltsters, saw the possibilities of this device immediately, and soon had a variety of deeply roasted malts on the market. They had also switched fuels in the malthouse, and were kilning their malts with coal and coke for a more controllable and precise heat.
Porter brewers were still using brown malt. But a couple fellows experimented, and found that although brown malt was cheaper by the ton, pale malt was so much better made and more efficient in the brewkettle that it was actually cheaper by the barrel. All that was needed was to darken the beer it made, and you'd have porter and the patent coffee roaster became the patent malt roaster, and delivered chocolate malt and black patent malt, just the thing for making this new pale porter dark. The brewers were ecstatic, and visions of hefty savings poured through their heads.
Classically, however, no one had thought to taste the beer or see what the consumer thought of it. Mostly, the consumer didn't think it tasted like porter, and porter sales went into a slow decline. There was also a roaring demand for the new pale ales. Ironically, the pale beers made from the new pale malt became very popular without the dark coloring, probably due to another benefit of the Industrial Revolution: cheap and plentiful glass drinkingware, which made a pale, sparkling beer an appealing vision to behold.
Porter, like the formerly dominant dark lagers in Germany, just couldn't compete with pale beer's beauty. Stout had become entrenched in Ireland as an Irish product different from the English beers, and the coffee roaster revolution made the roasted barley even better. A couple strong stouts lingered on elsewhere as curiosities, but almost everywhere porter had held sway turned to sparkling pale ales. By the 196Os, porter had all but disappeared from English pubs, an astonishing turn of tastes. The only porters left were the massive, largely lager-brewed Baltic porters of central Europe and Scandinavia, and the lager-brewed "Pennsylvania porters" made in the US by regional brewers Yuengling and The Lion in Pennsylvania.
It was the microbrewery revolution that brought porter back. The first real microbrewer in America was Fritz Maytag, who bought the Anchor Brewery in San Francisco and dedicated it to creating what he called real beer. The first new beer he made, after perfecting the brewery's Anchor Steam, was Anchor Porter in 1972.
"I wanted to make more than one beer," Maytag explained, "partly out of pride and enthusiasm for the idea of brewing, and partly because I had knowledge about brewing and equipment that I liked, and I was like an artist with his materials all together. I could see that the American brewing industry, and I soon realized the world brewing industry, was dying for validity and variety. I wanted to make various things, and a Porter - a really rich, dark beer - was the obvious first choice, because it was radically different from our regular beer."
Maytag started something with Anchor, but he also started something with Anchor Porter. The growing trickle of microbreweries that followed in his pioneering path - New Albion, Sierra Nevada, BridgePort, Boulder - also produced porters. They never were huge, but porter was reborn, and survives. It's even made a triumphant return to the UK, where Fuller's London Porter holds a restored place as a brilliantly brewed example.
Stout always had Guinness, but even there, the micros often made a stout, at first just to prove they could, then branching out into the wilder varieties that had been lost and forgotten like porter. Imperial stouts are popular with the geekerie in America these days, or a nice oatmeal stout, or a shockingly hopped stout that adds that Pacific Northwest hop steroid tang to things. There are even other Irish stouts available now: Murphy's, Beamish and the stronger, creamy O'Hara's.
One thing these beers continue to have in common, unfortunately, is that they are rarely huge sellers for brewers. "We'd never pay the bills on them," Wachusett's Howard said. "The other beers pay the bills. Financially, porter would kill you." Then why, if porter or stout never really sells that much, do so many breweries produce one?
Howie continued, "It shows you have the ability to do it, and we like them. It's a beer for people who are educated beer drinkers. You've got a more educated, more prosperous set of customers as they convert from wine or move out into new markets. We make it because we want to make it, same reason we're making the Green Monsta. That's what this used to be about: creativity." Jim Dorau echoed that. "It's just the love of the craft," he said. "We sell X amount, and we're happy with that amount. Brewing the Oatmeal Stout is a pain, it's a huge mash, and it gets stuck. But it's a great beer and we'll keep making it."
Jeff Coleman thinks it's all relative. "The breweries that do a nice job with them tend to be niche marketers," he said, "and that 'little' volume is important to them. Volume's relative. Stout's a big brand for Seamus O'Hara - he makes his living on it. Fuller's hadn't even made any porter in several decades, and we were asking for one in the States. The brewer, Reg Drury, said he'd love to make one, and the brewery said, eh, go ahead. They just wanted to do it."
Hartinger will make you drool a bit by noting that porter and stout are in Merchant du Vin's portfolio because they're great food beers. "How it pairs with food is the big difference," he said. "Porter works to balance rich foods. If you're having something with a lot of fat, or a cream sauce, it can balance that. An excellent match with Yorkshire pudding or prime rib. Oatmeal Stout might be a better match for spicier, zippy foods."
Geary says he makes a porter for one reason. "I make everything I make because I like it," he said. "No bullshit. I decided from the very beginning that if I didn't make beer I liked, I wouldn't know what I had. I don't like hefeweizens, so if I made one, how would I know if it was good or not?"
He thinks that's why these beers don't sell that well. "Porter? The customers don't know what the hell it is," he said. "We put an explanation on the six-pack, but that assumes people will read it."
To cut right down to the heart of the matter, these beers are not going to sell on definitions, or differences, although knowing more about them will give you some great talking points for a sale, or answers for that eternal question. What's really going to sell the beer, porter, stout or "really dark ale", is the beer's individual merits.
That's what one transplanted New Hampshire brewer I know, Brian O'Reilly of Sly Fox Brewing in Pennsylvania, said when I asked him this question. "Really, what's the difference in what it's called?" Brian finally said. "If you like it, drink it." Couldn't have put it better myself.