Every month, Craft Beer Cellar highlights a different beer style in its Style of the Month program. We’ll share some of the style’s history, as well as flavor profiles. If you like what you read, ask a Beer Geek at your local Craft Beer Cellar for recommendations!
“Studying the history of porter is like staring into the multidimensional universe of theoretical cosmology, with multiple shifting parallel worlds constantly warping and shifting with the flow of time.” – Randy Mosher, Tasting Beer
Indeed, porter is a style rich in history, dating back to early-1700s England and colonial America. The style has experienced a renaissance of sorts in the current craft beer boom here in the U.S.
In the 1700s, Porters – then largely brown in color due to the usage of brown malt – quickly became the top beer of choice for English drinkers. The trend continued into the 1800s; in 1845, Truman, Hanbury & Buxton Brewery brewed over 8 million gallons of porter, making it the second-largest brewery in Britain.
This was before the advent of stainless steel fermenters, so such large quantities of beer sat in open vats – not unlike lambics. This lent a certain level of acidity and barnyard funk from various airborne yeasts that you certainly don’t find in modern Porters.
Porter made its way to American shores when it was still a British colony, and became quite popular. George Washington, himself a homebrewer, had quite an admiration for the style.
By the turn of the 20th century, Porter was in decline. Lagers and pale ale (particularly the latter in Britain) had taken off, and what few Porters remained were watered down versions of the beer available during the style’s heyday. The style has seen a renaissance of sorts over the last few decades, with several iconic brands developing here in the US and in the UK.
Stylistically, modern Porters can be broken down into two main categories: American and English. American Porters are usually higher in alcohol, often with a more noticeable hop profile and richer malt presence (chocolate, coffee, subtle smoke on occasion). English Porters tend to have a somewhat sweeter, more caramel-like flavor, with lower alcohol content. A few stats, for comparison:
English Porter: IBU: 18-35; SRM: 20-30; ABV: 4.0-5.4%
American Porter: IBU: 25-50; SRM: 22-40; ABV: 4.8-6.5%
A question we get a lot is, “What’s the difference between a porter and a stout?” Historically, there is none. In previous generations, porters of higher strength were called, “Stout Porters,” which eventually became simply known as Stout.
Today, most American stouts tend to have more roasted malt character and a far more discernible hop profile.