Understanding Porter

Porter on table

After “what’s the difference between an ale and a lager,” one of the most common questions asked about beer is “what is the difference between a stout and a porter?” With such strong similarities between their aromas and flavors as well as their structures and balance, it’s difficult to get a grasp on what exactly the difference is between the two, if any.

The answer is, there are no strict differences. Historically and presently the two styles are similar in overall profile and ingredients used. A stout was considered a stronger version of a porter or, if you prefer, a porter was originally perceived as a lighter stout. Porters can also vary widely, resulting in a bitter roasty beer or a sweeter chocolaty one and everything in between.

But the strange thing is that most people are comfortable with stouts but not with porters. Stouts are more recognizable, more available and, for some reason, more defined. People feel confident in what they can expect from the contents of a bottle of stout; the same isn’t as true with porters.

But porter’s day has come. Now is the perfect time to cozy up to the style.

Interpretation and personalization are key. There are traditional offerings, like English or Baltic porters, and then there are newer styles being developed by American craft brewers with the use of additional ingredients (like coffee or chocolate) and techniques (like oak aging).

Some of the more robust bottlings are perfect candidates for your cellar, mellowing and evolving into even more complex, layered selections of pure enjoyment. Alaskan Brewing’s vintage-dated Smoked Porter and Deschutes Brewing’s Black Butte Birthday Reserve are two excellent examples, sure to bring a smile to your face now and for years to come.

Perfect for those cold winter nights, these are all great brews to stock up on today.


Deschutes Black Butte XXVII 27th Birthday Reserve (American Porter; Deschutes Brewing, OR); $9/12 oz 6 pack, 96 points. Deschutes’s Birthday Reserve is an annual limited-edition release to watch for. The base is the brewery’s Black Butte Porter, brewed with Theo chocolate cocoa nibs, pomegranate molasses and select spices, blended with apricot purée, then partially (50%) aged six months in Bourbon barrels. It’s powerful and dense, with loads of aromas and flavors of figs, raisins, dried apricot, chocolate malt, vanilla bean, lightly-roasted coffee, molasses, woody spice and peppery cigar box. Medium bodied, with ample carbonation to the lush, creamy texture, this boasts a warming sensation that lingers long on the earthy, spicy finish. The bottle recommends consumption after July 2016, but given the intense characteristics, decadent body, plush mouthfeel and endless finish, this could easily continue to evolve well through 2020.

Alaskan Brewing Co. 2015 Smoked Porter (American Porter; Alaskan Brewing Co., AK); $9/22 oz, 95 points. Never one to disappoint, ABC’s annual vintage-dated Smoked Porter is always a winner, delicious both upon release but also after years in the cellar. This 2015 release is still young and bold, with upfront aromas of smoked malt and campfire that are grounded by notes of dried black fruits, raisin, tobacco leaf and chocolate. The big, lush palate boasts a smooth and creamy texture, with immensely attractive flavors of malted milk balls, chocolate syrup, molasses and roasted coffee beans. Hints of s’mores and hickory-smoked bacon linger sweetly on the close. A hedonistic pleasure to enjoy now, this will only continue to gain complexity and nuance in the years, and even decade, ahead. Cellar Selection.

Anchor Porter (American Porter; Anchor Brewing, CA); $12/12 oz 6 pack, 94 points. This traditional, balanced porter pours almost black, with a thick, tan-colored head. The nose suggests an attractive, layered mix of dried dark fruits—prunes, figs, raisins—roasted malt, coffee and bittersweet cocoa powder. It’s flavorful and creamy, with a lifting note of citrus oil on the close, followed by a dry, bitter chocolate flavor. It’s bold and flavorful, yet surprisingly smooth and easy to drink.

Samuel Smith’s The Famous Taddy Porter (English Porter; Samuel Smith Old Brewery (Tadcaster), United Kingdom); $5/550 ml, 94 points. This is a classic, clean, very drinkable and well-balanced porter.  It pours a dark brown color, with a full tan-colored head that lingers nicely. The medium-weight mouthfeel is tasty and attractive, with ample carbonation to lift the rich chocolate malt, molasses and raisin characters. Aromas and flavors of roasted malt, toasted nut, toffee, bitter cocoa and very soft hops carry through to the nutty, smoky finish.

Smuttynose Baltic Porter (American Porter; Smuttynose Brewing Company, NH); $9/12 oz 4 pack, 94 points. A dark, almost jet-black color in the glass, with a thick, frothy tan-colored head that lingers long, this is a dense, hearty and flavorful brew. It offers decadent, earthy characteristics of espresso bean, bittersweet chocolate, roasted malt and dark fruits on the nose and palate. The fruity tones are more pronounced on the palate after warming, supported by the roasted malt core and accented by hints of cocoa nib and sweet spice. The finish is long and warm, laced with pleasant hints of sweet smoke and molasses.

Smuttynose Robust Porter (American Porter; Smuttynose Brewing Company, NH); $9/12 oz 6 pack, 93 points. This pours a dark brown color, with a strong khaki head that shows excellent retention. Scents of freshly roasted malts dominate the aroma, with supporting notes of chocolate sauce, coffee bean and just a hint of earthy hops. It’s fairly weighty—almost chewy, in fact—with a medium-plus body and soft carbonation that fades well on the dryly textured finish. Overall, it’s a smooth, balanced and full but not-too-heavy brew that’s surprisingly easy to drink.

Tallgrass Zombie Monkey Robust Porter (American Porter; Tallgrass Brewing Company, KS); $9/16 oz 4 pack, 91 points. The can of this brew immediately draws you in, with a menacing looking monkey and infectious-disease-horror movie writing that suggests it’s not a beer for the faint of heart. Indeed, it is a rich, roasty selection, boasting upfront aromas of roasted malt, coffee bean and cocoa nib that carry through to the medium-weight mouthfeel. Hints of sweet smoke, campfire and espresso bean add depth to the palate, while a bitter coffee and cocoa flavor grace the finish.

Published on January 25, 2016
Topics: Beers