What’s the Difference Between Stouts and Porters? It’s Complicated.

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“When someone asks me what the difference is between a porter and a stout, the answer I give them is ‘yes’,” says John Mallett, vice president of operations at Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, Michigan. “There is an incredible amount of overlap on the Venn diagram of both.”

Both porters and stouts are dark-colored ales, but there are differences between the two styles. These distinctions have been debated on barstools over pints, in brewery recipe development and by beer historians online.

“Generally, I see porters being more rounded, softer and with a more pronounced chocolate character,” says Mallett. One of the largest craft breweries in the U.S., Bell’s currently has both a porter and a stout in its year-round lineup. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. also makes both a porter and stout.

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Another key difference is the foam atop the beer, Mallett says. When poured into a glass, a porter typically has a brown-colored head, while a stout will have a white head.

“What that indicates to me is that the color is derived from roasted barley, and that will also have a more acidic quality,” he says. “That, for me, is a hallmark of a stout.”

Additionally, most porters are mellower than stouts, which are often more robust.

“All stouts are types of porter. But not all porters are stouts. Only the stronger ones,” wrote historian Ron Pattinson in a 2015 feature in All About Beer Magazine.

He debunked some popular myths and misconceptions about the styles, like the notion that the only difference is roasted barley, which some say only appears in stout. Not so, Pattinson says. So much of that belief was entangled in processes, taxes and available ingredients.

Both porters and stouts are dark-colored ales, but there are differences between the two styles. These distinctions have been debated on barstools over pints, in brewery recipe development and by beer historians online.

However, as beer evolves and brewers put their own stamp on the style, the waters have become even murkier.

At the 2019 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) competition, the gold medal in the brown porter category went to Cigar City’s Maduro Brown Ale. The brewery identifies this beer as an English-style brown ale, however, a separate category at GABF.

“Maduro Brown Ale is a more assertive interpretation of the English brown ale style. It might even have some American elements,” says Wayne Wambles, brewmaster at Cigar City Brewing. He said that when the brewery enters a beer into a category they need to review the guidelines and find beers that fit best.

“At times, [Maduro] actually does fit into the English brown ale category but it all depends on whose guidelines we are being led by,” he says. “My original intention for the beer back in 2009 was to make an English nut brown ale that has more prominent nutty notes from the use of grain versus some of the more traditional interpretations of the style. Most of the time, the more assertive roasted malts cause this beer to land more squarely in the English brown porter category, especially based on GABF and World Beer Cup guidelines.”

Third place in GABF’s brown porter category that year went to a porter brewed with honey, made by Cape May Brewing Co. Yet, honey beer also has its own category.

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There’s also a style called a Baltic porter, which uses a colder-fermenting lager yeast to achieve crisper, less fruity flavor profile. Baltic porters are also higher in alcohol by volume (abv) than their ale counterparts.

Thanks in part to the success of Guinness, arguably the world’s most popular stout, porters are largely secondary in the general consciousness. There are some wonderful examples, though, like Deschutes Black Butte Porter, Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald and Fuller’s London Porter.

Darker malts can evoke coffee and chocolate flavors, and both porters and stouts are often dosed with actual cocoa and java for an extra flavor kick. Recently, Harpoon Brewing partnered with Dunkin’ for a coffee porter, and Rogue Brewery has long been celebrated for its chocolate stout.

Traditional? Not really. Innovation worthy of your glass? Absolutely.

Published on November 4, 2020
Topics: Beer