Walking past beer shelves or staring at tap handles across a bar, today’s modern beer consumer is likely to see stouts outnumbering porters. That’s too bad, because while both are dark colored ales, porters generally offer a smoother tasting experience, letting the roasted malts shine a little brighter.
Roasty aromas and flavors should be at the forefront of the style, including others in the family like robust porter, and Baltic porter. Their visual appeal is quite apparent. They can range from medium brown in color, with garnet highlights, to darker brown with tan- or mocha-colored heads that usually last for a long time when properly poured into a glass.
A style rooted in history, the particulars of what a porter should be are still under debate to this day. Brewers, especially Americans, color outside of the lines when it comes to creating recipes. Some release brown ales in the porter category and vice versa, feeling that the two share similar qualities.
Quite a few use the low-roast malt flavor of the category as a base for coffee additions. From blending with cold brew, steeping grounds in fermenting beer or aging on coffee beans, the marriage between java and porter is strong. As a result, these beers are often great for brunches and late-morning tailgating.
There is still no easy answer on the porter versus stout question, but one that is easy to rely on comes from historian Ron Pattinson: “All stouts are types of porter. But not all porters are stouts. Only the stronger ones,” he wrote 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.
Today, while there may be fewer porters than stouts on the market, the style is perfect for drinkers who claim they don’t like dark beer. With a mellow, pleasing construction, porters are a great entry into enjoying dark ales.
Alaskan Brewing 2020 Smoked Porter; $8/220z, 98 points. Rauchbier, or smoked beer, when done right can evoke any slew of memories: camping trips, nights around a backyard firepit, stops at roadside barbecue joints or a few drops of liquid smoke. This is an American classic and has been for decades. It offers a medium amount of smoke where the porter’s roast notes are not lost. Whiffs of cherry, apple wood and wet campfire all come together. A Band-Aid whiff is there, too. With a pleasing, oily character on the finish, this smoked porter continues to be the platinum standard for American Rauchbier. Pair with smoked salmon, and make sure everyone has their own bottle.
Fremont Morpheus Coffee Porter; $13/16oz 4 pack, 98 points. This elegant coffee porter offers aromas of perfectly roasted beans that showcase all of the java with none of the bitterness. A brewery only release, it offers a smooth pour with a velvety mouthfeel and displays threads of roasted cacao, toasted nuts and warmed fruit. It’s a first-class ale that makes such a strong impression and will stay on your mind for days afterwards. It is like drinking a breakfast beer from the heavens. Pour into your best glassware to enhance the experience—this beer deserves nothing less.
Ecliptic Capella Porter; $12/16oz 4 pack, 97 points. This ale offers a smooth body with semi-prickly carbonation and flavors that focus on roasted malts, with whiffs of an herbal character mix with dark chocolate. This is a porter that evolves as it warms, revealing a roasted depth to the ingredients that never teeters into bitter, but manages to keep a liveliness going until the end.
Great Lakes Brewing Edmund Fitzgerald Porter; $10/12oz 6 pack, 97 points. The gold standard of American-brewed porters, the beauty of this beer is its simplicity. Named for the ship that met a tragic ending, this lovely ale is a benchmark for the style and is never out of fashion. It is roast forward in profile, with pleasing coffee and chocolate undertones and a slight chalky ash finish.
Highland Brewing Oatmeal Porter; $10/12oz 6 pack, 97 points. This smooth-bodied oatmeal porter offers a full mouthfeel, with roasted notes and a touch of cereal sweetness. Slightly nutty and less intense on coffee flavor than others in the style, this is an unfussy ale that blends into the background at gatherings but remains reliable pint after pint. Paired with sharp Cheddar, Shepherd’s pie or raspberry sorbet, it’s just a delight to drink.
Jack’s Abby Lager Ness Monster Imperial Baltic Porter; $12/500ml, 96 points. This big, boozy beer brings in flavors of chocolate, dark cherry and fudge, and highlighting the barrels used to age recipe. An occasional release from the brewery it is big on Bourbon, vanilla, and warming characters as the beer opens up. Lusciously full-bodied with just a touch of citrus hop essence on the back end.
Left Hand Death Before Disco Porter; $11/12oz 6 pack, 96 points. This beer is smooth and satisfying, with soft roast notes that give ita luxurious feel. It offers whiffs of chocolate, toffee and red berries that will intrigue pint after pint. The bitterness has rounded edges making it easy drinking and pleasurable for the long haul. A beer like this never goes out of style.
Mikkeller Chic…Chic…Chic-ary; $12/16 oz 4 pack, 95 points. Inky brown in color, with a strong mocha head when poured, this has a boozy character, some vanilla, wood, and shows signs of Sherry and age, in a graceful way. Brewed with chicory root, if offers whiffs of old tobacco and leather. It has a warming quality and heavy body that feels welcoming with each sip.
Bell’s Porter; $10/ 12oz 6 pack, 94 points. This is a strong porter with all of the hallmarks of the style that come together in a reliable, familiar, and easygoing way. The no frills nature of the roasted malts, slight hop bitterness and fruity yeast brings this beer together. Pint after pint it won’t dull your tastebuds or disappoint the palate. The smooth mouthfeel and medium-bodied nature make it the perfect companion to a cheddar cheeseburger.
Exhibit A Briefcase Porter; $14 / 16 oz/4 pack, 94 points. This is a minerally, light-bodied ale that starts off with low roast in the aroma but builds in flavor as the beer is consumed. It offers tones of roasted coffee, with whiffs of walnut and almond. It’s a satisfying beer that lands just right after an autumn hike.