When I turned 21, craft beer was a long way from taking off in most parts of the country, including Florida. It was by a mere stroke of luck that I picked up a six-pack of Dergy's Classic Porter from ABC and tried a style that was at the time completely foreign to me.
This soon became a ritual for my best friend John and me, as we swung by the liquor store most weekends and picked up some Dergy's. The Virginia brewery that made Dergy's has since gone out of business, and in retrospect, that beer was probably a pretty pedestrian example of the style, but it marked the beginning of my fascination with craft beer nonetheless.
Fast forward to the present, when I recently sat at the Ale and the Witch, sipping a 4-oz. taster of Summit Great Northern Porter. It had the roasted, nutty quality that initially drew me to Dergy's years ago; but when I started rambling about porters to my friends at the bar, I realized that this is a style that many people are still fairly clueless about. The solution was clear: I had to write a crash course introduction to porters, to pay back the style that started it all for me.
Part of the confusion regarding the porter style seems to be the difference between porters and stouts. When people ask me this, I tend to answer, "Porters use black patent malt and stouts use roasted barley." The subsequent blank stares have led me to believe that a more complete answer is in order.
While both porters and stouts may contain additions of black malt and roasted barley, the former style is characterized more by the charred, smoky flavor of black malt (a heavily-roasted, malted grain), while stouts derive their chocolatey, rich flavors more from roasted barley (a lightly-roasted, un-malted grain). The styles have some overlap, likely due to the fact that they used to be the same style!
That's right — stouts started as a type of porter! Named for their popularity with London's train workers, porters were made in mild and strong varieties, the latter being known as stout porters.
Porters were instrumental in the development of the brewing industry in Britain. They were the first beers that were aged at the brewery and sent out for immediate consumption in pubs, thus becoming the first mass-produced beers. However, porters waned in popularity over the next 200-odd years until a rebirth of the style at the hands of microbreweries in the late '70s and early '80s.
Today, nearly every brewery has a porter on its roster. I sampled a few to compare the differences between modern interpretations of this important, historic style.
Many U.K. breweries attempt to recreate the classic porters of 18th century London, with an emphasis on authenticity. Meantime Brewing Co. makes a classic London porter that is light-bodied, slightly bitter, and very true to the original style. Original Flag Porter is similar, but with a darker, fuller body. My personal favorite is Samuel Smith's Taddy Porter, one of the first to appear during the style's resurgence, in 1979. It's an outstanding beer, and a phenomenal example of the style.
The American porter is generally characterized by drier, hoppier versions of the style. Sierra Nevada has long made a delicious, dry porter that is lightly hopped and very nutty. Smuttynose's Robust Porter is a bit hoppier but with a nice roasted flavor, and Cigar City's José Martí American Porter is hoppier still, with a full, smoky body to match.
Porters are big in Eastern Europe, where the Baltic porter style has been produced since the early days, when this beefed-up, high-gravity version was made to withstand shipment across the North Sea. Authentic versions of this rich, slightly sweet style made by Russia's Baltika (Baltika #6) and Poland's Żwiec and Okocim breweries can be easily found in the bay area.
If I've done my job correctly, you should feel confident explaining to the layman exactly what a porter is, where it came from, and what some good examples of the style are. Hopefully, you'll enjoy your next porter just a little bit more as a result.