The Session – What Is Porter?

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Mark Lindner, of By The Barrel, is hosting the current Session, and invites a wide-ranging discussion on porter. He mentions many resources to understand porter including the protean classifications of a beer-judging certification society, the BJCP.

I have read very widely in recent decades on porter and its history, and indeed have come up with an original theory as to the name’s origin, discussed here and here. It comes I believe from the weaving terminology used by weavers of silk in London’s Spitalfields quarter in the latter 1600s. I won’t revisit that here since the earlier posts are detailed on the point, and will address today subjects of palate and whether porter and stout are the same or different.

First, stout vs. porter. It’s a false issue. There is no difference, none that history at any rate ever knew except that sometimes stout was richer and stronger than porter, the luxury version of the same drink.

Labatt Porter 2015 imageIf you read porter history from its inception (later 1700s) to about 1900 when its decline as a drink had been pronounced, there is never any argument or extended discussion what the difference is. That is because, everyone knew, e.g., Accum, 1821 that stout at best was simply a stronger species of porter, to use one formulation of the difference such as it was.

In this source from 1849, a “Strong Old Porter” sold for 4 shillings the pint. A “Double Brown Extra Stout”, which some merchants might have called Imperial stout, sold for the same price. They were similar in quality and the stout did not contain raw barley because in 1849 that was unlawful. Were further comfort needed, the same listing includes a “Brown Stout Porter”…

Today, Irish stout is considered different to porter by many and supposedly is characterized by use of roasted and unroasted raw (unmalted) barley. That is an incorrect deduction from the facts. Stout which uses these ingredients is simply porter with adjunct. Just as pale ale, in England today, often uses sugar but didn’t before sugar’s use became legalized c. 1845.

It’s all porter: robust porter, brown porter, American porter, dry stout, imperial stout, imperial porter. The only hesitation I have is including Baltic porter in the description since today, much of it is bottom-fermented. But even then, originally, it wasn’t. The porter both sent to and made in the Baltic in its earliest days was the same type as sold in London, where porter finds its origins in the 1700s.

Porter and stout find their key distinction from other beer styles in their very dark colour and burned or roasted cereal quality. That burned taste, which for a long time was called “empyreumatic”, has itself evolved over time. It used to have, often, a wood smoke quality; today generally it does not. But the deep kilned notes of porter and stout are still distinctive when compared to, say, a dunkel, or a black IPA, or a brown ale.

Just as for many beer styles, the ingredients used for porter and stout vary. Some use grain adjunct in addition to barley malt. Some use American hops. Some use only English hops. Some use sugar of various kinds, or molasses, or oatmeal. The best are all-malt, but there are countless variations even for all-malt porter and stout. A few porters, most experimental, even use all-brown malt, as all porter and stout did originally in Georgian England.

IMG_20150920_175555_hdrThe style classifications of BJCP evolved from a particular historical context and are unlikely to change much. There is no harm in this, and it facilitates the judging process. But to suggest in any meaningful way that robust porter is all-malt, say, and Irish stout typically is not is simply not the case.

Even a cursory glance in 1800s sources will show that some Imperial stout was called Imperial or strong porter, and Guinness used porter and stout (the terms) at different times to mean the same or a similar beer. What Guinness calls stout now is in the strength range, or less, of what it called porter for much of the 1800s!

Finally, porter never disappeared for a time in England (certainly in North America it never disappeared at all except during Prohibition). Rather, the name did. For a time in the 1970s, a beer called porter could not be found in the U.K. But beers could be found, called stout, which were porter by any reasonable historical understanding of the term. Mackeson Stout in England was also a porter, a particular type which uses milk sugar in the recipe. There was – still is, I believe – a stout in Australia then called Carbine Stout. That was a porter too.

Yuengling made, and still does, a porter, which some brewers elsewhere might have called a stout. In Canada, some of our national brewers called their porter a stout in different provinces, for whatever reasons of marketing or otherwise that appealed to them, since they knew the beer types are one and the same. You can call one the other, or not, as meets your fancy.

 

 

 

 

Irish-Style Dry Stout

Culverden All Malt Stout-1This is a response to Jay Brooks’ salutary call for contributions to his recently revised beer typology series. Now, on the first Tuesday of each month, he invites bloggers to post on a style he selected, with good scope given for direction and ideas.

For March, it is dry Irish-style stout.

I have some very definite ideas about this style, few of them positive. It’s not that I don’t like porter, the general name for all stout and porter. It’s that dry stout reflects a historical misunderstanding IMO, in that generally it is made with roasted barley for the darkening agent and frequently with a measure of flaked or plain raw barley (not roasted) to substitute for what used to be malt, that is before the laws were changed in the U.K. to allow such adjuncts. The cue was taken from modern Guinness and other Irish stout producers, which Michael Jackson and others wrote about in the last generation and were emulated by countless craft brewers.

The use of flaked or raw barley in any reasonable proportion results IMO in a thin, astringent beer. Not just that, but unmalted barley in roasted form frequently imparts an unpleasant, burned vegetal note, often in my experience again. In contrast, roasted malt – malt vs. raw grain – imparts more the traditional flavour of beer. Few Irish-style stouts I’ve ever had really appealed to me, and too many of them taste too alike. Probably the best of them are malt + roasted barley to lend the dark colour. Sinha Stout from Sri Lanka fits that description, I believe – we can ignore the gravity difference for a moment. A goodish beer but I think it would be better if 100% malt.

Indeed, my view is all porter and stout should employ grists similar to what was used in the 1800s in the pre-sugar, pre-grain adjunct days. This means, some combination of pale malt, amber malt (Vienna or some modern malt of that hue), brown malt, and black malt.

The great Michael Jackson knew well the history of porter and all English beer, but was mainly concerned in his writing to describe what was currently available. His descriptions of modern Irish stout entranced craft brewers who wanted to evoke what they felt was the mystique of the black stuff. And so we have dry Irish-style stout, made typically with a grist that never existed in the heyday of porter and stout. More power to those who like it, but I plump for all-malt, as all porter was originally.

Note re image above: Image was sourced from this beer label site and is believed available for educational and historical purposes.  All feedback welcomed.

 

 

Must Be The Season of Saison

You’ve Got To Pick Up Every Stitch..

IMG_20160229_210808Two friends recently said to me, your blog is great but why don’t you review a broader range of beers? It’s mostly ales, porter/stout, and lager. What about fruit beers, other flavoured beers, wild beers, wheat beers, saisons, bières de garde, and so on?

Well, I admit my bias in favour of beers in the English tradition, and fine lager. I don’t often try other styles, because rarely do I find they are as good. I do occasionally stray to the farther shores of beerdom, pumpkin beer is an example, which I always liked. Or wet hop beer, if that counts.

But recently I came into possession of the beer shown in the image, and will review it. Jordan St. John, the Ontario beer writer, gave it to me, and I understand had some role in its development. Thanks Jordan.

It has upfront sour notes, seemingly acetic or from brettanomyces (wild yeast). As well, light malt, lemon and funk, and an earthy aftertaste. Pretty good, and I haven’t had a Belgian one lately I could compare it too although I recall Belgian saison as less sour than this.

An interesting beer, from the innovative and well-regarded Innocente craft brewery in Ontario. Not something I would normally turn to, but I could see it accompanying a rich Belgian beef and beer braise, ham and endive in cream, or good french fries. Many of the Belgian beers probably developed in a way that suited local cuisines.

Saison is a fairly flexible beer style anyway. I know from my own reading there was new and old saison, and sometimes they were blended. They did, too, tend to use off-piste grains, such as spelt. Innocente uses rye in the mash, which is appropriate to the oddball nature of the style and lends a buckwheat-like note.

But I’m not a fan really of the sour side. I always think of Fritz Maytag’s (of Anchor Brewery fame) comment that that he could never acquire the taste for lambic since in the early days he made too many batches of sour beer unintentionally, before that is he modernized Anchor’s plant and processes. It is precisely the rustic, do-it-yourself nature of saison that will appeal to many, though. It’s kind of a beatnik beer style. I doubt it ever made anyone rich, even in Belgium, but it offers colour and variety on the beer scene.