Porter Ponderings

Pictured is the bottled stout of Maverick, the brewpub downtown in Toronto. A big, ambitious place, it brews contemporary styles with quality and fidelity, based on a number of visits since it opened almost one year ago.

This stout has an oatmeal addition. It is not dissimilar to numerous Ontario porters and stouts at around the same gravity. I had a number of similar beers in England at the recent Great British Beer Festival.

The profile is dryish, roasty, with only a light malty quality if any.  It’s the “international” way currently with beer of this type and gravity.

The hops were good although I could always use more.

Historically, some porter must have tasted like this. I think the proof is Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter or its Oatmeal Stout, which are similar to this beer. They emerged from an old-established regional brewer about 30 years ago, and surely reflect brewery archival recipes, at least in part.

London’s Fuller Porter too tends to the non-rich side, although less so than the last two mentioned.

Modern porter/stout of normal strength often lacks IMO, i) a rich character, ii) the subtle kind of roast that complements no. i). You do encounter that often in Imperial Stout but historically there wasn’t a division that Imperial had the rich palate and the rest, dryish and lean.

Some lower-gravity porter was always of the rich, malty sort. How do I know it? Because of a long tasting history that includes beers like Sinebrychoff Stout (Finland) or Carnegie Porter (Sweden), Anchor Porter (San Francisco), Sierra Nevada Porter, Cooper’s Stout in Australia, Champlain Porter in Canada, and many others.

Most of these were pre-craft and reflected more accurately (IMO) the original porter tradition than today’s group. And the craft ones mentioned emerged early, therefore were influenced by the original tradition.

I also know it from historical sensory descriptions of mild porter, e.g., a “balmy” character. Contemporary laboratory analyses also show much of the beer had a rich character, see e.g. this 1870 table of porter and stout data from The British Medical Journal.*

Many of the porters, all averaging about 5% ABV, start at 1014 FG and just go up from there…

As well, I’ve tasted a number of recreations of 1800s porter or stout that taste much more like this group than most current beers with the name. Fuller did a recreation a few years ago that was superb, a double stout type.

So why has this turn in the road occurred? I think it’s due to the long hand of modern Guinness with its sizeable proportion of unmalted barley and well-attenuated taste. Brewers still, mostly unconsciously today, make a standard stout in that image.

Of course, most craft stout and porter taste better than Guinness, but I can see its DNA in these beers.

Michael Jackson contributed to this by identifying a style of “dry stout”, one said to be Irish. But historically Irish stout, certainly when mild or new, had a good body and indeed was all-malt into the early 1930s (no raw grains). Of course he based himself on what was in the market when he started writing in 1977.

Guinness at the time pretty much defined stout, at least visibly it did. So he used that as the barometer of modern stout, vs. say how Guinness was brewed in the 1800s.

I don’t brew at home but if I did, I’d make a beer with the same roast intensity as the Maverick, or less, and attenuate it higher. Perhaps too I’d omit the oatmeal although I don’t mind it necessarily.

Porter in its 1700s-1800s heyday did not use oatmeal, not commercially-produced ones. I’m not sure the addition really helps the taste. Fuller’s porter doesn’t use it and may be all-malt although it could have more character.

Putting it a different way, I’d like to see more regular-strength porter or stout with the kind of richness encountered in Imperial stout, milk stout, or Baltic porter. The last two are part of the porter family but due to their respective lactose and bottom-fermentation, they differ from the standard porter palate.

Therefore, they can’t substitute for the kind of palate I’m talking about.


*Pilsener Urquell is about 1014 FG, which most would consider full-bodied. This gives an idea of the relative richness of “robust porter” in the 1800s (see the Comments).




9 thoughts on “Porter Ponderings”

  1. Until the mid 1970’s one could get Narragansett Porter made in Rhode Island. Like Ballantine IPA, a relic of a prior era. In my memory, it was dry and moderately hopped for the day, roasty malt, but not coffee bitter or syrupy sweet. To get it, I had to special order cases from my local liquor store in Connecticut. I suspect that they were amused that a 19 year old was ordering this odd item that they had little demand for. It vanished some time after when I was no longer living in the area.

    • That’s very interesting, thanks David. How did you develop an interest in such unusual beers then?

      The beer sounds possibly like Yuengling lager.

      Also, do you have any memory of Ballantine India Pale Ale then? Thanks.


      • In the mid 70’s to early 80’s I was introduced to “interesting” beers as a byproduct of the folk dancing culture. Morris dancing to be specific. Many of that subculture were beer aficionados and were looking for new tastes. At the time, I lived in Buffalo and could get a range of ales both Canadian and American. Koch’s Black Horse Ale from Dunkirk, New York became one of my staples. When I first tasted Ballantine IPA, it was a revelation. So much flavor without the dark heaviness of stout. I needed more, but it was available only in a few outlets. At one point, I managed to order a half keg (15 gallons) for a party. When the partyers were unable to finish it all, I filled empty Canadian Guinness bottles and capped them to save the rest. I was, after all, 21 and living on limited income. I passed it off to my friends as the rare Guinness Light.

        • Interesting information, thanks. Bill Newman, who set up the first craft brewery on the east coast c.1982, in Albany, was also a Morris dancing enthusiast.


  2. I tend to agree with your plea for more richness in UK contemporary porter. The Kernel make some nice examples.

    One observation: there are quite a few local craft beer examples of ‘coffee porters’ or even ‘mocha porters’. Almost as a style in itself/themselves. They can be quite nice if the coffee or choc/cocoa nibs are high quality and this can certainly add a certain richness to the style at (IMHO) around 6.0-6.5%+ ABV. My palate usually finds porters of lower ABV (say 4.5-5.0%) can be watery, lacking in body and too thin for real satisfaction in the finish.

    Cooper’s Stout from Adelaide, SA is a particular old favourite of mine from around 1984. So pre-craft. A couple of my friends were keen rock climbers and brought back a taste for the stout from their adventures in the Grampians, VIC, a place noted for superb climbing spots.

    Back in Wellington (NZ) we had one bottle shop we could purchase six packs with the yellow side ring pull on the squat 355ml stubbies. It was 6.8% and I still clearly remember my first taste of the beer as the strongest, most flavoursome, BITTER and deeply satisfying brew I had ever tasted.

    It was not like all the other beers which were sweet, fizzy and blonde.

    You only needed two (along with a bit of the other) to get my 19 year old university student self very nicely toasted at parties. The 750ml bottles I had access to later on were even more so. Golly.

    They started putting a regular crown on the bottles and then reduced the ABV a while ago, and I haven’t enjoyed them since.


    • Helpful and interesting, Ben, thanks, Cooper’s was a survival of the old time taste. Even Lion Stout (Sinha in some markets) from the former Ceylon, Sri Lanka, a survival of old British brewing there, seems changed to me today, not as “liqueur” rich as Jackson said it was when he first noticed it.

      I still buy it though, and it sells for a moderate price. It’s gone the other way in ABV than formerly – higher. Yet it’s not better on that account, so kind of the obverse to what you were saying about Cooper’s, but with a similar reaction on my part.

      I hope Cooper’s is still good though, haven’t found it in many years.

      The Australian Sheaf Stout, which you may know, is an example of the dry style from the old days IMO.

      The coffee group I abjure completely. I just don’t get the connection: the coffee seems out of place. I didn’t grow up with them so am not accustomed, mayve it’s just that. But also nagging in the back of my mind is there is no history behind it. It’s a new invention of craft brewing (essentially).

      I’ve had some Kernel stout that was excellent, I think the Export they do is, certainly. The Imperial I didn’t like, too coffee expresso even with no coffee added, not the right taste, IMO. Haven’t tried lower-gravity examples.

      Best regards.


  3. Most craft brewers make “robust” porter. More hops, think Deschuttes Black Butte Porter (which I love) out of Bend, Oregon and Smuttynose (sadly no longer with us) out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

    • Yes, and from a historical standpoint its origins are a puzzle as no much thing existed by that name, to my knowledge.

      Black Butte’s beer may be a progenitor although it is better than most porter and stout I encounter day in day out.


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