The Spirit of ’91
The term has been used since the 1990s on some beer labels. One of the earliest commercial examples is the excellent, flavourful Smuttynose Robust Porter.
The term once appeared in the style guidelines of the BJCP, or Beer Judging Certification Program. (The history of the BJCP is of great interest, which I may revisit). The BJCP does not currently use the term, other than as a simple adjective to describe some beer qualities.
Some beer labels or websites still tout a robust porter though. In Ontario offhand I can think of Beau, Halo, Henderson, and Amsterdam, but there are numerous others. In the 2008 BJCP the following was noted of the “style”:
Stronger, hoppier and/or roastier version of porter designed as either a historical throwback or an American interpretation of the style. Traditional versions will have a more subtle hop character (often English), while modern versions may be considerably more aggressive. Both types are equally valid.
This is fairly vague, and from a historical standpoint cannot be justified, hence the abandonment of the term by BJCP. Still, “robust porter” has an acquired resonance in the market, and is not likely to disappear any time soon.
The answer I gave to Alistair’s question was one I found in Terry Foster’s 1992 book, Porter. London-born, American-based Foster has written a couple of books on porter and stout, and other books on beer.
He has advanced academic qualifications and is well-known in the American brewing establishment. Read his bio in the site Brewers’ Publications.
An excerpt from the book reads:
The American Homebrewers Association, in its specifications for entries in the 1991 National Homebrew Competition, deems it necessary to define two types of porter. The first is “Robust Porter”, with the accent on black malt flavor and no roast barley character; the second is “Brown Porter”, with no roast barley or strong burnt malt character. Personally, I would prefer to think of porter as one beer with a whole continuum of roasted malt flavours.
One can see by the last sentence that Foster understood the deficiencies of this two-fold definition, but he was simply explaining its origins.
In the U.K. where they originated, porter and stout were originally brewed with all-barley malt.* The dark colour came from brown, black, and/or amber malts. Later, roasted (unmalted) barley might be used to impart the colour, and malt adjuncts or sugars added to the mash.
In my view, what the people drawing the robust porter definition were getting at is that porter originally was all-malt and relied on dark malt for the distinctive palate.
Whereas modern Guinness uses a high proportion of unmalted grains, including roasted barley, with a correspondingly different palate. Guinness had considerable influence on craft thinking in the last 30-40 years, via in part the landmark writings of Michael Jackson.
It is reasonable that the 1991 competition inspired the now-abandoned BJCP usage and still-current commercial usages.
I’ve pointed to Foster’s book for the origin-explanation, and thus far no better one has emerged to my knowledge.
There is always a tension between historical and contemporary commercial realties. They meet somewhere in the middle; always did, always will. The robust term has a cool sound, and in time suggested variations to brewers such as a stronger beer.
Brown porter, in contrast, is an anodyne formulation, and has enjoyed less popularity, although one does see it occasionally on a beer label or blackboard listing of draft beers. It was getting at the (undoubted) fact that the earliest porters were brewed from all-brown malt, and hence lacked a strong burnt taste from highly roasted or black malt.
Some modern robust porters use both roasted barley and black or other dark malts, some are higher-alcohol, some are flavoured, and so on. Commercial life takes a shape of its own, as it should.
Finally, attendees of the 1991 competition – it was held in Manchester, New Hampshire – may have a paper in their basement on which that first definition was written. It might offer more insight on how the term emerged.
And god bless the domestic mixers of magic malt potions who present their brews for the delectation of the like-minded. Without them there would be no craft brewing industry today.
*Unless made at home where standards laws did not apply, but porter was pre-eminently an industrial phenomenon.