What Makes Beer A Porter?

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Like stouts, porters tend to be thought of as dark, strong beers that are perfect for a cold winter night. But, like stouts again, porters can vary pretty drastically from brewery to brewery. If you haven’t noticed already, porters are extremely similar to stouts, making them hard to classify. In fact, even Guinness’ renown Extra Stout was originally known as Extra Superior Porter, blurring the lines between the two styles.

There’s a lot of debate about what really makes a porter. But we’re going to take a look at some of the general defining characteristics as well as a brief history about the style to help you get a grasp of what exactly a porter is. This way, you’ll better understand what you’re drinking and hopefully try to seek out and enjoy this historic beer style.

Porter Characteristics

When you think of a porter, a pitch black beer might come to mind. But porters actually vary in color, from medium brown to black. Brown porters tend to be lighter in color, while robust porters are typically pitch black. They can be anywhere from light to full bodied and have a malty sweetness along with a modest to moderate hop bitterness.

Though you may taste subtle roasted or burnt flavors, using roasted barley or malt is pretty rare when it comes to porters. Many porters feature fruity esters for a deliciously complex flavor profile.

What Makes Porters Different From Stouts?

As you can see, two porters can be very different from one another. But what really sets porters apart from their stout counterparts is their lack of roast barley flavor. New Mexico Tech notes that porters may have a roast malt flavor, but no roast barley flavor. In fact, BeerAdvocate states that it’s pretty uncommon for breweries to add roasted malt to their beer. Stouts, on the other hand, are known for their classic roasted flavor from roasted barley.

But it’s not as easy that. According to the book Tasting Beer, a porter may have “creamy roasty-toasty malt” flavors. So the next porter you order may have the classic roast flavors of a stout. Whatever the case, stouts tend to have higher levels of roasted barley than porters.

Got a different idea about what makes porters different from stouts? Let us know on Facebook! But for now, let’s take a look at the history of porters, which might help clear some things up.

Brief History of Porter Beer

A quick look at the history of porters again supports the idea that stouts are distinguishable by their roasted characteristics. If we step back to the 1700s, we see that porters were one of the first types of beers crafted to suite the public’s taste buds. Back then, porters were stronger than the ones today, sometimes clocking in at over 7% ABV. Porters were tasty, flavorful, and cheaper than other beers, causing them to become very popular among transportation workers (or porters) in London, which lent the beer its name.

Stout’s association with porters came very early on. In the 1700s, the word “stout” was used to describe strong beers of any style, including porters. Stout porters were stronger varieties of porters. But once coffee roasters became a popular appliance, “stout” became its own style marked by roasted malts that changed the color and flavor of beer, according to BeerAdvocate.

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Carla Lauter was the founder of The Beer Babe and has been a beer blogger and expert for several decades. She's been interviewed in beer publications and podcasts about her favorite brews and the craft brewing scene. While she's ceased her involvement with The Beer Babe, her legacy remains in the various reviews and articles she has written.