Editor’s note: It is important that any beer enthusiast be able to properly identify different styles of beer as they are encountered in the wild. And more so, it is important for any novice brewer’s continued growth and success that he or she can distinguish between even closely related varieties as they endeavor to create them. It is with these noble goals in mind that we present the first in our series.
Whereas November 3, 2011 had been declared by parties of some authority to be International Stout Day, the purpose of which had been declared as “to celebrate the iconic beer style, Stout”, it is only fitting that the Field Guide turns it brief yet informative lens toward these dark treasures.
Porters and Stouts
The categories of dark beers commonly referred to as porters or stouts are quite similar, and in fact, the labels themselves have recent become essentially interchangeable.
The first recorded use of the name porter was in the early 1700′s to describe a dark beer that was popular with street and river porters of London. The name stout was originally a casual term used to refer to the stronger, or “stouter” varieties of porter. Eventually, in many circles, the word stout simply replaced the word porter and referred to any of the various dark beers now called either stout or porter.
Today, there is a great deal of disagreement amongst brewers regarding what, if anything, is the difference between stouts and porters. In terms of appearance, flavor, and aroma, there is historically no difference between varieties that have been alternately labeled one or the other. In regards to modern recipes, not even the original differentiation of strength seems to apply any more.
Indeed, the beer enthusiast will quickly note that all stouts and porters share certain qualities, the most notable being their rich brown color and malty and roasty flavors.
But even if the labels porter and stout are essentially interchangeable, there are a variety of styles that they both encompass, the most popular of which appear below.
First discovered in the late 16th century, the common brown porter’s original habitat was southeastern England (specifically London), but the style has now spread across the globe and should be fairly easy to spot.
Known as a variety for its distinctive brown color, individual brown porters may range from light to dark brown in the body, and will feature an off-white head.
When studying a brown porter, the taster should expect a malty and mild roasted flavor, with nearly no distinct hop flavor and rather low hop bitterness. More advanced drinkers will note a medium-bodied mouthfeel and moderate carbonation. Typical brown porters specimens will weigh in with an ABV between 4 – 5.5 percent.
OBSERVATION TIPS: In the wild, brown porters can be differentiated from brown ales by their richer substance and “roastier” qualities. If a novice taster is unsure whether she is observing a common brown or a robust porter, she should note that brown porters are generally sweeter with a more “caramel” quality, and with lower alcohol content.
LOOK FOR: Fuller’s London Porter
The robust porter variety has many of the same qualities as the common brown, and can often be found sharing the same habitats. However, it differs in that individuals will often feature a black patent malt character and will often be higher in alcohol content.
When seeking out a robust porter, keep your senses attuned for a moderately strong roasted and malty aroma and a darker brown body color, occasionally with ruby highlights. Note that some individual robusts may approach black in body color. This variety is known for having a full tan-colored head.
Tasting a robust porter will most often result in a strong malty sensation, with a lightly burnt and somewhat “sharp” character accompanied by rather high hop bitterness. Some individuals may exhibit chocolate or coffee characteristics.
A typical robust porter will feature an ABV figure between 5 and 6.5 percent.
LOOK FOR: Sierra Nevada Porter, Bell’s Porter, Rogue Mocha Porter
The breeding grounds of the elusive Baltic porter are traditionally located in the Scandanavian nations and some areas of eastern Europe. However, an intrepid brewer or enthusiast may be able to locate and identify a Baltic porter much closer to home.
To spot one, first look for a brew with a dark reddish copper to dark brown body and a thick tan-colored head. The careful observer will note a rich, sweet aroma with malty caramel overtones, often punctuated with fruity ester notes that may recall plums or cherries.
Upon closer approach, the enthusiast will experience a complex blend of flavor sensations, with many reports of sweet, fruity flavors mixing with dark malty “goodness” and slightly spicy hops. Some individual Baltics may exhibit roast coffee, molasses, or even licorice notes. The variety as a whole is well known for its higher alcohol content, most often between 7 and 9.5 percent ABV.
DID YOU KNOW?: Some experts may refer to the Baltic porter as an Imperial porter.
LOOK FOR: Zywiec Porter, Southampton Imperial Baltic Porter
An enthusiast hoping to observe and enjoy the famed Irish stout (also known as the “Dry Stout”) should have little trouble, as this fairly common species, originally native to Ireland, is easily spotted in tavern and shops throughout the world.
By looking for a very dark brown to jet black body, with a thick, creamy tan or brown colored head, the amateur beer enthusiast is well on his way to nabbing an Irish stout. He should expect a rich roasted barley and malt aroma, perhaps accompanied by a slight chocolate hint.
When tasting an Irish, one will note a moderately roasty and slightly sour taste with medium to high hop bitterness. Some individuals may exhibit a bittersweet chocolate flavor as well as a moderate creaminess. Carbonation is generally low across the breed.
A typical Irish stout will measure a standard 4 to 5 percent ABV.
LOOK FOR: Guinness Stout, Murphy’s Stout, Goose Island Dublin Stout, Brooklyn Dry Stout
Traditionally spotted mainly in England, the Sweet Stout can now often be found in North America, recognized mostly for its full body and sweet creaminess.
The sweet stout appears very dark brown or black in color, and features a creamy tan or brown head. It often emits a mildly roast aroma with little or no hint of hops, and some individuals have been known to exhibit hints of chocolate or coffee notes.
Tasting a sweet stout is often a complex experience, with rich dark roasted grain and malt flavors offset with a medium or even intense sweetness. The observer can expect a moderate hoppy bitterness to accompany the creamy texture.
A typical Sweet stout will register between 4 and 6 percent on the ABV scale.
DID YOU KNOW?: The sweet stout has also been historically called the “Milk” stout or “Cream” stout in many regions of the world. These appellations refer to the distinct quantities of unfermentable sugars they contain (often lactose, the primary sugar in dairy products).
LOOK FOR: Mackeson’s XXX Stout, St. Peter’s Cream Stout
The proud oatmeal stout is another species that was originally discovered in England but has since found footholds in other parts of the world. As with other members of the stout family, an enthusiast seeking an oatmeal should keep their eyes open for a medium-brown to black body. Oatmeal stouts are generally known to feature a distinctively thick and creamy head, dark tan or brown in color.
Upon approach, the observer will note an aroma of mild roasted grains and a distinct sweetness. Despite the name, an oatmeal aroma is not necessarily present in all individuals, which can make identification difficult without drinking.
When obtained, the oatmeal stout indeed makes for quite a satisfying taste experience, as it delivers a complex mix of roasted grains and oats, which impart a nutty, earthy flavor. An experienced brewer will note a nice malt sweetness, occasionally with chocolate, coffee, or cream notes, and a medium to low hop bitterness.
OBSERVATION TIPS: The amount of oatmeal flavor and aroma can vary quite wildly from one individual to the next, although a typical specimen would contain perhaps 5 to 15 percent oat grains. Higher oatmeal concentrations may lend an intense flavor and an oily texture.
Look For: Young’s Oatmeal Stout, Goose Island Oatmeal Stout, Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout
We hope that this brief primer on this popular beer style has been useful to novice and experienced beer enthusiasts alike. Happy hunting!
Recommended Additional Reading
So What is the Difference Between Porter and Stout?