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Porter or Stout? Decisions, decisions…

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by Anna Roth
photos by Lara Ferroni
 
You’d think it would be easy to explain the difference between stouts and porters.
 

Generally speaking, beer styles evolve from distinctions in bitterness, region of origin, strength and appearance. But when it comes to these two particular ales, their history is intertwined, their ingredients are practically identical, and every brewer seems to have a different definition.

Technically and historically, the answer is pretty straightforward. “They’re two of the same product. You can arbitrarily call a porter a stout, or a stout a porter,” Charles Finkel told me confidently. As the co-owner and founder of Pike’s Brewing Co. and a self-made beer expert, he would know. (Check out his collection of historical memorabilia at the Pike Pub sometime; it’s an education itself.)

“Porter was the first commercial beer in England, and the original. Ultimately, porter in the world became usurped by the word stout when it moved its location to Ireland,” he explains. “Stout remained the chosen word for a dark beer for most of the 19th and 20th century.” (That’s thanks to a little company called Guinness.)

But then why do we still drink porter? Interesting story, actually: Finkel’s the man responsible for bringing it back to the public eye, along with oatmeal stout, back when he was moonlighting as a consultant for British brewing giant Samuel Smith in the late 70s. He made their new porter lighter than stouts on the market—4 percent alcohol to their 8 percent. Today, that’s the generally accepted distinction between them.

 

So, if porters are lighter than stouts, then what about all the different types of porters and stouts: Imperial stout, oatmeal stout, smoked porter and a stack of brewery-specific varieties. Jack Joyce, founder of Oregon’s Rogue Brewery, seemed like the right expert to sort this out. Rogue’s known for its inventive (and impressively long) roster of ales, including four stouts and two porters. Rogue also makes Shakespeare Stout, the gold standard in the Northwest.

Joyce agreed with the principle definition that porter’s generally weaker than stout—but added that brewing beer is a lot more complicated than people assume. “Wine’s made from one grape. But with craft beer, you’re dealing with at least seven ingredients, maybe two hops and five barleys, so the complexity of the result is a lot higher,” he explains.

Before diving into the specific styles of porters and stouts, it’s first important to get into how they’re made. Most beer begins life as barley (wheat beer is the exception). Most of the time, that barley is soaked in water until it germinates, then heated and dried in a kiln—this is called malting, and it’s an essential step in the brewing process. Malting breaks down proteins and otherwise converts starch to sugar, creating enzymes that the yeast will later use to produce alcohol.

 

Usually, the bulk of the base, or the “base malt,” is pale and unroasted, preserving all of the all-important alcohol-making enzymes. To add color, flavor and texture, brewers will also add specialty malts that have been kilned longer. The type of specialty malt depends on the type of beer.When making stouts and porters, brewers throw in chocolate malt (roasted until it’s caramely and nutty) and black malt (roasted within an inch of its life for a bitter, burnt flavor that helps temper the rest of the malt’s sweetness).

Then, just to confuse things, they sometimes throw unmalted barley in the mix—which doesn’t have any of the necessary enzymes to make alcohol, but has the advantage of complex proteins and nitrogens, which produce a really great head on the beer. In a dry stout, unmalted barley will account for 10% to 15% of the total malt cocktail.

Northwest brewers have also started experimenting with ageing their beers in casks from wine, bourbon and other spirits, which throws a curveball into the whole flavor profile. (Rogue’s Issaquah Brewhouse sometimes has an aged stout; Pike’s Pub has just released Pike’s Entire, which is aged in wood oak barrels.)

Finally, a word on how the beer is served. Most beer is carbonated with carbon dioxide in pubs, but the better ones offer a nitrogen tap. Nitrogen has smaller bubbles than carbon dioxide, which produce a smoother mouthful and a creamier head of foam. Some pubs also offer one or two beers on cask—served room-temperature and uncarbonated, which lets a more mellow flavor profile emerge.

It’s a lot to consider the next time you’re ordering a stout or porter in a pub—or give up on attempting to learn the intricacies of malts and drink your education instead.

 

Eating and drinking things are all in a day’s work for Anna Roth.

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