Porters — as in, the style of beer — originated in the United Kingdom several centuries ago as a way to appease the working class. The beer gets its name from the porters that carried goods around the streets of London, rough and tumble workers who wanted something more substantial than the table beers known as bitters. The porter, with its heartier flavor profile, was exactly what they were seeking.
The style of beer has developed over the years, and these days there are several sub-varieties of porters to explore. Three distinct types of porters are now mainstream, and today we'll explore all three and consider the differences among them.
First things first: Regardless which style of porter you enjoy, all porters retain certain characteristics that bond them together as a style: They are all dark beers; all porters contain some roast and/or chocolate malt character, though the extent can vary widely; and they are also all considered to be malt-showcased beers.
Now, we can begin.
Sub-Style: Brown Porter
Example: Fuller's London Porter, London, England, 5.4% ABV
Brewing classic porters since 1854, Fuller's creates a flavorful, complex package of balanced flavors in this easy-drinking 5.4% ABV porter. Well-balanced aromas include chocolate, light roast, toffee, caramel, and biscuity malt with golden raisin yeast character to support. These same aromatics carry over into the flavor, with different notes shining through various parts of the palate. Nuttiness appears more pronounced in the flavor, as do the caramel and toffee notes, while the chocolate subtly presents with just a hint of roast. Fuggles hops provide an earthy hop flavor at moderate levels. The beer pours brown and opaque at a glance, though when held up to light the clarity shows some ruby-red notes.
English yeast provides additional estery (as in, fruity) character reminiscent of raisins or apricots that isn't found as strongly in the other two styles of porters. This beer is creamy, with no astringency and no perceptible alcohol warmth. The signature differences found in this beer and sub-style include the toffee/caramel character, the additional yeasty flavor and aromas, and the creaminess in the mouthfeel. Though many people first venture into the realm of dark beers with the ubiquitous Guinness Stout, Fuller's London Porter would be a better gateway dark beer for those that want to explore the "dark side" without diving in head first.
Sub-Style: Robust Porter
Example: Sierra Nevada Porter, Chico, California, 5.6% ABV
Roast malt leads with chocolate malt also along for the ride, both aromatically and in the flavor. The beer pours deep brown and clear, with some ruby highlights when held to the light. The hops are a standout here, separating the robust style from the other two. American-grown hops provide an earthy/citrus flavor and aroma.
Compared with a brown porter, this beer is roastier, hoppier, more aggressive, and drier. This results from the inclusion of roast malt and a higher hopping rate (32 IBU), which provides additional bitterness. This style is straightforward and simple — less complex compared with the other two styles of porter. If you like roast malt with a side of hops and a hint of chocolate, this is the beer for you.
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Sub-Style: Baltic Porter
Example: Smuttynose Baltic Porter, Hampton, New Hampshire, 9.0% ABV
The Baltic Porter originated in the Baltic region, where the weather is colder and the beers need to be a little more substantial. This style is very interpretive. Some styles of Baltic porter are malt-forward, similar in nature to a dopplebock, while others are more roast-dominant, such as Finland's Sinebrychoff. New Hampshire's Smuttynose provides a midpoint for the style, one that has subdued roast character behind its showcase of dark fruit-like malt flavors and aromas. Plums, prunes, dark raisins, and figs are front and center. Alcohol is also a key flavor and aroma component and is not subtle, but it does add body and additional sweet flavor. Baltic porters are typically brewed with lager yeast, which produces a clean beer with little to no ester production. Hopheads needn't check out this beer, as it is a 100-percent malt showcase with no perceptible hop flavor or aroma and only enough bitterness to balance the big malt. The lack of hops, the dark fruit malt showcase, and the elevated alcohol all set a Baltic apart from the other porter styles.
No matter which style of porter you enjoy, remember not to judge an entire category by one example. A brown porter is an entirely different experience from a Baltic porter, as is a robust, even though they share the common moniker of porter.