Porter Musings

On Saturday we got to taste a new friend’s first all grain homebrew – a clone of the English classic “Taddy Porter” from Samuel Smith. That was the first porter we ever tasted and still holds a spot in our hearts. We were quite pleased that his rendition sparked a comfortable familiarity, fitting nicely into the brown porter style. Albeit young and with the “wrong” yeast, he had managed to create that malty, smooth dark ale with a lasting chocolate finish supported by hop bitterness with limited hop and roast malt flavours.

Just two nights earlier we had dropped into The Free House and were drawn to the Renaissance Elemental Porter. This beer is also a classic by NZ craft standards, and yet we don’t often get to drink it on tap. Because it’s familiar, we didn’t expect to be excited by it, but actually found it exceeded our memories of “a nice porter.” A more NZ take on the traditional robust porter style, it is quite a bit punchier than the Taddy, with dry roast malt character and elevated hop flavours, which proved quite exciting.

But porter is like that. As we were reminded with these two instances, porters don’t always get the respect they deserve. We like porters, we make them, we drink them all winter (and sometimes in summer as well), but specific versions rarely make our favourite beer lists. Frankly, we take them a little for granted.

And we aren’t alone. Historically, porters were almost resigned to history with the invention of “stout porters,” (now commonly called stouts), and the rising popularity of pale ales and lagers. When we started drinking that Taddy Porter in the late 1980’s, porters were made by a handful of UK producers, having been resurrected from extinction in the prior decade. That is quite a fall from the beer that played a starring role in the infamous 1814 London beer flood.

Porter is truly a product of the industrial age. It came into popularity in the late 18th century, helped along by the growth of factories and systematic production techniques. The name itself refers to those working to transport the products of those factories from place to place.

Early examples were made from brown malt, and aged for up to 18 months. Changing tastes and the invention of black patent, the espresso roast of malt, found more robustly roasty versions appearing. These represent two of the three modern classifications for porter: brown, robust and Baltic.

If brown porters are malty chocolate and toffee, and robust porters are burnt caramel and coffee, then Baltic porters are dried fruit and liquorice. These beers resulted from the English products introduced to central Europe in during porter’s heyday. Though brown in colour, the influence of Russian stouts and European lagers is apparent in the higher alcohol, and smooth lager finish.

Throughout the 19th century, the porters were displaced by lighter coloured beers. First pale ales and then pilsners captured the public mood. Within the modern craft brewing phenomenon, porters are neglected in the race to create innovative and extreme flavour sensations.

And so even today, a good traditional porter probably won’t often stand up and shove all the showier beers off the podium. That said, Yeastie Boys Pot Kettle Black did in the Asian Beer Awards a few weeks ago. The label declares it a black IPA, but they also call it a hoppy porter. Delivering notes of coffee, caramel and citrus, clearly it’s a winner by modern interpretations of the robust style.

This winter, when our fancy turns to a darker brew, we are going to dial it back a bit, and reach for the porters on offer. We might even try a brown ale in a moment of reckless impulse.

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About Fritz and Maria

Fritz and Maria have been living, drinking and brewing together for over 20 years. As beer commentators and educators they strive to create a beerocracy where people exercise their palates by voting for quality in the marketplace. Their interests include the personalities, business, and culture of craft beer worldwide. As distillers for Rough Hands, they loved being at the place where magic meets science. Fritz and Maria can be found speaking at beery events, holding guided tastings, judging competitions.

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