I love Twitter, if only for its constant stream of real-time information. It’s also good to provide inspiration, like when Beer Is My Church posited these lines:
Ok. Enough. If I hear one more “#beer nerd” say “this porter tastes more like a stout”, I’m going to lose it. Explain to me the difference.
— Beer Is My Church (@BeerIsMyChurch) May 7, 2013
The argument can be made & won, that 100+ years ago there were differences between stouts & porters. That is no longer true.
— Beer Is My Church (@BeerIsMyChurch) May 7, 2013
… so that got me to thinking: is there a discernible difference between a porter and stout? More important, is that something we see today?
Beauty is in the eye of the beerholder, so what makes a porter a porter or a stout a stout could simply be left up to the whimsy of the brewer (or drinker). There are set “guidelines” of course, but let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.
So, I’ve turned to some trusty beer reading materials to see just what this difference might be and how much weight this “porter vs stout” issue had. I found that there might just be something to this after all.
First, I opened my copy of the Oxford Companion to Beer in an attempt to get some historical perspective. You can actually read all about porter and the birth of stout here, but the gist is that stout emerged in England in the 1700s as a simple descriptor for a more “bold” version of any beer style, similar to how we throw around “imperial” today.
From a style standpoint of today’s beers, here’s what Oxford had to offer:
|Color||Opaque deep brown or black||Opaque, although originally believed to be a deep shade of brown to mahogany|
|Smell||Distinct roasted character that is often perceived as dark chocolate or coffee||Predominant notes of rich chocolate as well as coffee and sometimes smokiness|
|Taste||N/A – depends on specific style||Acidic and/or dry|
Very similar, but you can see where the subtle differences may arise. When you say “stout,” people may automatically associate the tar-black look of Guinness, which wouldn’t be far off from a typical representation. Say “porter,” and that black hole of beer may not come up in someone’s mind.
As for smell, according to Oxford, stouts rely more on roasted or nutty characteristics, while porter may smell more of chocolate.
To try and further understand these differences, I checked out Tasting Beer and found these descriptions:
|Flavor||Always roasty; may have caramel and hops too||Creamy roasty-toasty malt, hoppy or not|
|Aroma||Roasty malt; with or without hop aroma||Roasty maltiness; usually little or no hop aroma|
|Balance||Very dry to very sweet (depending on style)||Malt, hops, roast in various proportions|
|Seasonality||Year-round||Year-round, great in cooler weather|
|SRM (Beer color – higher=darker)
||Minimum of 20 to 40+||20 to 50|
Again, the difference between the two may be small. A stout is “always roasty” in flavor while a porter is a Dr. Seuss-appropriate “creamy roasty-toasty,” whatever that means. There’s a slight change in aroma here, offering the potential for hop aroma in stouts but nearly nothing for porters. Color is a wash.
Lastly, I turned to Designing Great Beers to get into the weeds of what makes these two beers great homebrews. No charts here, but definitely worthwhile differences to note.
According to Ray Daniels, the key difference with the winning porter and stout recipes from the National Homebrew Competition is – no surprise – the use of malt. The average grain bill of well-performing homebrewed porter used 80 percent pale ale malt while stout recipes used an average of 61 percent. The other big difference was the use of roasted barley, which was twice as much in stouts (8 percent) compared to use in some porters (4 percent).
Generally speaking, pale ale malt would supply a beer with more “toasty” flavors. Roasted barley, of course, would impart flavors closely associated to coffee.
That is important, because roasted grains were widely used in successful competition homebrewed stouts (90+ percent) compared to porters, where roasted grains appeared in 30 to 60 percent of “robust” porters, but not at all in brown porters.
All those numbers are to say, for homebrewers, “roasted” is to stouts as “toasty” is to porters.
So what does all this mean?
Yes, there are certainly differences between porters and stouts, but is there enough for the average beer drinker to notice … or care? Perhaps Beer Is My Church is right in suggesting the two are interchangeable. However, there is certainly enough subtle difference in the construction of each beer that a craft beer lover may pick up.
However, maybe we shouldn’t focus as much on porter vs stout as much as the differences between versions of porters against porters and stouts against stouts.
The elephant in the room is there are many different versions of stouts and porters within their own style. For example, BJCP offers guidelines for six different styles of stout and three kinds of porters. Some may align in general principle for Average Joe Drinker (robust porter and dry stout, Baltic porter and Russian Imperial stout) and others would certainly showcase as complete opposites (brown porter and sweet stout).
Here we are again, fellow beer lovers … what’s the difference to you?
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac