All I want for Christmas is porter

David | Blog | December, 20 2010 | No Comment

I attended an annual holiday lunch a few days ago with some Chicago beer friends and afterward we stopped at Half Acre Beer Co.  The folks there were nice enough to give us a barely-scheduled tour, and they filled our glasses with the outstanding Daisy Cutter Pale Ale, and a new porter.  Both were delicious, but the porter stayed with me, and got me thinking that porter is a beer that Cheese and Cheers readers ought to meet.  

When I was first exposed to good beer, porter was one of the first traditional styles I encountered. It was a standard part of the American Brewpub lineup in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. It remains a beer that I love to come back to. Of course I’ve Never Met a Beer I Didn’t Like.

On the surface, porter is pretty straightforward. It’s a malty, dark beer rooted in English tradition, and positioned neatly in the progression of English ale styles.  The flavor and aroma of most porters are a malt-forward combination of bread, nuts, chocolate, and roast coffee.  It has a more restrained burnt/roast character than stout, and it offers more body, alcohol and flavor than its other neighbor, the brown ale.  Usually, hops play a background role.

But porter is really not that simple.  

“The more you try to pin it down, the more it wriggles free and becomes something unexpectedly different,” says author Randy Mosher in his 2009 book Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink. Mosher’s observation reflects the fact that much has been written about this style, and much of that is wrong. “There was never a single thing called ‘porter.’” Mosher writes “By the time a name was applied to it, there were many variations in both name and interpretation.”  While some accounts indicate that porter was invented by one particular English brewer in the early 19thcentury, Mosher says it’s birth was more organic, and the style has continued to evolve for more than three centuries.

Mosher does agree with the conventional wisdom that the name came to be applied in reference to railroad workers who were especially fond of this family of stronger brown ales.

Here are a few other things we can say about porter.  There are three sub-styles, according to the Beer Judge Certification Program. A brown porter is only slightly removed from the brown ale–very subtle roasted notes here, and an easy alcohol level of 4.0-5.4%. BJCP says the robust porter is bigger (4.8 to 6.5% ABV) with more body and a more pronounced roast flavor. The Baltic porter is really the weirdo of the bunch. Historically brewed in Finland, Poland and elsewhere on the Baltic Sea, it is traditionally made with lager yeast, brewed to a much higher alcohol level (up to 10%), and might be said to have nearly as much in common with Germany’s Schwarz bier as it does with other porters.

There are also indications that British porters were sometimes brewed with lager yeast, and that they were often tinged with wild flavors from brettanomyces.  Porters of the 19th century were likely aged in large wooden vessels with older and newer batches blended into the serving casks. As mentioned, there is a great deal of history and folklore surrounding the style, which is said to have begun as a sort of beer cocktail blended in the pub. Porter appears to have given birth to stout, as many early stouts were called “stout porter,” but that too is likely an oversimplification.  There was a time in the early 20thcentury when porter was perhaps the top-selling beer in London, but within a few decades it was nearly extinct. Porter’s revival began in the 1970s in the U.K. and flourished with early U.S. craft brewers a few years later.  Porters were once made primarily from brown malt, but that changed as brewing technologies revealed the economic advantages of using pale malt as the base. English hops are the tradition, but revival porters might be hopped more heavily and with American hop varieties.

In modern times, porter has fit nicely into seasonal rotations of both English and American brewers, and these are sometimes presented as Christmas porters in the early part of the winter.  In fact, just last week, I enjoyed two nice glasses of Three Floyd’s Alpha Claus at the Map Room in Chicago. It’s a hoppy, 6.0% ABV beer that the Indiana brewer releases each winter.

Other favorite examples of porter include Fullers London Porter, Burton Bridge Burton Porter, Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, Meantime London Porter, Boulevard Bully Porter, Bells Porter, Anchor Porter, Deschutes Black Butte Porter, Sierra Nevada Porter, and Flossmoor Station Pullman Brown, which is described as an America brown.  There are certainly dozens, if not hundreds, of other good examples in production in the U.S. and elsewhere. If it is a Baltic you are interested in there are a variety available in the U.S., including Okocim (Poland), Nogne O (Norway), Sinebrycoff (Finland) or Southampton (U.S.).  Harder to find in export markets are the Baltic porters brewed in Sweden, Russia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

Porters will do well with a variety of foods including meats and desserts.  I would suggest pairing them with several types of cheeses including Cheddars, and other British Farmhouse cheeses. The maltier interpretations can take on triple crèmes and even washed rinds, and the hoppy Americans will do well with milky blues and super-aged American Cheddars. Robusts and Baltics will stand up to the great blue cheeses of the world.

Under the right circumstances, porters are delightful any time of the year, but this isn’t just any time of year. So, Merry Christmas, and drink your porter!

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