Some would say that there is no difference between a porter and a stout. Others would agree that there are differences, but would proceed to argue over what those differences are. Both styles of beer were developed during the industrial revolution in England and Ireland, this we know. Both styles are dark, and feature roasted barley and it's quintessential malt-y flavor. On this, we can all agree. But beyond these two basic ideas there is no consensus. Recipes varied from brewery to brewery - one man's stout was another man's porter.
Of course - as with all traditions of food and drink- there is a healthy serving of folklore surrounding porters and stouts. Ask around a little bit and you'll be entertained with stories of how the stouts became associated with the Irish. There are stories of how porters were originally developed by mixing all the old crappy beer together. Or that they are named for the "porters" who worked the streets and rivers of London and imbibed said brew. You'll hear tales of roasting techniques being developed in an attempt to disguise the traditional murkiness of the Ales of the time. How much truth there is in any of the stories is next to impossible to determine. After all, this is the nature of folkways.
No matter, really, the beer tastes good.
I attended a tasting recently that featured craft-brewed stouts and porters from both the old world and the new. The recipes continue to vary today. Many of the craft-brewers today are researching "traditional" recipes and attempting to recreate some very old-school brews. Others have focused their attention on creativity and innovation. As evidenced by the stouts and porters being crafted today that feature new twists like the addition of coffee, or lactose, or smoked grains to the brews. I enjoyed some of these innovations very much, and others, not so very much.
Here are my impressions and tasting notes for the six beers we tasted that night:
Meantime Brewing - London Porter. 6.5% ABV (Alcohol by Volume). Meantime Brewing is a London brewery that has been researching and recreating the traditional British beers of the 18th century. Their claim is that this porter is based on a recipe from 1750. The beer has all the smoky, roasted flavors you would expect, but is rather light, without all the bitterness. Available in a 750 ml bottle with a real cork. I was charmed enough by this one to buy it.
Left Hand Brewing Company - Milk Stout. 5.5% ABV. Left Hand is a Colorado based craft brewery. Their Milk Stout is produced by adding milk sugar to the brew as a way to smooth the roasted flavors. It had a very dark, mostly black color, and a silky, creamy texture.
Kona Brewing Company - Pipeline Porter. 5.4% ABV. The Kona Brewing Company is located on the big island of Hawaii. Their Pipeline Porter is brewed with the addition of 100% Kona Coffee. The coffee flavor was very forward in this brew. It had a rich roasted flavor, and a more pronounced bitterness than some of the others we tasted.
Stone Brewing Company - Stone Smoked Porter. 5.9% ABV. The Stone Brewing Co. is crafting their beers in San Diego, CA. The Smoked Porter was big, bold, and robust. Brewed with peat-smoked malt, the smoke flavor really came through with this brew. I could imagine it paired perfectly with grilled meat or fish. This is the only other beer I tasted that night that I liked well enough to buy, and I bought two of the 22 oz bottles. I'll share.
Avery Brewing - The Czar Russian Imperial Stout. 11.75% ABV. Located in Boulder, CO, is brewing up some interesting brews. Note the alcohol content on this beer. This beer is what most people expect from a stout in that it is inky, black, and thick. But it is also completely unexpected. Behind the traditional roasted and chocolaty flavors, this beer finished with something close to juniper. Definitely a beer to be shared - with it's high alcohol content and it's retail price tag of $7 for a 22 oz. bottle.
Avery Brewing - Mephistopheles' Stout. 16.1% ABV. As if the heady alcohol content of The Czar wasn't enough. This devil of a brew was black as coal, and thick as molasses. It had deep, rich flavors that reminded me of cola and butterscotch. It was delicious, but a little too evil for me.