By Gail Oberst
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Porter is a complicated beer, but drinking it is really easy. Porter was one of England’s first beers blended in the 1700s to please consumer tastes, first in pubs and later in breweries. Although accounts vary, publicans blended various amounts of the regular brown ale, young beers and stronger aged ales or sour beers according to consumer tastes. The blends became so popular that breweries began producing aging and then pre-mixing them before sending them off to the pubs as “porters.” Before porters, beer aging had been done in the pubs.
For more than a century, porters were the drink of choice in England in the 1700s and 1800s, finding fans in Russia and the Baltic countries and eventually in America. Wherever they went, brewers adapted the style to regional tastes. Stouts, by the way, began as shortened monikers for “porter stouts,” the stronger version of porters.
In America, porters and stouts enjoyed a popular following, with the name “porter” falling off in the early 1900s in favor of stouts, and then completely disappearing during and after Prohibition.
But obviously, that’s not the end of the story.
A few experimental Western U.S. breweries began brewing porters again as early as the 1970s and several British breweries also revived the style. Today, dozens of Oregon breweries produce porters seasonally.
Is there any difference between porters and stouts? Yes, and no.
According to BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program), there are three kinds of porters: brown porter, robust porter and Baltic porter. Porters are described as more malty and full-bodied than stouts, but alcohol content, top or bottom fermentation and color can be the same for both a porter or a stout.
In Oregon, the dark palette of the porter invites as much experimentation as pale ales, prompting vanilla, chocolate, coffee, coconut and, of course, hop additions to the mix.
My advice? Forget the complicated history that brings this delicious style to our shores and enjoy your porter for what it is.
Following are a few Oregon porters recommended by the participants in our monthly blind tasting:
Deschutes: Black Butte Porter, Bend 5.2 percent ABV, 30 IBUs
Brewery Description: An extremely smooth and drinkable porter with notes of rich chocolate and coffee, a luscious creaminess and a roasted finish. Cascade, Bravo and Tettnang hops with chocolate malt.
Consumer Comments: Complex flavors; best of the bunch. Multiple flavors, you just gotta love it. Bright and refreshing. Is there such a thing as a lawnmower porter? It’s this one. This is the best! Could drink this anytime. Malty without overt sweetness. Tastes the way a porter should taste. Outstanding. Bananas, cola, smooth and creamy.
Hop Haus: Cocos Nucifera Porter, Gresham 5.5 percent ABV, 34 IBUs
Brewery Description: Creamy mocha head. Coconut flavor doesn’t overpower. Hints of cocoa and coffee with a creamy finish.
Consumer Comments: Intense, great with Indian food. Nice and sweet. Rich and creamy; a night by the fire. Nutty, smooth. A comfort on a rainy evening. Interesting taste: sweet but not chocolate. Sweet notes. Simple and tasty. A delicious breakfast beer.
Rogue: Mocha Porter, Newport 5.3 percent ABV, 54 IBUs
Brewery Description: Ruddy brown in color, a bittersweet balance of malt and hops with a light cream finish.
Consumer Comments: Lively, sparkling. I’m waking up with this one! The perfect afternoon delight. Crisp and smooth. I could drink five of these. Refreshing. Crisp and good.
Ordnance: Of Chimpanzees Porter, Boardman 5.3 percent ABV, 27 IBUs
Brewery Description: This full-bodied porter showcases locally roasted coffee from Home Town Coffee Roasters. Tasty any time of day.
Consumer Comments: Well-crafted coffee notes. Bitter in the best ways possible — not like writing my alimony check each month. Light coffee and malt flavors. Good coffee flavor.
Silver Moon: Snake Bite Porter, Bend 5.5 percent ABV, 40 IBUs
Brewery Description: A robust porter, Snake Bite continues to win awards with its rich and creamy body, English hops to blend with the toasted malt bitterness and a deep chocolate finish.
Consumer Comments: Light and bright. A little flowery effect. This one would be good with a meal. Nice and balanced. A winner: smooth, crisp and complex. Unique. Enjoying this — toasted marshmallows.
By Gail Oberst and Will Oberst-Cairns
Dark, rich porters arrived on the beer scene in the early 1700s as the love child of London’s brown beer and strong ale. It was the first beer to be aged and mixed at any brewery. Before porters arrived on the scene, beers were delivered fresh to the pub, and if there was aging to be done, it was done because the patrons didn’t drink it fast enough. I lie. Sometimes, the publicans and distributors aged it on purpose.
I could talk about Harwood’s Entire Butt, and a lot of other geeky stuff (look it up!), but suffice it to say early porters weighed in at over 6 percent ABV, rather strong by historic standards. Early porters were also brewed with brown malt, but the invention of black patent malt in 1817 made it possible to brew porter with pale malts, as they still are. It was the porter that prompted the use of thermometers and hydrometers in brewing, to push the ABV. Thanks, porter!
For various reasons – I think it was because porters were growing weaker than their predecessors – the popularity of porters began to wane from the mid-1800s until the mid-1900s.
The 1970s saw a revival in the production of porters, including the Baltic porter, originally brewed with top-fermenting yeasts in the 1800s, and with lager yeasts later on.
American porters have followed both British and Baltic traditions. You may find them as lagers or ales. Oregon’s porters are no less various.
One of Oregon’s oldest porters, Black Butte, produced in 1988, is still Deschute’s flagship beer. Other Oregon porters, as you will see below, vary in strength and ingredients.
Our porter tasters included industry professionals, distributors, writers, and friends and family of Blake Crosby, who gathered at his hop farm last month to celebrate the hop harvest. Here are their favorites, chosen in a blind tasting.
McMenamins Black Widow, Oregon 7.35% ABV, 40 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Originally created at the Thompson Brewery over 20 years ago on Oct. 15, 1991, and made once per year by all Thompson Brewers to come after that, Black Widow has generous amounts of black and roast malts, Horizon hops and flavors of caramel and licorice.
Tasters’ Descriptions: Malty goodness, roasty chocolate. Sweet molasses with smoke. Ice cream with a candy aroma like an old-time hardware store.
Laurelwood Organic Tree Hugger, Portland 5.8% ABV, 45 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: This porter features a chocolate malt flavor that finishes dry and roasty. Delicate organic Newport, Cascade, and Fuggle hop flavors round out this rich, full-bodied ale. Brewed with 100% organically-grown crystal, carafa and chocolate malts.
Tasters’ Descriptions: More malty goodness. Get my cigars and tobacco pouch out. Fresh and tangy. Classic and true to style. Excellent balance.
Twisted Snout Honey Oatmeal Porker, Toledo 6.9% ABV
Brewer’s Description: A smooth, roasted chocolaty porter made with whole grain oats and wildflower honey from Queen Bee Apiaries, a honey company in Corvallis.
Tasters’ Descriptions: Roasty delicious. Fresh green tobacco leaves with cardamom. Very creamy, thick and chocolaty. Is it bourbon-barrel? It’s sweet and complex.
Rat Hole Vanilla Porter, Bend 5.5% ABV, 30 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: A mild, appealing aroma of vanilla and a soft creamy mouth feel with a chocolate finish. Madagascar vanilla beans, six malts and chocolate and flaked oats.
Tasters’ Descriptions: Mild coffee. Nice chocolate flavor with a light body. Smokey vanilla smooth with hops. Chocolate decadence. Just a hint of coffee with nice malt.
Long Brewing Paul’s Porter, Newberg 6.2% ABV
Brewer’s Description: Intensely black with a thick tan head. Layers of dark bitter-sweet chocolate, coffee and caramel aroma and flavors supported by rich complex malts. Lightly hopped.
Tasters’ Descriptions: Smooooth as molasses. Creamy. Clean. Vanilla notes.
13 Virtues Baltic Porter, Portland 8.0% ABV, 40 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: This Baltic porter is a strong black lager that was given a healthy period of cold-conditioning to achieve its crispness. Chocolate and cocoa entice the taste buds for a moment.
Tasters’ Descriptions: Crisp. Good and clean. Pretty nice. Flavorful.
Mazama Pyroclastic Porter, Corvallis 5.2% ABV, 30 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: This porter pays homage to the bean roaster of the Pacific Northwest. It combines roasty aromas with a dark cocoa finish. Brewed with Oregon hops, these balance the bitter- sweet chocolate malt.
Tasters’ Descriptions: More malty than the others. Good alcohol balance. Good bold flavor but not too heavy. Good body. Lots of chocolate. My favorite.
Oregon Beer Growler each month invites consumers to “blind” taste a different style or group of beers at various locations across the state.