A Beer for Winter
When it comes to wintertime beer recommendations, I think you have two options. One is to pretend that you are in a warmer time, and attempt to evoke some kind of cottage nostalgia. Grab a beer you tend to love during the hot weather and just pretend, right?
My preferred choice is the other option: accept the situation and settle into a beer that is rich, warming, and that would do well alongside a good book. Porters and stouts go great with a wintertime read. They improve as they warm up and can be sipped slowly over long periods of time. (A porter and book pairing is especially great if your topic is history.)
You might need two or three beers to properly dig into the words “porter” and “stout.” You’ll be going a long way back, ending up in the time of Defoe, Swift, and Hogarth. The era of Charles Dickens is still a century ahead and, compared to the eighteenth-century world, will look like the Jetsons.
It was a brutal and physically grinding time, and the porters were an important piece of the sweat-driven economy. Porters were people tasked with unloading and delivering the cargo of the Thames River docks trade. Special rests designed for porters to drop their loads were installed across the city. A load temporarily at rest in front of a pub populated with refuelling porters was a common sight. Eventually their drink of choice bore the name of their trade.
Today only a single porter’s rest remains preserved in London. The word “porter” is practically all that is left of this tribe today. Even the beer with their name is not something their taste buds would recognize today. They might not have exactly recognized it even a generation later. Over time, the words stout and porter have stuck while the methods and ingredients that brewers use have shifted constantly, driven by customs, politics, and technological change.
The terms have somewhat converged, but in the mid-1700s porter was a beer that was made with brown malt (a standard ingredient of the day) while the term stout was more of an adjective than a defined style name. Stout applied to higher strength beer — even pale beers. A “stout porter” was a strong porter. These days it seems to me that the word porter is increasingly out of fashion and has effectively been replaced by the nomenclature of stout.
The brown malt of the time meant that porter was a dark brown colour. It was a relatively low quality and inefficient malt. Malt kilns were dangerous and prone to burning down. When kilning technology improved, brewers could deploy paler malts that gave them more flavour to extract at a lower cost and the taste of porter was changed forever. Black malt, invented in 1817, allowed brewers to have a dark and roasty beer made from a base of pale ingredients. The beer that we think of as fundamentally black was brown until this time. The roasted unmalted barley famously part of the Guinness recipe wouldn’t come into use until the 1880s.
What that beer tasted like throughout these shifts is impossible to know for sure. In addition to changes in malt, a variety of maturation and ageing techniques were employed throughout different eras, making the precise flavours a matter of some speculation. In various eras porter was sold both when it was young and fresh, and also after it had been matured in vats for an extended period. Sometimes pubs would blend these beers together if a customer had a taste for a “half-and-half.”
We have a much better sense of what the post-1820 era of porter tasted like. Porter had become a global style by this time.
Times Are A-Changing
Porter waned in popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the rise of pale ales and lagers. All beers in the UK were radically weakened in strength under the resource constraints of World War II. The style didn’t rebound even after wartime rationing and taxation eased off. The public had more or less moved on and porter had definitively become an old man’s beer.
It wouldn’t be until today’s craft beer boom that porter would regain some cachet. While the inspiration for brewing a porter might come from a curiosity about the past, today’s brewers are only constrained by their imagination. Almost every generation that drank porter was drinking something a bit different than their parents — perhaps even radically so.
Today we see an incredible variety and creativity in porters and stouts. The words have been stretched by time and have branched off in incredible ways. I’m sure it would make a time travelling porter’s head spin if they could drink these beers today.
Prodromus, Omnipollo — Omnipollo is a mind-bending brewery with roots in Sweden. Prodromus stout is full of things that you didn’t think could be in a beer. It’s crammed full of vanilla, cocoa nibs, and deep-fried cookie dough. It is very sweet, with a thick chewy body, and 12% abv.
Dark N Sour, Blood Brothers Brewing — Toronto’s Blood Brothers is well known for its take on combinations of fruit and sour flavours. One seasonal beer that takes a bit of a different turn is the sour stout, which plays sour and acidic notes off of the signature roast flavours of a stout or porter.
Pêché Mortel, Dieu du Ciel — This beer is a Canadian classic and a benchmark for coffee-infused beer. It isn’t just a taste or a flavour but a full-blown sensory experience.
Local Examples of the Style
Anderson Craft Ales, London — Stout (6% abv)
Black Swan Brewing Co., Stratford — Porter (5.3% abv)
Cowbell Brewing Co., Blyth — #011 Molasses Vanilla Porter
Forked River Brewing Co., London — Full City Coffee Porter (5.5% abv) and Wicked Wench Bourbon Barrel-Aged Stout (5.7% abv)
London Brewing Co-op, London — Tolpuddle Porter (5.5% abv)
Railway City Brewing Co., St. Thomas — Black Coal Stout (6% abv)
Toboggan Brewing Co., London — Stout (6% abv), Vanilla Stout (6% abv) and Brexit Porter (seasonal)
Upper Thames Brewing Co., Woodstock — Come to the Dark Side Chocolate Stout and Dusk to Dawn White Stout
For more detailed information on the history of English beer styles (including porter) I recommend Martyn Cornell’s book Amber, Gold and Black, which I have relied on here.
I also recommend Ron Pattinson’s website, where you can find extensive original research, including a reproduction of a letter describing a visit in 1839 to the largest brewery in the world at that time — the porter brewer Barclay Perkins.