Dark beers to the uninitiated can be viewed as an acquired taste, or ones that take some getting used to, but in fact, these beauties aren’t far removed from some of their pale, golden counterparts. Often the roasted malt is the main point of difference and what gives it a dark colour. While dark ales, dark lager and even black IPAs fit under the dark beer moniker, stouts and porters are what the dark beer category is best known for. But what exactly is the difference between the two?
Words by Lukas Raschilla
The term porter was named after the movers and carriers of London – and is strong and dark with a high alcohol content (usually 6% or higher ABV). Porters are dark brown to black in colour with roast, coffee-like notes coming from the highly kilned black malt. Porters come in a few variations, from the brown porter to the robust porter where everything is dialled up to the max with rich dark fruits and high alcohol, making it one to be sipped and savoured. English and American versions also exist as does the Baltic porter. The Baltic porter is one to keep an eye out for, with a high alcohol content (6.5-9.5% ABV) and clean, creamy palate. English porters are moderate in strength, brown with restrained roast character and bitterness. Many have roasted flavours without burnt qualities and often have a chocolate-caramel malt finish. American porters are substantial, malty dark beers with complex dark malt character. They feature a lightly burnt malt character (and sometimes chocolate and/or coffee flavours) with a touch of grainy, dark malt dryness in the finish. They can range from dry to medium sweet.
The term stout in the eighteenth century England indicated simply that the beer was a strong one. Hence a ‘stout’ porter was of high alcohol and taste, rather than being of a different style. It would be difficult to mention the category without mentioning the famed Irish and perhaps considered the original stout, Guinness. In fact, it was only when Arthur Guinness took the style to his native Dublin did the local Liffey water and the use of roasted, unmalted barley (for economic reasons) created a new taste. The difference from the porter style was completed by dropping the term porter from ‘stout porter’ and simply calling it ‘stout’. The rest is, of course, history but the dry, creamy, roast astringency from the barley is an essential part of the stout style.
Arthur Guinness’ style is now known as a dry Irish stout and is surprisingly drinkable, being light-bodied and fairly low in alcohol (4-4.5% ABV). There are many other deviations on stout, each with their own particular character. Milk stouts were very popular during the war years for their nutrients, milk sugar (lactose) sweetness, the rich proteins found in oats keeps the beer dry but fuller on the palate. Nowadays, the two can be somewhat difficult to differentiate, with craft brewers now brewing porters that are stronger than most stouts, yet continue to call them porters. Brewers, however, seem to agree on the kind of malt that should be used to brew each type of beer. Porters use malted barley and stouts are primarily made from unmalted roasted barley, which is where the coffee flavour associated with stout comes from.
The bottom line is, once you can appreciate the category of these dark brews and a style you prefer, porters, stouts and dark ales are enjoyable, and will at times, seemingly overlap in taste, aroma, texture and alcohol percentage. Welcome to the dark side of beer.
OUR TOP 5 PICKS
4 PINES STOUT (NSW)
The 4 Pines Stout is an Irish style stout, almost black in colour and bearing a generous tan head. Aromas of coffee, chocolate and caramel are matched with a full-bodied mouthfeel, smooth finish and rounding bitterness.
BIG SHED BREWING GOLDEN STOUT TIME DESSERT STOUT (SA)
Golden Stout Time is made to invoke old memories and leave new ones. This is a hearty stout infused with toffee and honeycomb and light on hops, taking you back to childhood summers spent enjoying Golden Gaytime icecreams. Despite its origins in the iconic summer treat, it is best enjoyed in the depths of winter.
BRIDGE ROAD BREWERS ROBUST PORTER (VIC)
Part of Bridge Road’s core range, and a Gold Medal winner at the Sydney Royal Beer and Cider show, and a Silver at the 2015 Craft Beer Awards, the Robust Porter has big chocolate, roasted and mocha notes that are key to the style. Using roasted barley and chocolate malt, this porter is big and bold, yet has a smooth, roasted texture.
COOPERS BEST EXTRA STOUT (SA)
Coopers Best Extra Stout is ideal for those who love a hearty brew. Made with a robust blend of fruit and chocolate flavours and bitter hop notes, it’s everything a stout should be. This is an all-malt brew that’s naturally conditioned in the bottle. It’s rich, dark texture comes from the use of specially roasted black malt.
QUIET DEEDS VANILLA PORTER (VIC)
This seasonal brew from Quiet Deeds is a robust and rich porter full of vanilla, chocolate and coffee characters on the palate with moderate bitterness balanced with a trace of smokiness on the finish.