Stout or Porter?

Posted by Barley Beaver on

What's in a name: Stout or Porter?

When it comes to the dark side of the ale spectrum, there’s always a debate as to how to label the resulting beer in terms of beer style. On the one hand, there’s the dark brown to black Porter, and on the other the dark brown to black Stout. But don’t you even think of using those definitions interchangeably! Even if it’s the same thing.

The story with stouts and porters is a long and complicated, but nonetheless one that needs to be known in order to have a better perspective when debating on how to name your dark ale.

It all started out at the turn of the 18th and 19th century in the British Empire, where both the stout and porter have started out pretty much at the same time, but bore completely different meanings from those we contribute to these beers today.

Porters were initially dark brown ales made from special Brown malt, roasty, malty, and sometimes a little acidic due to the process of oak barrel aging, which was rather common at that time. There are numerous theories regarding the origin of the word, but the most popular one is that this particular ale was rather popular among London port workers, and thus the name.

Stout, on the other hand, was a term that was generally used to describe a beer of higher quality and alcohol content. There are numerous examples of printed ads and recipes from the time that described Stout Pale Ales, Stout Ales, Stout Old Ales, and yes, Stout Porters. In other words, Stouts were simply stronger versions of lighter Porters, using the very same ingredients only made from higher gravity worts. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? So why all the confusion, you might ask.

Well, for one, the invention of roasted Black malt in the 19th century allowed the brewers to use more Pale malt rather than more expensive Brown malt in the mash, obtaining the same dark colour and comparable flavour by spending less. However, some Porter brewers have protested the practice, claiming that the taste of true Porter can only be achieved by using only Brown malt in substantial quantities. Whether true or not is up for a debate, but from there on some brewers resorted to using a mix of Black patent and Pale malt for their Stouts, and Brown malt for their Porters, though the practice certainly differed from brewery to brewery. Nevertheless, one thing that remained the same is that Stouts were always stronger than Porters in terms of alcohol content.

Things changed dramatically between World War I and World War II. The sharp economic decline in Europe, the emergence of strong temperance movements, bans on alcohol production and consumption – all these factors contributed to a dramatic drop in beer alcohol levels to the point where Stouts and Porters became identical in terms of flavour, colour, and ABV.

After World War II the difference between the two styles blurred even further, as fewer and fewer breweries opting to brew these dark ales, preferring the bland industrial lager to anything else. Traditional practices were lost in time, and those breweries that still chose to brew Stouts and Porters have often used the two terms to describe a dark beer of the same ABV, only to differentiate between certain flavour nuances.

In our days, with the emergence and popularity of craft beer, countless breweries are producing numerous takes on both styles. However, there are many examples of craft brewed Porters boasting a higher alcohol content than Stouts brewed by the very same brewery, which seems to be a generally accepted thing among craft beer lovers for as long as the beer’s good. The decision of using one term or the other has boiled down to being a purely marketing thing, depending on whether the product name sounds cool being labelled as a Stout or a Porter. And it’s hard to blame the logic, since there’s such a stylistic diversity in the craft beer scene that it’s the last thing people will start arguing upon.

So, whether to label your latest dark, roasty ale brewing experiment as a Stout or Porter is up to you to decide. If you want to go all authentic and historical, the correct way would be to use the term Stout for a stronger beer, whereas a Porter would be something of a session ABV content. However, in modern terms the line between the two styles is so blurred that it doesn’t really matter much. Especially if the beer is good.

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