Beer Basics | The Dark Ales

“What’s the difference between porter and stout?” It’s a question I hear often, and I always thought I knew the answer — that stout is porter’s darker, stronger offspring — but then I started snooping around the interwebs and unearthed an old debate. According to reliable sources*, the differences between the two go back hundreds of years, and the arguments surrounding them come in both complicated and simple varieties.

First, the simple: Apparently, the only modern distinction between porter and stout is the spelling and pronunciation of their names. Aside from that, they’re both dark ales with typical flavors of coffee, chocolate, and roasted malt. That’s about it. Some insist that each must be brewed using certain ingredients, such as unmalted roasted barley for stout — black patent malt, however, is not allowed, for it would ruin the stoutiness. Well, I hate to contradict these purists (because they’re usually an irritable bunch), but I’ve “field-tested” plenty of beers that refute their claims. Nowadays, brewers experiment with these styles like drunken mad scientists, blurring the historic lines between them and creating fantastic new beers in the process.

This leads to the complicated answer, which is a bit confusing even to me. It’s a historic answer, so take this short explanation as my humble attempt to piece together information I’ve gathered from multiple sources, many of which disagree with one another.

It’s clear that porters and stouts were different at one point. Most scholars point to porter as the older beer, but they’re variations on the same idea: a dark beer brewed with roasted malt, which possibly gained a foothold because its bitter, burnt flavors and impenetrable hue could mask off-flavors and visual defects. Thus each could be made and shipped cheaply, and few would notice if anything went wrong. Porter supposedly began as a blend of three other beers — “three threads” they called it — and it thrived in London in the early 18th century, owing both its name and its popularity to the burly working men who drank it. Soon people began asking for stronger, darker porters, and brewers responded with “stout porter” and “brown stout” — slang that would eventually be shortened to just stout. Even Guinness originally made a porter, then an Extra Stout Porter, then an Extra Stout. According to Zythophile (a far better beer-historian than I am), literature from that era references “pale stout” as well, suggesting that the word applied to strong beer of any style.

By the beginning of the 20th century, competition was mounting against our mild-mannered portagonist. The full-bodied porters known as stouts were gaining popularity, as were pale ales, which British brewers had perfected during the previous century. After World War 1, a slew of weaker, sweeter stouts took the porter’s place, and people began to assume that porter was inferior to stout. Finally, during the 1940s, commercial porter production seemed to halt entirely.

Then, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, craft brewing exploded in America, and the mighty porter made a comeback. Now it sits triumphantly next to stout on most store shelves. But if there’s no real difference between the two anymore, why do we continue addressing them by different names? Better yet, how do we know which is which?

Let’s try a blind taste test. I bought four beers from two breweries — a porter and stout from each. Samuel Smith and Sierra Nevada. One British, one American. I’ll start closer to home.

I mark the bottom of each glass and then pour the Sierra Nevadas. Next, I convince my wife to play Two-glass Monte while I distract myself with something shiny. She gives me the OK, and I quickly realize I have no idea which is which; the beers appear to be identical. A slight difference in foam, perhaps, but both are pitch-black. I hold them up to the light and see that one is actually lighter and ruby-hued — the porter, perhaps? It fits the traditional description. I take a sniff, which reinforces my guess that the lighter-colored beer, which smells sweeter than its roasty brother, is the porter. Sipping the beer reveals sharp, bitter malt and dark fruit, whereas its counterpart features far more roasted earth and smoke. I’m going to say the sweeter beer is the porter and the smokier the stout. A tilt of each glass confirms my guesses.

Next I sample Sam Smith’s Taddy Porter and Oatmeal Stout, which are considerably different both from each other and from the previous two. Once again, I can guess from the smell which is which, but it’s less immediate this time; the oatmeal stout’s smooth sweetness drives it closer to porter-town. Still, the subtle roasted malts (not to mention the pronounced oat flavors) tipped me off.

The rule of roastiness works well in identifying many porters and stouts, but not all of them. So how do the folks who name the beers tell the difference? Perhaps they don’t. Perhaps they, like members of every other industry, design their product names with the consumer in mind. The word stout evokes fullness, heaviness; if you’re hankering for a meal in a bottle, pick up a stout! Porter, however, summons images of older days, of smoke-filled London pubs and longshoremen draining pint pots after an honest day’s work. I suppose it comes down to this: Beer styles change like language. They develop as our tastes do, in the same way slang becomes law while some “proper” rules go extinct. The word stout, once used to describe a strong porter, now refers to a different ale altogether — one that has sprouted numerous sub-styles of its own. Don’t worry. If you think about it too much, you’ll get a headache. Just sit back and enjoy the beers.

Speaking of beers (I should start every paragraph on this website that way), porters and stouts aren’t the only dark brews out there. There’s also schwarzbier, a smokey yet refreshing lager whose name means “black beer” in German; there’s dark IPA, which tastes like stout with an extra helping of hops; there’s New Belgium’s 1554, a dark Belgian-style beer that uses lager yeast and chocolate malt to produce roasted flavors with a crisp, clean finish. My list could go on, but my fingers are starting to ache. Just remember, the next time you see a glass filled with something that looks like Quaker State, go ahead and take a sip. You might taste something great.

Unless you’re at a mechanic’s house. Then you might want to ask first.

*Just kidding. I typically avoid Wikipedia for stuff like this.

6 Responses to “Beer Basics | The Dark Ales”
  1. Kris says:

    I’m a porter kind of gal, but why haven’t you suggested New Belgium 1554 – it sounds like a must try for me.

  2. Ben says:

    Pursuant to our conversation today:

    (sorry to link to a different beer blog, but it’s the only information I could find about this amalgamation of those two impossible-to-define words, i.e., the first result in Google)

  3. Deb Miller says:

    Lots of research? My guess it was more drinking than reading! Good work!

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