The history of modern porters dates back to 1700s England when a beer originally called “Entire” became popular among workingmen of the time. Historians believe the name “porter” stuck to the style due to its popularity among porters who worked in local markets and delivered beer to the pubs. The Irish picked up on the porter style in the late 1700s and began making several versions of it. One version called “extra stout” was the basis for a popular beer eventually known as Guinness Stout. Porters were introduced to America with British immigrants in the late 1700s, but the style fell out of favor around the time of World War I and virtually disappeared with Prohibition. Anchor Brewing became the first American craft brewery to revive the style post-Prohibition with Anchor Porter in 1972. Modern American craft porters have trended toward a version called Robust Porter that is stronger and more aggressively hopped than traditional English versions.
To compare some of the options in today’s market of craft porters, we conducted a blind tasting of offerings ranging from local to nationally distributed craft breweries. Beers were procured from Anchor, Bell’s, Flat 12, Smuttynose, and Upland and served in a random order to the tasting panel by our lovely hostess Poppi Rocketts. The identity of each beer was revealed after the panelists had submitted their individual rankings and a weighted average was established. Joining me on the panel for this session were IndianaBeer reporter Kathleen Slauzis and special guest panelists Dave Allen and Ron Smith. Here is a summary of each beer sampled, with the brewery’s description followed by the panel’s tasting comments.
Beer #1: Anchor Porter – Anchor Porter became the first modern American porter when it was introduced in 1972. A blend of specially roasted pale, caramel, chocolate, and black malts, along with our top-ferementing yeast, creates complexity without bitterness. The brew is hopped at a high rate and naturally carbonated. The result is dark in the glass, but surprisingly light on the palate. 5.6% ABV
|Dave: We were off to an auspicious start with this beer. Though a very successful, drinkable beverage; this was my least favorite in the panel. I found this beer to be on the lighter side of the style with limited roast character. The sweet aroma of malt was prominent and follows through with the flavor and finish. Well carbonated with vinous, dark-fruit notes as well. A positive experience but perhaps not the superstar of the session. |
Would I drink another? Depends what else was on tap.
|Kathleen: The first beer had a slight chocolate, caramel smell to start. The color was nice and dark, the beer had light foam and at first sip it was smooth. After a few sips, there was a noticeable almost bitter, harsh aftertaste that filled my mouth on the back end of my tongue. Overall, it was ok. After a round 2 taste of it, the beer smelled too disgustingly sweet.|
|Nathan: Dark brown in color and offers an aroma dominated by caramel with a surprising lack of roastiness. More caramel in the flavor with slight mocha notes. Moderate lingering bitterness but little perceptible hop flavor. The finish is fairly dry with a slightly acidic character. A decent beer in general that lacks the chocolate and roast notes that I enjoy in a porter. The flavors are also a bit stale which may indicate an older bottle.|
|Ron: Dark brown to deep copper/amber in color with a rich tan head that persists. Aroma is rich with caramel notes and perhaps a hint of butterscotch. Lacking some expected roast typically found in a Porter, but a restrained level of roast is detected in the flavor. Flavor is dominated by caramel with some nutty, roasty flavors in the finish. There is also a subtle herbal hop flavor, especially in the finish. The body is on the lighter side and the finish dries out nicely with a very slight lingering hop bitterness and dark malt character. Overall a nice beer, but perhaps a better example of a Dark Northern English Brown.|
Beer #2: Flat 12 Pogue’s Run Porter - The Flat12 Porter is inspired by the robust porters favored by the Industrial-age working men of Europe. We chose to emphasize balance from a combination of dark grains including brown malt, which was the primary roasted grain of the time. This Flat12 creation is smooth and balanced with slight roast and chocolate notes, yet it’s not heavy, just like a good porter should be. 34 IBU 5.5% ABV
|Dave: One of the finer examples on the table. This beer was well balanced, offering that magical balance of bakers’ chocolate, roasted grain, coffee and malt character balanced with an assertive hop finish. Finding this careful balance in a commercial porter is not an every-day occurrence. This beer was a joy to drink. Tasty, and delicious; as a porter should be. |
Would I drink another? Yes please. Let’s make it two if you don’t mind…
|Kathleen: Beer number two had a significantly strong roasted aroma which followed through with the taste. Not over powering, but it had a very consistent flavor that coated my tongue and no harsh back end. Better than number one.|
|Nathan: Dark brown in color with an aroma of roasted malts, cocoa, and earthy hops. Moderate hop bitterness up front in the flavor with a nice blend of chocolate, caramel, and burnt sugar flavors from the malts in the middle and some earthy/herbal hop character lingering in the finish. Very good beer with the bold flavors I look for in a porter. I could use a little more residual sweetness at the end to balance everything out, but that would be nitpicking.|
|Ron: Dark brown to deep copper/amber in color with a light tan head. A luscious aroma is filled with a bittersweet cocoa character and a slight toffee note. The bakers chocolate / cocoa character extends nicely into the flavor where it is met by a moderate herbal hop flavor and some restrained roasty notes. The medium body dries out in the finish with a slight lingering hop bitterness. A very nice example of a Porter somewhere between the Brown and Robust styles.|
Beer #3: Smuttynose Robust Porter - This hearty, mahogany colored ale is brewed to evoke the dark, full-bodied ales that were a favorite of dockworkers and warehousemen (hence the name “Porter”) in 19th century London. It is a good bet that when Dickens’ Mr. Pickwick sat down for a pint, he would have been drinking an ale much like our Robust Porter.This is a smooth and very drinkable beer, characterized by its well-balanced malt and hops, plus subtle notes of coffee and chocolate. 43 IBU 6.2% ABV
|Dave: I found beer three to be a bit roastier than the other beers in the panel. Dry in the finish with a medium body. The aroma was subdued, though as the beer warmed up a little there were malt and roast notes apparent. In ranking the samples this beer landed right about in the middle and I think that is a perfect descriptor of the overall character as well. Not a bad example of the style by any means. Approachable, and middle of the road. |
Would I drink another? I dunno… I’m on the fence with this one.
|Kathleen: This option had no initial smell to me, where one and two had a noticeable scent as soon as it hit my nose, this one was more subtle. My first sip was that this one was much softer in taste as well. This beer was better than one, due to no bad aftertaste, but it didn’t beat number 2. Overall it was just a weak porter.|
|Nathan: Darker in color than previous samples with a surprisingly light aroma from caramel and chocolate malts. No perceptible hop aroma. The flavor offers a blend of mocha, coffee, hints of dark fruit, and some herbal tea-like hop character. The finish is well-balanced with a bit of residual sweetness for the moderate lingering bitterness. This is a tough one – it’s a good beer, but the flavor just doesn’t “pop” like the last sample. An odd combination of being enjoyable, yet somewhat forgettable.|
|Ron: Very dark brown to black in color with nice ruby highlights under a light tan head. The aroma is soft with dark roasty, chocolate and cocoa notes as well as a low herbal hop character. All of these aromas extend into the flavor, where the hop flavor stands out a little more. A lighter body and finishes dry with a lingering hop bitterness. A good Porter for those that like hop flavor and bitterness. A little more body, richness and complexity might help balance it out more, but a good example of a drier, hoppier Porter.|
Beer #4: Upland Bad Elmer’s Porter - Bad Elmer’s Porter is a medium-bodied beer, brewed with lot of roasted malt, giving it flavors of coffee, licorice, and chocolate. This porter is characteristically dark but extremely smooth. 20 IBU 5% ABV
|Dave: I found this beer to have pleasant malt aroma, slightly sweet flavor, and limited roast character as compared to some of the other beers in the panel. To my palate the bitter finish was a bit aggressive. My personal preference would have been for a more chocolate/toffee presence to help balance the roast/hop finish. Though to be fair most of my notes were from the initial run through, but there are notes to indicate that with the second pass-through of the samples my impression of this beer improved greatly. |
Would I drink another? Again, it depends on what else was on tap.
|Kathleen: At first glance this beer was a lighter color than the previous ones. It came back to a sweet, caramel chocolate secret although not as powerful as number two. This one however was very heavy in tasting and had a slight hoppy, bitter flavor. Continued sips of this one tasted more hoppy than malty.|
|Nathan: Light/medium brown in color with a light caramel and chocolate malt aroma. The malt flavor features caramel, nutty, and light chocolate notes with some citrus hop character lingering throughout. Hop bitterness and a slight woodsy impression follow through in the aftertaste. The roasted malt aroma and flavor expected from a porter are virtually nonexistent. I like this beer a lot when thinking of it as a Brown Ale, but the malt character is lacking when compared to more aggressive porters.|
|Ron: Dark brown to copper/amber in color with a light tan head that persists. A soft aroma with some caramel notes and a very restrained level of roast. The flavor also has some caramel character, as well as some nuttiness and a very restrained roasted note. A herbal hop flavor is also prominent in the flavor. This lighter bodied beer is lacking some of the typical roastiness, cocoa notes and body found in many porters, but a very good beer regardless. May be a better American Brown Ale style.|
Beer #5: Bell’s Porter - One of our many award-winning beers, Porter emphasizes the darker, roasted aspects of malt. Hints of dark chocolate and freshly roasted coffee provide the focus, while hops remain in the background. Not as full-bodied as a stout, Porter bridges the gap between malty brown ales and our more heavily roasted stouts. 5.6% ABV
And the results are in…….
After tasting and discussing each individual beer, we lined up a sample of each to determine a 1-5 ranking of each person’s preference. After tallying up the scores, our collective preferences averaged out to (drum roll please):
|Fifth Place: Anchor Porter|
|Fourth Place: Upland Bad Elmer’s Porter|
|Third Place: Smuttynose Robust Porter|
|First Place (tie): Bell’s Porter and Flat 12 Pogue’s Run Porter|
I know, I know, offering up a first place tie is the ultimate copout. But after focusing on each sample individually and then lining them up for a head to head comparison, each panelist selected Sample 2 (Flat 12 Pogue’s Run) and Sample 5 (Bell’s Porter) as their top two beers. Dave and Kathleen selected the Bell’s sample for their top spot, while Ron and I went with Flat 12, so we are left with a statistical tie and two strong recommendations. In the spirit of local business, I’m inclined to suggest seeking out Pogue’s Run first. But the panel obviously felt you can’t go wrong with either of these options.
Smuttynose Robust Porter is not distributed to Indiana and was a bit of a wildcard for this tasting. It looked to be a formidable opponent based on other ratings I have seen. And it was a perfectly good beer, but just did not have the assertive malt character to hold up when placed alongside our top two offerings. But Smuttynose was Poppi’s favorite, so they probably couldn’t care less what the rest of us think. Upland Bad Elmer’s Porter was a bit of a quandary. Several of us really liked this beer as a very tasty Brown Ale, but we found it to be lacking the chocolate and roasted malt character we were looking for in a porter. But if the bitter, slightly burnt aspect some find in those darker malts doesn’t appeal to you, Bad Elmer’s may be your best choice.
One interesting aspect of these tastings is noting how the classic examples have struggled, as was the case with Sierra Nevada in our previous review of fresh hop ales. Anchor Porter is the classic example of this style and paved the way for the other craft examples we enjoy today. But those early recipes can struggle to keep up with evolving tastes as craft brewers continue to experiment with new ingredients and push style boundaries. As another example, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is still highly regarded (with good reason) as a classic example. But imagine putting the SN Pale Ale up against something like Three Floyds Zombie Dust in a blind tasting.
Big thanks to Dave, Kathleen, and Ron for serving on the panel and a bigger thanks to you for reading this far. Now turn off your electronic device and go enjoy some porter!