Next to farmhouse ales and IPAs–I’m not touching those for a while here–porters enjoy probably the murkiest history of any beer style.
There are several colorful tales surrounding the genesis of the style, but my favorite, like most, dates back to England circa 1800. The story goes that pub-goers would, instead of simply choosing a single draft beer, order the publican to blend several different beers that he was serving at the time in order to create the flavor profile they were looking for. As it became common practice, a favorite blend of three different beers–no one is entirely sure which ones–emerged, and came to be known as the “three threads.” Eventually, Ralph Harwood (of Harwood’s Brewery, natch) took to brewing a beer that mimicked, and would eventually replace, the three threads: porter.
As fun as it is, that story is probably a load of bull; there were references to porters dating back years before this. More likely, it is simply a result of the growing threat from “Twopenny ale” encroaching on the brewers of traditional London brown beer, itself separated into “mild (fresh beer)” and “stale (the same beer, intentionally aged)”. To combat this, the brewers simply refined their beer, employing a more vigorous hopping regimen, storing it for longer and under better conditions, etc. You can read a great deal more about it in Martyn Cornell’s excellent beer history blog, Zythophile. Whatever the origin, the new beer struck a chord with the street and river porters of the area, which is where the beer gets its name.
All fine and good, but what should it taste like? In general, standard-strength porters (anywhere from 5% to 7% ABV) are dark: black at first glance, but usually just very, very dark brown, made with a mostly pale/caramel malt base, along with small additions of black or chocolate malt. Aroma and palate vary, but classic examples exhibit deep caramel notes, milk or dark chocolate, along with nutty hints and a firm hop backbone; in that regard, American examples are typically more bitter. These beers should be fairly dry, even a touch thin, and slide right across your palate.
Because of their appearance, porters and stouts are in perpetual danger of being lumped together. And while it’s true that stout as know it probably arose from porter (though, historically, any English beer that was stronger than normal was referred to as “stout”), there’s a pretty firm dividing line now. Stouts are typically darker, with a higher percentage of black or chocolate malt; this also contributes to their comparatively bitter flavor, as does the higher hopping rate. Of course, some beers blur the lines: Founders Porter and Anchor Porter are both magnificent beers regardless of style, but veer dangerous close to stout territory through a combination of aggressive hopping, intensely rich palates, and, particularly in the case of Founders’, alcohol strength.
But of course you want to know what you should be drinking. Naturally:
The Classic: Fullers London Porter (5.4% ABV)
Look no further if you want a true English porter experience. Smooth and dry, with hints of baker’s chocolate and hazelnut.
The Modern: Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter (5.8% ABV)
This one exhibits the classic American tendency towards hop bitterness, but is still remarkably, historically, accurate. Chocolatey and nutty, of course, it also yields coffee notes, along with a finish that borders on ashy.
The Goofy One: Dangerous Man Peanut Butter Porter (5.3% ABV)
This one’s a little personal. Hands-down one of the best beers I’ve ever had, it smells exactly like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup: milk chocolate, sweet peanut butter, and roasted nuts, all packed into a modest alcohol content. Minneapolis isn’t that far away.
The Trade: Hill Farmstead Everett (7.2% ABV)
Ostensibly the world’s best porter, you’ll have to either trade or drive up to Greensboro, VT to grab one of these. The good news is, it’s one of Hill Farmstead’s more prevalent beers, so trading for it or nabbing one once you get there shouldn’t be an issue.