Sep 30, 2023

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American Beer Month: 2000 Tasting
Porter: A tasty tot of history

by Ray Daniels

Ray Daniels leads this tutored tasting. He is an internationally-known expert on beer and brewing. He is the founder and organizer of the Real Ale Festival, the author of Designing Great Beers and other books on brewing and the Editor-in-Chief of Zymurgy and The New Brewer magazines.

As we celebrate American sovereignty as well as American brewing, some may think it unpatriotic to focus attention on a beer style that was the toast of Britain during our war for independence. Still, the dark ale known as porter was enjoyed on both sides of the Atlantic even when armed conflict separated the sides in nearly every other way. And today, one will find more examples of this chocolatey near-black quaff in the new world than in the old.

Although stout is better known on both sides of the Atlantic now, it was porter that plowed the way. Inspired by a beer cocktail known as "three threads," the first porter – or "entire butt" as it was originally called – was brewed up in a London brewery in about 1726. Designed to be inexpensive but rich in carbohydrate content, the new beer soon became a favorite among the laborers (or perhaps labourers) of London. Since many worked as porters moving goods among the docks and streets, their preferred drink soon took the same name.

From a brewer’s perspective, porter was the first industrial beer. Its popularity in London propelled vast brewery expansions and launched industrial empires that still exist today. By the time that America had earned its independence, porter brewing was one of the leading industries of the rapidly industrializing Britain.

Porters were one of my favored styles when I first discovered good beer and I still yearn for it from time to time, especially in the summer. At this time of year, the heavier foreign and Imperial stouts seems a bit too much and yet I want a rich malty break from hop-dominated pale ales and clovey wheat beers. And when this thirst strikes me, I look around to find that there are but few commercial examples available these days. Many brewers make a stout instead of a porter – I suppose because more consumers know what to expect in a stout thanks to the ubiquitous presence of Guinness. Yet a dedicated few still toil to turn out a tasty tot of this historic ale. In honor of their contributions to the American beer scene, I offer several selections which will please the palate of any beer drinker.

Left Hand Brewing Co. - Black Jack Porter
Appearance: Red and fairly light in color for a porter. Crystal clear.
Aroma: Powdered chocolate note with an undercurrent of licorice. Suggestive of chocolate liqueur.
Flavor: Toasty chocolate palate, fairly light on the tongue with a pretty quick finish that leaves some lingering chocolate-powder notes. Bit of nice malt sweetness in the mid-palate, but fleetingly perceived amidst the chocolate. This is a lightish porter that you could drink as a session beer.

Portland Brewing Co. - Haystack Black Porter
Appearance: Full brown with reddish highlights, still translucent and crystal clear.
Aroma: Grainy notes in the nose with hints of chocolate and a touch of spice.
Flavor: Light bodied and fairly light on the palate. Very nice toasty notes, pleasant malt sweetness, flavor stays more on the side of malt rather than chocolate. Decent hit of hops in the mid-palate. Finish is clean with some lingering hop character, but not much on the malt side. Could be mistaken for a brown ale, but very drinkable. Give me another pint!

Bert Grant’s - Perfect Porter
Appearance: Full brown, very slight reddish highlights. Clear, but not quite translucent.
Aroma: Sweet chocolate liqueur aroma, although not assertive, just inviting.
Flavor: Distinct candy sweetness with a toasted, slightly burnt note. Something akin to what I imagine the flavor of chocolate extract to taste like – or perhaps an overcooked chocolate chip. Finish is clean and crisp, but some of the burnt chocolate flavor remains.

Sierra Nevada - Sierra Nevada Porter
Appearance: Deep amber with definite red cast. Big head.
Aroma: Fresh hoppy nose with spicy and citrus notes.
Flavor: Some dark malt notes in a nicely balanced presentation of malt and hop flavor. Hop notes tend to win out, but there is plenty of malt flavor here. Very crisp finish with just a hint of lingering dark malt. Medium bodied.

Kalamazoo Brewing Co. - Bell’s Porter
Appearance: Full brown and nearly opaque. Brownish highlights.
Aroma: Rich double-chocolate cake aroma with some pleasant earthy notes.
Flavor: Nice toasty-chocolate character dominates the palate but wisps of licorice dance around it. Finishes with a bit of crispness, but definite lingering chocolate notes.