Porters & Stouts

Masters Table 1999

By Adrian Tierney-Jones

Everyone is familiar with stout and if you want a pint of the black stuff chances are you’ll think no further than a Guinness. This characteristically dry stout, with its trademark roast barley giving that burnt taste so beloved of drinkers and the lingering if subtle smack of hops in the finish, is king. Guinness is the nearest a mass-produced beer has come to being a cult with a host of its own traditions. The stout has to be given time to settle beneath its creamy head while bar staff often engrave a shamrock on top of the pint with a final flourish of the tap. You can even eat it: Guinness is commonly added to that staple of pub grub: the steak, kidney and stout pie. It’s also a classic accompaniment to seafood. Even in these health-conscious times the prevailing wisdom is that a glass of Guinness is good for you. But how many of us know about stout’s older cousin porter, a full-flavoured dark beer with a rich brewing tradition?

Porter is believed to have first appeared in the 1720s in Shoreditch in London. Legend has it that the name comes from its popularity with the porters working in the area. By the early 19th century London brewers were building bigger and bigger vats as demand rose. This was not without its problems. In 1814, one of these monster containers at the Meux Brewery in Tottenham Court Road burst and eight people were killed in the flood of porter that followed.

The strongest porters were called stout porters, which evolved into today’s stouts. They tasted different from porter because of the amount of roast barley used which produced that familiar burnt edge to the taste. Porters on the other hand used brown malt which produced a fruitier, less drier flavour. As the British Empire expanded, some of the porters were also brewed for export. These had to be strong enough to survive the overseas journeys so they were heavily hopped to resist infection and the alcohol strength was higher: this kept the beers for much longer. The exported brews were called Imperial Porters or Stouts and were especially popular in Russia before the revolution. Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout (see tasting notes), Courage’s Imperial Russian Stout (a classic which was recently consigned to history) and Edwin Tucker’s Empress Russian Porter (10.5%) are excellent survivals of this robust style.

However, 30 years ago porter looked set for the history books. It had started to lost out to stout during the years of World War One, when the British government banned the use of dark, highly roasted malts in an attempt to conserve energy. Ireland remained free from the ban and Guinness had a clear run for the market. As the years progressed porter consumption in the UK declined as drinkers plumped for paler and less stronger ales. Whitbread, one of the great porter breweries, rolled out its last barrel during the war. Throughout the 50s and 60s the nearest most drinkers got to a pint of porter was the sight of the word engraved on the windows or sculptured on the stonework of traditional pubs. As for Guinness, it brewed its last porter in 1974. Porter was dead. Or was it? A new emerging breed of micro-breweries was to prove this wrong.

These days if you look beyond Guinness and its mainstream rivals Beamish and Murphy’s, you will find a wealth of both porters and stouts produced by micro-breweries and regional breweries. These porters and stouts are packed with flavour, aroma and a stupendous, lip-smacking finish. Many drinkers consider them to be infinitely superior to the mass-produced stouts which are often chilled to the point of tastelessness, though Guinness’ bottled Special Export Stout (8%) with a nose of roast barley, banana and fruitcake richness and flavours of coffee, licorice, fruitcake and hops is a connoisseur’s delight. As for porter, many small breweries have resurrected ancient recipes and given modern drinkers a flavour of the beverage that was the tonic for the working man in the 18th and 19th century.

‘Our Old Growler (see tasting notes) was the first porter to be brewed in this country for many years,’ says Ian Hornsey at the Nethergate Brewery in Suffolk about their porter which took first prize in last year’s CAMRA’s Winter Beer of Britain awards. ‘It was based on a 1750s recipe from a London brewery and we originally brewed it as a Christmas beer in 1987. It was so popular that the following year we launched it as Old Growler. The reason I did it is that I collect lots of old brewing recipes and I’m also a fan of dark beers. Besides, porter is part of our brewing heritage.’

Guinness has the stout market so tightly sewn up that many drinkers are unaware of the variety of stout styles. Samuel Smith make a much celebrated Oatmeal Stout (5%) which is superbly balanced and smooth-tasting and a wonderful accompaniment to a whole range of foods including goulash, seafood and bread and cheese. Oyster stout is rarer. Marston’s bottle-conditioned Oyster Stout (4.5%), is a dark, rich and smooth beverage and exquisite with seafood. The name suggests the inclusion of oysters in the beer but this is not the case with Marston’s, though extract of oyster was common in stouts made from the 1920s to the late 1950s. More recently, Isle of Man brewers Bushey’s occasionally make an oyster stout which uses a small amount of shellfish flesh in the boil alongside the hops.

Finally there’s sweet stout, better known as milk stout of which Mackeson’s is the most famous example. There is no milk in milk stout by the way. The sweetness comes from the addition of milk sugar (lactose), which once allowed many brewers to put forward their beverage’s supposed health properties. This wouldn’t do for the men from the Ministry of Food who in the years after the war put a ban on the use of the word milk.

Whatever their style, today’s revived porters and traditional cask-conditioned stouts have bags of flavour and aromas which will revive the most jaded palates. They are excellent with food or just savoured on their own. The lighter ones are thirst-quenchers all year round while during the winter the imperial stouts and porters are great fortifiers. The last three CAMRA Winter Beers of the year have been porters or stouts, which certainly suggests that there is a market. In 1997, it was Hambleton’s Nightmare Stout (5%), the following year Old Growler and this year the small Cumbrian brewery of Dent won the ultimate accolade with their strong, full-flavoured stout T’Owd Tup (6%).

Porters and stouts are the great survivors of brewing history. So next time you want a pint of the black stuff think beyond the Guinness.

Tasting notes:

King & Barnes bottle-conditioned Old Porter (5.5%)
Dark-brown in colour with reddish highlights, with a thick creamy head. There is toffee, coffee and fruit in the nose with toffee and coffee following on in the well-rounded, mouth-filling flavour. A subtle hoppiness in the finish balances any trend towards oversweetness. It’s a warm, flavoursome and complex beer from one of the great family breweries.

Dublin Brewing Company’s D’Arcy’s Dublin stout (4.7%)
Guinness has a rival! This young brewery only set up shop near the Liffey in 1996 but is already been winning fans with this classic dry stout. Black in colour with brown-red highlights, it packs a powerful nose of chocolate, coffee androastiness.

Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout (7%)
Recreation of the beer style which was very popular in Imperial Russia. It's a rich and flavour-packed beer, with a deep black-chocolate colour and a powerful nose which is a mix of coffee, fruit cake and roast barley, while on the palate there's a complex blend of espresso beans, rich fruit, hops and malt. A superbly balanced beer with a rich and warming fruitiness in the finish. Best served in a brandy glass so that the aromas can be fully released. Is excellent as a classic after-dinner dessert beer accompanying espresso coffee, stilton and walnuts, bread and butter pudding or rich, filling trifle.

Nethergate Old Growler Porter (5.5%)
Named after head brewer Ian Hornsey's late boxer dog, this is reddish brown in colour with hints of toffee and hops on the nose. There's also toffee, chocolate and hops on the palate rounded off with long and complex finish which includes the pleasing bitterness of hops. Very moreish beer and utterly delicious. Ian Hornsey suggests that it is wonderful for cooking, especially in steak and kidney pies as well as accompanying traditional English foods such as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. The brewery also make Umbel Magna which is Old Growler with added ground coriander seeds.


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Adrian Tierney-Jones