The Strong Black Stuf: A Clearly Opaque Debate
By Edward Washington
For the untrained eye the difference between Porters and Stouts would be hard to define, and if you trawl the world-wide-web you’ll find a lot of material that says they’re the same. However for the brewers and those who are firmly behind the production of these styles there is a distinct difference that sets the categories apart in today’s market.
Jaron Mitchell (Four Pines Brewing, Sydney) says that; “For me, a key difference between the two categories is that the breadth of range within the Stout category is so great.” Willie Simpson brewed an Oyster Stout back in 2004 for example (he actually dangled 13 of the freshly shucked variety into the boiling wort for this one). “With Porter,” Mitchell continues, “the category itself doesn’t have as much breadth.” So it seems to be more of a defined style of brew, rather than a conglomeration of sub-categories.
What’s the style of a Porter then if the two are unique from one another? Tristan Hayden (Lord Nelson Hotel, Sydney) describes a Porter as; “a multi-style ale, brewed like an ale with malt on the mid palate but without the bitterness [that’s associated with Stout]”. The majority of their house Porter (the Nelson’s Blood) is made from pale ale malts and as well as a portion of darker malts.
“The first mention of a ‘stout’ (relating to beer) appears to be in 1677, but whether it simply meant a ‘strong beer’, rather than being related to what we would consider today as Stout is contentious.”
Historically, Porters were “blends of ales, often the dregs and including light and pale beers” says Gary Leonard from the Mudgee Brewing Company. “Porter is more of a dark ale, while a Stout would be more of a bitter, full bodied style of brew – the difference should come from the grains that are used.” Stouts (pretty well characterized by the international icon Guinness, although it used to be called a ‘stout Porter’) are often darker than a Porter and can combine the use of black malt or roasted barley to acquire their opaque look.
Stouts are a great match to oysters (hence Simpson’s quest) as their bitterness contrasts to the salt. But they also have a diverse sub-category range that includes Chocolate Stouts; that can actually incorporate small amounts of real chocolate; Coffee Stouts, which can use the darkest of roasted malts to impart a bitter coffee flavour and Oatmeal Stouts.
This last category can usually use a maximum of 30% oats during the brewing process. While these brews don’t necessarily have the taste of oats, they’re often exceptionally smooth because the extra proteins, lipids and gums imparted by the oats increases the viscosity and body, adding to the overall perception of smoothness.
So with Porter disappearing from the radar in the 1800s off the growth in popularity of pale and lager style brews, why are they now making their resurgence after so long? Most of the brewers who are taking up the challenge recognise the shift in consumer drinking patterns that are steering people toward trying new brews and not being put off by the notion of a ‘dark ale’.
“Our Porter is now a real strong seller,” says Leonard, “the style is really popular when we serve it as part of a tasting flight, matching up well to dark chocolate. Funnily enough women are usually some of the most impressed with the flavours.” Hayden concurs, claiming people ring the Nelson to see if the Blood is on tap before heading down. ‘
So with winter closing in, it might be time to option in a few of these styles to give customers something a little bit different. Tasting flights recommended.
Porters and Stouts in Australia
Both have a long history in Australia and are considered to be some of the first brews to have been consumed, and later brewed, in the struggling colony.
Governor Phillip knocked back four glasses of London Porter to celebrate landing safely on shore in 1788, inadvertently setting a precedent for how we celebrate Australia Day and establishing the colony as a beer loving nation.
While rum became the real taste of the colony for many a year to come, Porters and Stouts were readily available and the earliest newspaper mention of a British imported Stout to the new colony appears to be in the Sydney Gazette March 19, 1803 when a notice informed colonists;
‘That the ship named Bridgewater had landed and held a large store of private investments for purchase including 200 casks of Ale and Brown Stout for sale by the cask at £7/ 7s‘ (around $369 using today’s exchange rate)
In December that year Sydney resident, Mr Stabler of the Eating House in Pitts-row (now Pitt St), also placed a notice in the Gazette where he;
‘Begged to acquaint the [colony] that he has laid in stock a prime Strong Beer which he has had brewed of superior strength and quality for general consumption‘.
That ‘he has had it brewed’ could indicate that local brewers were already supplying local venues with Australian-Made beer – an interesting indication of our brewing heritage. We know that the likes of Squires and Boston, were brewing early on, but just how early Australians could by Australian-Made beer is not quite known.
A Stout Debate
Porters and Stouts share a common history and the debate often focuses on the name (rather than a specific style). The first mention of a ‘stout’ (relating to beer) appears to be in 1677, but whether it simply meant a ‘strong beer’, rather than being related to what we would consider today as Stout is contentious. In 1734 the terms ‘stout butt beer‘ and ‘entire butt beer‘ are known to be used by London brewers (‘entire’ is an early name given to Porter as it took a blend of ales to make the ‘entire’ brew). Whether the term ‘stout’ used here simply described a stronger version of the two on offer is unknown, but would seem correct.
So when did dark style brews become available? Coffee drinking was a growing trend throughout industrial England indeed it looked set to topple ale as the drink of the intelligentsia for a time. As coffee and malt roasting are almost parallel in their design would it not be too difficult to imagine a savvy brewer realising the potential of roasting a dark style brew to create some similar flavours? This theory would imply that Porters were the first beers that took advantage of the new roasting technology and that Stout – as a style – developed after, taking on their own distinctive characters.
Some Dark Brews to Consider
Mudgee Brewing Company Porter4.3% abv
Mudgee Porter has a thick texture and a warm finish, making it the perfect beer for those cooler nights. The specialty dark malts that give it the most wonderful flavours of chocolate, coffee and liquorice.
Four Pines Brewing Company Stout 5.1% abv
A dry Irish style stout, presenting almost black, bearing a generous tan head. The aroma profile is of coffee, chocolate and caramel malts. A full bodied, smooth finish.
Coopers Best Extra Stout 6.3% abv
Pitch black colour with a thick tan head. The palate is full, rich and voluminous, coating the tongue in a thick layer of chocolate and toasty flavour