As the New England winter creeps up on us and the days become unfairly short, the beer drinker seeks something a little more robust to help keep the cold and darkness at bay. We seek a beer that has the girth to accompany a hearty winter meal without being overpowered by the full, rich flavors. The light and refreshing beers we enjoyed during the summer are as appropriate as a beach party. In their place we want beers whose robustness give us the fortitude to plod on through winter’s worst weather. Porter, beer as dark as snow is white, is the beer of the season.
Porters are dark beers whose flavor focuses on malt and body. They are categorically dark brown to black in color due to a generous amount of roasted barley and so-called “chocolate” malt. The origin of the style is thought to be in the practice of old time brewers combining other beers together. The mixture was for some reason called “entire butt” and produced a beer that was darker and more complex than any of its component parts. Eventually, this practice was discontinued as brewing method improved and the use of roasted barley for color and flavor was adopted instead.
Unlike stouts, where smoothness is the goal, common, porters proudly emphasize their roasted flavor. The head is usually dark colored and the aroma is reminiscent of coffee beans. When sipped, the flavor hits the tongue with the same bitterness as coffee does but smoothes out to a nice malt flavor. Though most people equate darkness with strength, the common porter is not particularly strong, averaging 4-5 percent alcohol. What gives a beer color doesn’t always mean more alcohol or body.
The flavors and body of the common porter are taken to extremes in what are known as Baltic porters. Originally brewed for delivery from the UK to Northern Europe, they were made especially robust to survive the long voyage. These pure black monsters weigh in at upwards of 8% alcohol and a whole lot of body. The beers were prized by the Russian and Baltic nobility for their taste and ability to kick ass. Imagine yourself wrapped in furs on an Estonian Winter night and you can understand the market for such a potent beer. Thankfully, the style survived the advent of modern shipping and you can drink like a czar no matter where you are. They make great after dinner beers to accompany a decadent chocolaty dessert.
During the summer, the color and strength of porters seem inappropriate but now that it is finally getting cold and we begin to plan ski trips and the like, the porters come out of hibernation and remind us why we liked them. Nothing goes better with a hearty stew and few beers have the guts to stand up to a freezing wind chill like a porter. After hitting the slopes or shoveling the walk, warm up with a nice porter while you warm your (entire) butt by the fire.
Matt is an HBS Staff Member