Porter is one of the most complicated styles of beer to describe. I’m pretty sure that is because Porter was originally a mix of several beer styles. Similar to how you might order a mixed drink or a martini at the bar, imagine that you asked the bartender to mix a few taps for a highly customized brew. This may sound weird to you now, but in London via the 1700s, mixing different ales was all the rage and bartenders would mix as many as five different ales at the request of their customers. This trend kept up until brewer Ralph Hardwood analyzed popular combinations and came up with a brew that mimicked the most popular three-beer mix known as the “three threads.” Ralph Hardwood’s new mix was a strong, dark and tasty brew that received the name Mr.Hardwood’s Entire and eventually became the single most popular brew in London. This style of beer became very popular with a particular group in London’s working class, the dock workers, or “porters.” In time, the beer became associated with the group of people that enjoyed it the most and thus became known as “porter beer” or simply porter.
At the peak of its glory, porter was so popular that it was possible for a brewer to make a fortune just by making porter and giving up all other styles. Eventually the fame of this beer reached beyond London and even outside of England with porter breweries opening up in Dublin, Glasgow and all over the British Isles. Arthur Guinness, who is most known for his stout, was the brewer that made porter popular in Ireland and made a fortune doing so. Porter expansion didn’t end there; it went on to take hold in Baltic Sea countries such as Sweden, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia and Poland eventually evolving into its own style called Baltic Porter, featuring a higher alcohol content typical for beer enjoyed in colder climates.
Although porter has not yet achieved the level of popularity it enjoyed back in England, a few brewers in North America have also taken up brewing this style as it was a favourite of many British colonists. Unlike many other styles of beer brought from the Old World, Porter did not evolve into anything distinct in North America. Once Lager and Pilsner became the next big thing in the world of beer, porter popularity dwindled everywhere and eventually porter became less of a crowd pleaser and more of a treat for the gurus.
Porters are best described as dark, full-bodied ales with a complex taste of roasted malts. Porters come in a variety of colors ranging from black to reddish brown. Commonly porters will have the aroma of roasted malts, coffee, caramel and chocolate. Porter beers are usually between 4% and 6% ABV. Expect a significant amount of hop bitterness that is typical for this style of beer, but normally it won’t be as bitter as a stout.
Suggested food pairings for porters are:
Some of the more obvious choices for this beer styles are the standard pub-fare and pretty much anything coming from a char-grill. Steak and burgers will complement the beer beautifully, so will grilled vegetables, chicken and pork. Ribs with smoky hickory sauce will become a lot more enjoyable when matched with a porter. A chocolate or a coffee porter will be a great companion for most chocolate cakes and chocolate-related deserts as well as deserts featuring caramel, maple and walnuts.
Some of the notable porters to try are:
- Fuller’s London Porter – a porter classic from England with a rich chocolaty flavour.
- Mill Street Coffee Porter – a porter from Toronto’s very own Mill St. Brewery featuring a coffee flavour typical to many porters.
- Baltika Porter & Okocim Palone – Russian and Polish that can give you a taste of what Baltic Porter is all about.