While there are generally accepted guidelines for every beer style, brewers have free rein to interpret their own particular creations. After all, while brewing is based in science, it’s made by artists. “I think of chocolate, some roast and smoky — but not too much,” said Brian Faivre, brewmaster for Deschutes Brewery, where Black Butte Porter is brewed, about his take on the ambiguous style. “Low-to-medium bitterness. Some notes of coffee, burnt — however, not too overpowering. Approachable. Not too alcoholic or sweet. Medium bodied, versus full.” This medium-bodied character has historically made porters associated with the working man, an easy-drinking dark ale for after long days at the job site.
It’s easy to confuse porters with stouts, a closely related, slightly darker ale. “For me, the difference is the use of roasted barley and general mouthfeel. Most stouts have historically contained roasted barley where most porters will not,” said Bill Beymer, brewing manager at Odell Brewing Company, where Cutthroat Porter is brewed. “Stouts will also have more full-bodied character where porters will have a thinner mouthfeel. In addition, stouts often have a higher degree of malt bitterness contributed by the roasted barley, while porters will often have lower malt bitterness character.” In general, stouts hit all the same notes as a porter — coffee, roast, burnt bitterness — but with the volume turned up.
As winter approaches, light-colored beers begin to lose out to darker, heavier ales that pair better with thick parkas, gloves and a beer blanket. If you are a pale ale and lager fan who has just dipped a toe into darker beers in anticipation of chillier months, these are eight great porter starting points from coast to coast.
Maine and Virginia
Maine Beer Co. King Titus
ABV: 7.5% | IBU: N/A | Maine
Malt: American 2-Row, Caramel, Munich, Chocolate, Roasted Wheat, Flaked Oats | Hops: Centennial, Columbus
Elusive Crowd Favorite: The last time we visited Maine Beer Co., a man with an acoustic guitar and a braid of hair was playing one of the better Black Keys covers we’d ever heard for an audience of 10 people sitting around with flights of beer. Maine Beer Co.’s labeling is simple, small type on white, and their practices are sustainability and quality first. Their vibe is fantastic but their distribution is low, making it hard to find their beers outside of the state, and leading to camp-outs for the release of their more coveted beers, like Dinner.
Tasting Notes: Named for a “bold silverback gorilla” protected by The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, this is the boldest of our favorites. Leads with sour fruit and chocolate on the nose, which drops into charcoal, cocoa crispies and a nice rounding bitterness from the hops before a cocoa finish that is crisp, not oily.
Port City Porter
ABV: 7.2% | IBU: 45 | Virginia
Sleeper Pick: You may not have heard of Port City, located in Virginia — a state lacking a single one of the 50 largest breweries in the nation. But that doesn’t matter. Just last month, at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival, the brewery took home the award for Small Brewing Company of the Year, and their Porter took home a silver medal. If you are in the Mid-Atlantic region, watch for this place.
Tasting Notes: Dark fruit and cracked pepper on the nose, which fades into a lot of roasted malt and coffee on the tongue balanced well by hops. You definitely want to drink more than one.
Because every list is finite, we unfortunately had to leave off a few great representations of this style. If you can find the following, you won’t be disappointed.
Odell Cutthroat Porter, 5.1% ABV
Hill Farmstead Everett Porter, 7.5% ABV
Trillium Pot & Kettle, 7.5% ABV
Bell’s Porter, 5.6% ABV
Oregon and California
Deschutes Brewery Black Butte Porter
ABV: 5.2% | IBU: 30 | Oregon
Malt: Pale, Carapils, Chocolate, Crystal, Wheat | Hops: Cascade, Bravo, Tettnang
Most Refreshing: Deschutes was founded in 1988 and has grown rapidly in size, becoming the seventh-largest craft brewery in the country while remaining family and employee owned. Currently they are scoping potential areas in Virginia and North Carolina for a second brewery on the East Coast. Of their core lineup, Black Butte Porter is the most popular and represents a classic taste profile that remains surprisingly refreshing — an impressive balancing act, given porters’ tendency toward heaviness.
Tasting Notes: Lots of raisins and dark fruit on the nose with a little chocolate; much more roasted malt balanced by hops on the tongue. Finishes long and clean.
Anchor Brewing Porter
ABV: 5.6% | California
Malt: Blend of 2-Row Pale, Caramel, Black, Chocolate | Hops: Northern Brewer
The Old Standby: This porter, first brewed in 1972, was the first American craft-brewed version and survives today as one of the best examples of the style. Anchor itself, stationed in San Francisco, is America’s first craft brewery and the fourth largest in California.
Tasting Notes: Smells like Valentine’s Day chocolate and un-roasted coffee beans. More fruity than roasted. The taste is dark berries with caramel or molasses, and less chocolate and roast than many of the other beers on the list. A lighter representation of the style.
Michigan and Ohio
Founders Brewing Co. Porter
ABV: 6.5% | IBU: 45 | Michigan
Malt: Chocolate Malt, Munich, Carapils, Crystal Dark, Black Malt | Hops: Nugget, Willamette, Crystal
Reliable and Deserving: After almost going bankrupt in the early days as brewers, the Founders team changed it up and stopped playing safe, making “complex, in-your-face ales, with huge aromatics, bigger body, and tons of flavor” that weren’t “for the masses.” And now, ironically, they’ve dominated the beer market and are enjoyed by the masses.
Tasting Notes: A robust porter to measure all others against, this is a balanced beer that really leans on big chocolate aromas with coffee, chocolate and graham cracker on the tongue. Insanely drinkable.
Great Lakes Brewing Co. Edmund Fitzgerald
ABV: 6.0% | IBU: 37 | Ohio
Malt: Harrington 2-Row, Crystal 77, Chocolate, Roasted Barley | Hops: Northern Brewer, Willamette, Cascade
Sharp and World Class: Founders edges out Great Lakes simply because of higher distribution, but the contenders from the Midwest were both among the best we had. Opened in 1986 by two Irish brothers with the help of former employees of Schmidt’s, Cleveland’s last operating brewery, it’s become the largest craft brewery in Ohio and the 23rd largest in the nation.
Tasting Notes: Brewed in memory of the sunken freighter, on which 29 lost their lives because the “gales of November came too early,” Edmund Fitzgerald is very smooth, with a rich malty nose, almost herbal, that gives way to dark fruit, hops and roasted malt. It stays sharp and drinkable, and finishes with something like sweet and salty nuts. One taster said it was like a “lagered porter.”
Coffee and Cigarettes
Sixpoint Brewery 4Beans
ABV: 10% | IBU: 40 | New York
Founded in 2004, Sixpoint is known in New York for its skinny cans, colorful designs and Resin, which ranks among the best double IPAs available. From their mad scientist “Cycliliquids” collection, 4Beans is a Baltic Porter brewed with Madagascar vanilla beans and Romano beans, clocks in at 10% ABV and hides in well with dessert-like flavors.
Tasting Notes: Pronounced coffee on the nose that doesn’t let up on the tongue. Coffee is joined by chocolate-covered cherries and, in one taster’s mind, “sesame chicken glaze.” Definitely a great desert beer, but it’d be hard to drink more than one.
Stone Brewing Co. Smoked Porter
ABV: 5.9% | IBU: 53 | California
Stone ranks in the top 10 largest craft breweries in America, and the bold ink on its bottles shows off demons and a fuck-you attitude. The smoked porter keeps in this line but delivers a smokiness from peat-smoked malt that won’t go over well with everyone. But as smoked porters go, this is one of the best.
Tasting Notes: Smells like the inside of a smoker’s car, but in the best way, with the taste of chalky roasts, bitterness from the hops and burnt oak, hickory smoke and a bit of chocolate. Not for the faint of heart — and definitely not refreshing.