This article was originally published in the September issue of the Shout.
With only a few more weeks of cold nights ahead, it is time to push your way past all of those IPAs and Pale Ales, reach deep into the back of the beer fridge, and pour yourself a cold, intense, and deliciously dark Porter or Stout. Sister styles that they are, Porter and Stout have always had a somewhat tentative hold on the hearts of craft beer fans. They have a reputation as tasting burnt or ashy, as well as being calorically dense meals-in-a-glass. While there are certainly Porters and Stouts on the market that are deserving of this reputation, it is by no means a fair categorization of these complex and storied beers.
It’s somewhat ironic that dark beer has fallen out of favour with so many beer fans, as just a few hundred years ago virtually all beer was dark. The imperfect wood-fired malting processes of centuries past produced a malt that was toasted brown and often infused with smokey flavours. These bygone malting processes also denatured many of the naturally occurring enzymes in barley and wheat, which are needed to convert starch in to sugar. This meant that to produce a beer of normal alcoholic strength, more of this less efficient “brown malt” was needed than otherwise would be if using modern pale malt. The result was a wide range of much-loved dark beer styles from around the world, of varying strengths, shades of brown and black, and flavours.
One such style was Porter. A dark English ale that got its name because of its popularity among the London river porters and working class of the 18th century. Said to have been a sweet, brown ale, with a restrained bitterness and roasted character, Porter was widely exported and eventually went on to become the most popular beer style in the world (by volume). The stronger of these Porters was auspiciously called a “Stout Porter”.
Soon, the advent of the hydrometer (a device used to measure the sugar – and therefore alcoholic potential – of a liquid), led to the realization that the brown malt used to make Porter was vastly less efficient than the newly popular coke-fired pale malt. As such, brewers began using a combination of pale malt and various colouring agents to make a beer that tasted the same but cost much less to produce. The favourite of these colouring agents was malt that was roasted to nearly black (much like coffee beans are). It took Just a small percentage of this roasted barley to produce a very dark beer, with varying degrees of roasted flavour. In the race to perfect these roasting techniques, an English inventor by the name of Daniel Wheeler patented his barley roaster, and “Black Patent Malt” was born. Black patent malt is a malted barley that is roasted in a heated drum, similar to a coffee roaster. Black Patent malt became the favourite roasted malt among British brewers, while in other places (namely Ireland) brewers used “Roasted Barley” (a highly roasted unmalted barley). One such brewer was Arthur Guinness who brewed a very popular “Stout Porter”. In time “Porter was dropped from the beer’s moniker altogether and Porter and Stout would diverge into two, different but similar, styles of beer.
Then things took a difficult turn for Porter. During World War One, England imposed new taxes on malted barley. Ireland, who produced Stouts using unmalted Barley, was exempt from these taxes. This meant that Ireland could produce their Stouts at a much lower cost than England could its Porters. This fact, coupled with the advent of refrigeration and the explosion in popularity of pale Lager that ensued, lead to Porter being driven to near extinction. It wasn’t until the 1980s and 90s when craft brewers in England and America revived the style and it found new popularity among craft beer fans in New Zealand and around the world.
Stout, on the other hand, has always had a toe hold on various markets around the world. Guinness (and lower ABV Stouts) have always enjoyed a loyal following in Ireland, and elsewhere. However, many would be surprised to learn that Stout is also wildly popular in Africa, as well as in the Caribbean; flying in the face of the notion that Stout is a cold weather beer. Much like with Porter, the craft beer movement also revitalized the style, giving way to many offshoots, deviations, and revitalizations of the style.
Here in New Zealand there are few breweries who don’t have at least one Porter or Stout in their line-up. While most NZ Porters tend to be either English or American, NZ Stouts are likely to cover a more dramatically diverse range; from the milder Irish Dry Stout to the Bourbon barrel-aged monsters that many brewers offer, and everything in between. Let us take a look at some of New Zealand’s most popular Porters and Stouts, across some of the more popular incarnations of the style…
English Porter tends to be lighter in colour and more restrained than its American counterpart. Generally brown rather than black, and lacking the burnt characteristics of many Stouts, the English Porter is known for notes of caramel, chocolate, and light coffee, with low to moderate levels of hop bitterness.
If you’d like to fill your glass with a Kiwi take on this classic English style than look no further than Emerson’s “London Porter”. Fittingly, Porter was this Dunedin-based brewery’s first beer. Their London Porter is dark, dry and mellow with some hoppy characteristics poking through. It pours a deep brown colour with ruby highlights. This delicious brew is full-bodied but not heavy. Their London Porter’s dry finish will leave you with flavours of roasted malt, coffee and a slightly sustained bitterness.
When America finally got hold of the Porter they did what they always do, they added more. They added more alcohol, more roasty character, and substantially more hops. So much so that the American Porter straddles the line between Porter and Stout. But it is the use of the less espresso-like black patent malt and the overall quafability of the American Porter that keeps it fairly in the Porter camp, rather than the bolder, roastier Stout.
New Zealand’s highest rated American Porter on Untappd is “Rank & File Porter” from Kainui Brew Co in Kerikeri. Head Brewer, Gary Henwood’s goal was to put a “modern American twist on an old classic”. Henwood started with an English Porter and then dialled up the malt and hops to create the perfect harmony between the somewhat aggressive flavours of chocolate and black patent malt, tropical hops, and a smooth but full-mouth feel. Not currently available in bottles, you’ll need to make your way up to Kainui Brew Co’s tasting room this summer, or their Tap Room “The Plough & Feather” to get yourself a pint of this delicious beer.
IRISH DRY STOUT
When it comes to Irish Dry Stouts, NZ brewers have had a tendency to leave that to those well-known Irish brands, such as Guinness. But this is perhaps slowly changing, as more and more local brewers seem to be replacing their big ABV show-pony-stouts, with infinitely more sessionable Irish Dry Stouts.
One such brewing company is Epic, who recently introduced their “Epic Stout”, which has quickly climbed to the top of their category on Untappd. Epic Stout is a beer that aims to “always be there when you are looking for that malt reset on your palate after drinking too many IPA’s, or just for those cold winter evenings when you are looking for something more comforting.” Epic Stout has a medium body, a creamy texture, and long roasty finish, just like you’d expect from an Irish Dry Stout.
Imperial Stout is the grandest of all Stouts. These English beers were originally exported around the world, and were especially popular among the Russian Imperial Court, hence the commonly known moniker of “Russian Imperial Stout”. Though recent years have seen the word “Russian” often dropped from the style’s name as more and more local ingredients and interpretations have become commonplace. Typically clocking in between 8% – 12% ABV (with some examples being even stronger), the Imperial Stout is an incredibly intense beer, loaded with notes of dark chocolate, espresso, toast, caramel, dried fruit, leather, tobacco and all manner of hop varieties and bitterness levels. Stouts are beers that can be enjoyed fresh or cellared for many years.
One of New Zealand’s highest rated beers (Stout or otherwise) is 8 Wired’s iStout. iStout is loaded with intense coffee, chocolate, and dark fruit flavours, that is surprisingly well-balanced against an uncharacteristically large addition of hops. iStout is big, bold, loaded with flavour, and delicious whether drunk fresh or aged for years. It’s a beer to be enjoyed in a snifter by the fireplace, on a cold, contemplative night, and it also happens to be this author’s pick for best beer in New Zealand.
There really is a Porter or Stout for every taste. Whether you’re a fan of the bold Imperial Stout, or would perhaps prefer an infinitely more quaffable Brown Porter, or maybe a good old fashioned Guinness is the beer for you. Whatever the case, this author is certain that somewhere, there is a bold, roasty dark beer just waiting to get you through the remainder of this cold, dreary winter.