This week’s Know Your Styles is being brought to you by Eric Burnley. Big thanks to Eric for being so patient with this, he sent this to me a few weeks ago but it got lost in a barrage of emails. Thanks again to Paul from the Wine and Cheese Place in Clayton for supplying the beers for this feature.

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Robust Porter

[Channel 5 Action News Team voice] October 17, 1814. London. Porter: everywhere. That was the scene this disastrous day, when one of the Meux & Co. Horse Shoe Brewery’s largest vats buckled under the immense pressure of 3,555 barrels of aged porter, spilling the roasty, chocolate-flavored brew into the streets of England’s largest city, demolishing literally everything in its path, creating devastation of unfathomable proportions, all the while filling the air with sweet, luscious, malty roastiness…

Ok, I guess it’s really nothing we should joke about since 8 people died. [Editor’s Note:  If we can’t laugh about people dying almost 200 years ago in a beer flood, what can we laugh about?] We can only hope that today’s breweries have learned something from history and take whatever measures are necessary to ensure beyond any doubt that their vessels are structurally sound. Even though a river of beer does sound captivating in awesomeness upon first hearing of it.

The dateline of this story is indeed indicative of this beer’s origin, though. Porter was a beer that rose in popularity in England some time in the early-to-mid 1700s, beginning largely with beers brewed of an entirely brown malt base. At the time, brown malt was actually less expensive than traditional pale malt, which is used in brewing most other beers. Later on, it was found that brown malt was in fact more expensive to produce and work with, and brewers were financially forced to pursue porters of a different grist (another word for the ingredients comprising the beer’s grain bill). The other significant aspects contributing to the development of porter were aging and blending. Traditionally, porters would be made by blending some aged beer (kept in vats like the one Meux had) with fresh, young beer to attain the beverage desired. Porter first grew in popularity with the working class, who used it to supplement their diet (along with bread and other basic, inexpensive foods). Stout Porter was a stronger, more robust style of porter from the same time period, which is simply called Stout today.

Porters have blossomed a bit in American brewing popularity as well, gaining speed with the rise of the craft brewing industry. American examples can be more hop-focused than traditional British examples, but vary greatly. The American BJCP guideline definitions of porter include Brown, Robust, and Baltic porters. These all share similar color, flavor, and aroma qualities, varying mostly in their strengths of these different aspects. Robust and Baltic are generally darker, heavier, more roasty, and higher in alcohol, Baltic being the strongest. The Robust Porter is generally the middle of the road among the three. It tends to be a bit more roasty, malty, and hoppy than the Brown Porter, and a bit higher in alcohol (4.8% – 6.5% ABV), but not as strong as the Baltic. The three examples I tried were all from American brewers, but retained somewhat different roots in brewing tradition and style: Anchor Brewing’s Porter, Boulevard Brewing Co.’s Bully! Porter, and Rogue’s Mocha Porter.

What you should be seeing: Porters should generally be a dark brown color, with a variety of levels of reddish, ruby, or garnet hues visible around the edge of the glass. Clarity can differ, and you can especially note this by looking toward the edge of your glass or holding the beer up to the light (don’t worry about looking stupid, you’ll look sophisticated- unless you drop the glass). The Boulevard and Anchor porters I tasted were quite clear, both having reddish notes, but the Rogue was cloudier and without reddish hues. The Boulevard was notably lighter than either the Anchor or Rogue, showing quite a bit more ruby color. Carbonation can be high enough to yield a decent head, but some examples (British examples, usually) can certainly have less. The Anchor and Boulevard both had high, dense, rocky heads when poured into a traditional pint glass. The Rogue had a small head, which dissipated over a few minutes.

What you should be smelling: Aroma on a Robust porter can vary widely. These examples were a pretty decent picture of this. The Boulevard was quite a bit hoppier in the nose than the other two- I was kind of surprised to note from their website that they use Simcoe, Athanum, and Cascade hops, as these three are 3 hop varieties normally associated with very floral American hoppy beers like American IPAs and Double IPAs. This just goes to show that with restraint and inventive brewing, many ingredients can be utilized in a variety of beer styles you would not expect. The Boulevard retained a bit of roast in the aroma as well, but was distinctly hoppier and cleaner (meaning not as complex) smelling than the others. The Rogue had a bit of roast, chocolate, and a touch of hops in the nose (they user Perle and Centennial), while the Anchor had a rather complex nose filled with vanilla, chocolate, caramel, toffee, yeast, and roasty malt characters (comparatively devoid of American hop presence aside the other two). Any of these aromas fit within the style of Robust Porter, since they each retain the hallmark roasty, malty aroma in some regard.

What you should be tasting: There’s also room for variance here, but on the whole, a Robust Porter should evoke flavors of chocolate, coffee, roasty graininess, and caramel maltiness. Porters should taste a touch maltier or even sweeter than most stouts, which are generally a bit drier. From there, the flavors imparted can include hops (usually more popular in American versions), notes of toffee, and a touch of alcohol warmth in bigger examples. The Boulevard had a fairly clean profile, with roasty notes as well as some fruity notes from hops- not a lot of maltiness present. The Rogue was much more upfront with the chocolate and coffee notes, with a much creamier mouthfeel than the Boulevard, which was a bit prickly from the higher carbonation and lighter body. Often a Robust Porter will hold a soft mouthfeel, bolstered by its maltiness and caramel sweetness, and the Rogue is a great example. The Anchor was more in tune with its aroma, portraying a wonderful blend of caramel, light coffee, chocolate, toffee, and complex fruity yeast character reminiscent of British ales.

How you should be drinking this: Like most ales of British origin, porters are great once they’ve warmed a bit; the aroma and complex flavors really materialize best as the beer approaches room temperature. Start from the fridge, give it a pour, take a taste (just for scientific research, of course- but also because you know you can’t wait), and then let it warm a bit, tasting while it rises in temperature. 50F should be good, and the beer will continue to expose its character well into the 50s. Robust Porters are probably on the higher end of session beers (most being 5% – 6.5% ABV), so they’re made to enjoy heartily. Sipping is likely to help you concentrate on the flavors, but a nice swig is certainly not out of line. For glassware, I chose a regular pint glass for mine since they were American examples, but imperial pint glasses are also great, and something with a more focused mouth like a New Belgian Brewing globe glass could help focus the aroma. Porters go great with (and in) chili, I might add.

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What you should be buying: There are so many porters available these days; it’s really become a style that most breweries at least try their hand at if only as a limited edition brew. Being a darker beer, porters do age more gracefully than many other beers, and a Robust Porter especially would age better than a Brown Porter (due to higher alcohol and darker flavors). Any of the fine American examples I tried would be a great place to start and get your feet wet, as well as the traditional British examples like Fullers London Porter (although BJCP technically calls it a Brown Porter) or Meantime’s London Porter. Some of the American examples stick to the traditional British flavor profile, and some throw in their own twist (Sierra Nevada adds a piny hop edge to theirs). Personally, I’d love to try an all-brown malt porter for historic purity- perhaps I’ll take a stab at that with a homebrew batch.

Related styles: Brown Porter, Baltic Porter, and, ultimately, Stouts

A footnote: In an homage to those who lost their lives in the 1814 disaster, I will endeavor next October 17th to recreate the tragedy (not to scale) in low-budget indie movie fashion with a couple bottles of porter, a cracked wooden bowl, and some unsuspecting Star Wars action figures. No actual beer will be harmed in said recreation, of course.