There is little doubt that the craft beer renaissance has been a great thing for beer lovers around the world as it has dramatically increased the diversity of beers available.
But this isn’t without its drawbacks.
For instance, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish the line that separates similar styles of beer. Even the snobbiest of beer snobs - excuse me, I meant connoisseurs - can struggle to provide a clear, concise answer to how a porter and a stout are supposed to differ.
To try and find some clarity on this issue, we set out on a arduous mission to find an answer.
The Origins of Porters and Stouts
Let’s start by taking a look at when the terms porter and stout first started being used in reference to beer.
That means you’ll need to hold onto your knickers because we’re heading to 18th century London as it was during this period that porters first became popular in London pubs.
At the time, it was common for patrons to request blends of certain beers - a job that was left to the pub to do itself.
Legend has it that one entrepreneurial pub owner figured out how to brew a beer comparable to his most requested blend - no extra work required!
This beer eventually was given the name porter because of the immense popularity it developed with the London porters who made deliveries around the city.
As the beer spread throughout the rest of England, it didn’t take long for different breweries to brew their own porters.
Originally, the term “stout” was used to characterize bolder styles of beer that often had higher alcohol levels. It was very similar to how the term “Imperial” is used to describe a bigger and bolder version of a beer today.
And there we have the original difference between what would have then been called a porter and a stout porter: the stout version was bolder and more alcoholic.
You’re probably thinking to yourself:
“Aha! There we have it. There’s our answer!”
Unfortunately, the historical definition no longer holds up.
The Modern Craft Beer Landscape Muddles Many Styles
If you read our blog post on what defines a farmhouse brewery, you’ll remember how we explained how the craft beer scene has completely confused different beer styles.
There is no governing body that forces breweries to adhere to guidelines for certain styles of beer. If a brewery wants their beer to be called a porter, then it’s a porter. The only effort it takes is to brand and label it as such.
That’s why the historic definition of stouts and porters no longer holds up. You can find plenty of high-alcohol stouts and low-alcohol porters.
Now you’re thinking, “Great. We live in a world devoid of meaning. Up is down. Left is right!”
Hold on there, there may be yet one shining light left to turn to - albeit, not necessarily a very satisfying one.
The Beer Judges Certification Program (BJCP)
The BJCP has the closest thing to a classification of what characteristics each style of beer should have.
You can check out their entire guidelines here, but we are going to examine the differences between an American Stout and an American Porter.
Here are some selections taken verbatim from the BJCP’s guidelines:
- A substantial, malty dark beer with a complex and flavorful dark malt character.
- Moderately strong malt flavor usually features a lightly burnt malt character (and sometimes chocolate and/or coffee flavors) with a bit of grainy, dark malt dryness in the finish.
- A fairly strong, highly roasted, bitter, hoppy dark stout.
- Moderate to very high roasted malt flavors, often tasting of coffee, roasted coffee beans, dark or bittersweet chocolate. May have the flavor of slightly burnt coffee grounds, but this character should not be prominent
As it turns out, even the BJCP style guidelines have trouble providing a clear distinction between the two types.
So are you drinking a stout or a porter?
Whichever you decide, chances are you’re right.