Don’t get too fixated on the technical differences between stout and porter. Both styles are benefiting from endless new interpretations by innovative brewers
The US-based Beer Judge Certification Program released updated guidelines on beer styles at the very end of last year. This is a list of 34 identifiable families of beer, sub-divided into anything from two to 10 particular beer styles, each with a description of the typical ingredients, flavour profile and historical background. It aims to provide a benchmark for competition judges to assess whether particular beers match the style they purport to be.
Don’t worry, there isn’t going to be an exam at the end. But it is the place to go if any reader feels the urgent need to detect the subtle variations between American, Belgian, black, brown, red, rye, white, brut, hazy and double IPAs.
As we were deep into dark beer season at the time they were published, it seemed a good hopping-on place to search for answers to one of the thorniest of thorny beer questions: the difference between a stout and a porter. It’s a question that has almost as many answers as there are beer experts and is wrapped up in 18th century brewing history, grain content and degrees of bitterness and sweetness. It’s quite the rabbit hole.
The BJCP guidelines present as many questions as they answer, however, even creating new ones, including what is the difference between a porter and a porter, and between a stout and a stout? They identify four distinct types of porter (English, American, Baltic and pre-Prohibition) and eight shades of stout (American, imperial, foreign extra, oatmeal, sweet, Irish, Irish extra and tropical).
Perhaps the most important question should be, “is it time to stop worrying about the difference between porter and stout?”. To which I’d suggest the answer is: “Unless you’re judging an international beer competition, yes, it probably is.”
For, just like any other beer style or tributary thereof, there are great porters and mediocre ones, and amazing stouts and workaday ones. Being called one or the other doesn’t denote quality, just its place in beer’s history.
The beauty of both styles is their versatility, as the numerous subdivisions testify. Dark beers provide a robust enough backbone to carry the saltiness of oysters or the sweetness of dark fruit. Titanic Plum Porter is a leathery-rich, fruity beer worthy of the “modern classic” epithet. It’s become so iconic in beer-nerd world that Aldi launched a lookalike last year.
Fresh off the blocks is Vocation’s Honeycomb Chocolate Stout. It’s a lazy fall-back to describe a tipple as something in a glass (sunshine, Christmas, a vineyard etc) but this really is as close as you’re likely to encounter to a Crunchie in liquid form – decadent, warming, moreish.
More refined, with a bitter-sweet dark chocolate/liquorice thing going on is Thornbridge’s Cocoa Wonderland chocolate porter, which packs a punch at 6.8% abv, reinforcing the non-rule that porters are usually lighter in abv than stout, except when they aren’t.
These and many others have taken two closely-related classic dark beer palates and created exciting new-ness in what was pretty much a one-brand beer category two decades ago – not so much vive la difference as vive la similarité.