The Session #109: Porter

The SessionToday being the first Friday of March means it’s also time for another round of The Session! The Session is a collaborative beer blogging project whereupon we bloggers write a post predicated on a given theme or topic of the month, suggested by our host who will later aggregate all the various contributions for our reading pleasure. This month, my friend and fellow Bend beer blogger Mark Lindner is hosting over at By the Barrel, and the topic is Porter.

There are English porters, Brown porters, Robust porters, American porters, Baltic porters, Imperial porters, Smoked porters, barrel-aged variants of most of the preceding, and so on.

With as many variations as there are it is hard to believe that porter is perhaps a neglected style. Then again, it did disappear for a while [see Foster, Porter, and others]. Of 14 beer people asked about overrated and underrated styles three of them said porter was most underrated and no one suggested it as overrated in our current market climate. [Yes, I know that is from Thrillist; feel free to ignore it.]

I would like you to sit down with one or more porters of your choosing. Pay a few minutes attention to your beer and then use that as a springboard to further thoughts on the style.

Mark is very thorough and very well-read, and provides a number of writing possibilities as well as a compendium of resources, not only referencing many of the books (classics and modern) but also linking to every published style guideline that I know of. One of the big surprises for today’s Session is the fact that nobody has suggest porter as a topic before—so I’m glad Mark did!

Today is a weird day for me as “porter” goes. We had a dog, a beagle, for many years (growing up with the kids, as it were), named “Porter,” and apparently, as my wife reminded me this morning (completely independent of this whole Session topic), this dog died five years ago today. Yes, today. I don’t mean to be morbid, but really, what are the odds? This dog left our life well before I met Mark and while he might have heard some stories of this particular pet (I have a… frustrated history with dogs) the fact that he picked a style for a Session topic he only chose to host a few months ago that landed on the same day our dog of the same name died is, well, weird to say the least. I don’t assign any kind of higher meaning to it other than a coincidence, but I couldn’t write this post without observing this odd conjunction.

So—porter. The style was an early favorite of mine, one I won’t rehash both because of Mark’s thorough resources and because I think at this point everyone is pretty familiar with it. In fact the third beer I ever homebrewed was a porter, and it’s a great “starter style” for beginning homebrewers; as Al Korzonas in Homebrewing, Volume 1 wrote, “this is a great style to begin with because the dark malts can cover many mistakes.” I have fond memories of that original porter and later on I went hog wild with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink recipe I brewed that I named Capricorn Porter (after my astrological sign). I might actually still have notes from that beer, but off the top of my head I remember being inspired by Papazian’s New Complete Joy of Homebrewing recipe for Goat Scrotum Ale and including ginger, licorice, chocolate, a chili pepper (or two?), juniper berries, molasses, spruce extract, and probably more. (You know, the usual—shoelaces, watermelon seeds, garden soil, pages from the phone book, ten penny nails, stuff like that.)

(I kid.)

I’ve mentioned or reviewed porter here on the blog many times over the years; the first substantive post I found mentioning it is this review of San Diego Brewing from 2004, where I wrote of their Cocoa Porter, “This was very good also. Chocolatey, rich, with a good thick mouthfeel and foamy head, but it didn’t have the over-roasted, almost burnt flavor I’ve noticed in porters these days.” (I don’t particularly remember the “over-roasted” porters from those days though…)

One beer I’ve never reviewed here, formally, is one of the original American Porters to have helped revive the style for the modern craft era—Deschutes Brewery’s Black Butte Porter. Although I did write a bit about it way back in 2007 for the fourth edition of The Session:

The absolute first beer you should drink when you visit the Brewery is Black Butte Porter. This is Deschutes’ flagship and best-known beer, brewed since their founding in 1988. The bottled version is good, but the tap version is unmatched; inky black with ruby edges, creamy smooth, with rich notes of chocolate, coffee, charcoal, and rich dark malts, it has an acidic tang and balances sweet and dry without veering into harshly astringent. Its body is firm yet drinkable and refreshing, and it’s a wonderful session beer at 5.2% alcohol by volume.

It’s garnered a slew of awards, deservedly so, and if you visit the brewery and find yourself drinking only the Porter, you’ll still walk away satisfied. It’s that great and that drinkable. My all-time favorite Porter.

Deschutes Brewery Black Butte PorterIt’s still one of my all-time favorites, but I don’t know if I can say the favorite, nearly nine years(!) later. It definitely ranks right up there. This was one of the first four beers Deschutes Brewery brewed, and under brewer John Harris’ guidance became a bellwether for the modern style as well as the brewery’s flagship beer—in an time when light(er) beer was king.

(The original recipe was in fact written by Frank Appleton, who had helped design the original brewhouse. Harris refined it; as I wrote in Bend Beer, “He also continued to tinker with the core recipes, particularly Black Butte Porter; the recipe that Appleton originally devised for the beer was relatively light, more of a brown ale in style in Harris’ estimation, and over the course of the next few batches he tweaked and revised the recipe to bring more chocolate and dark malts into the mix until the beer was in-line with his idea of what a porter should be.”)

So it’s time to do this modern American classic justice and write up a proper tasting notes review.

Appearance: A classic porter, dark brown in color that showcases a deep garnet-amber glow when held up to the light. An ample tan head piles up and lingers.

Smell: Mellow roasty notes, with coffee and a hint of wood char. Chocolatey brown malts and yes, there are delicate earthy English hops presenting themselves. Subtle and luscious.

Taste: Malt forward, with a light mix of bittersweet chocolate and lightly-roasted coffee, with the barest hint of smokiness in a char-like note. It’s just bitter enough to leave a dark-chocolate aftertaste tinged with a hint of acidity that mellows right out. Very easy to drink while still feeling substantial.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light-bodied, very clean, with a lovely roasty finish that’s neither astringent nor harsh.

I’ve always considered Black Butte an excellent specimen of the English style but the rating sites and guidelines consider it an American-style Porter. Either way, this is the porter that is my baseline, against which I tend to judge all other (American) porters.

Wild Ride Brewing Nut Crusher Peanut Butter PorterOf course I couldn’t stop with just one beer. I also had a bottle from one of Central Oregon’s newest breweries, Redmond’s Wild Ride Brewing, a specialty beer that’s been making waves lately: their Nut Crusher Peanut Butter Porter. I like the counterpoint of a classic porter from the region’s oldest brewery to a nouveau brew from one of the newest.

Peanut butter beers are hard to do… and they seem to be all the rage lately. Porters and stouts seems to be the style of choice when shooting for the peanut flavor, as they are already malty and roasty and (sometimes) nutty… and man, I don’t know what or how Wild Ride brewed this one, but it definitely has people talking.

Appearance: Darker brown than the Black Butte, and opaque, but with a lighter-colored head of foam that’s cappuccino-creamy.

Smell: Straight-up peanuts—roasted, slightly sweet, along with chocolate and a creamy peanut butter note. Very appealing and mouth-watering, peanut butter cup-like.

Taste: Peanut umami with bits of peanut shell. Definitely more savory than the aroma promises, but it’s compelling in a salted peanut shell kind of way—you know, when you pop the whole peanut, shell and all, into your mouth to suck the salt off of it before cracking it open. The base porter is mellow and chocolatey. It’s hard to stop drinking because that salted peanut character makes you want to keep going back for more.

Mouthfeel: Medium-bodied but something about the peanut makes it lighter on the palate, with an umami, side-of-the-tongue prickly aftertaste.

This is definitely some good drinkin’ and a great dessert beer, as well as a great example of where we can go with the style (though I do also admit, peanut butter can be gimmicky). For all that, I’m glad to see Wild Ride keeping this as a seasonal rather than a year-round beer, because it maintains the novelty without becoming tiresome.

Cheers to the classic porter!


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