As the weather gets cold, dark beers seem to come into vogue. Perhaps it’s the thought of sitting by the fireplace in an Irish pub with a pint of Guinness, listening to a trio play a reel, or maybe it’s just that dark beers, with their roasted malt and coffee flavor, just taste a little better when it’s cooler, but porters and stouts seem to be the beer drinker’s version of hot cocoa. However, the dark color and belief that they are heavy beers still scare off a large number of Americans.
Porters originated in England around 300 years ago, and became a staple of the London working classes. The name “porter” is actually rumored to come from the working men who favored it, according to Jeff Alworth, author of “The Beer Bible.” Part of its appeal was that it was cheap, made from the least expensive dark malts, which were then roasted in order to get a palatable taste. The dark malts that give porters their color also impart caramel and chocolate accents, and they eventually gained a wider following and were exported around the empire.
Stouts emerged as a version of porters. “Stout porter” originally just referred to a strong (or stout) porter, but eventually would take on its own unique characteristics (although some people still use the terms interchangeably).
Stouts were then, as even non-beer drinkers know, perfected in Ireland. Irish stouts have a dry, bitter, malty taste, but are not really very heavy-tasting despite their creamy head. Nor are they very high in alcohol; a Guinness stout from the tap registers at only about 4.3 ABV, which makes it easy to enjoy a number of them during a long night at the pub. (Guinness is also relatively low in calories compared to most non-light beers.)
While stouts and porters are native to the British Isles, American craft brewers have developed their own take on the styles, and there is currently no shortage of options if you want to try some of the black stuff. No longer confined to just the traditional taste, you can now find porters and stouts in all manner of strengths and flavors, from chocolate to peppermint and even peanut butter.
In our area, there is simply no better place than Loda Bier Garten to sample some stouts and porters; the last time I stopped by, there were 27 (!) on tap alone. For $11 you can get a flight of any four beers of your choosing, which is a great fun if you want to try something new. If you don’t want an entire pint, you can also ask for short pours of a style, and they will always let you try a small taste of a beer before you commit. The staff there is very knowledgeable; I always ask for their recommendations, and am rarely disappointed at what they point me to.
One recommendation was Badlun Brothers Imperial Porter from Huntsville’s Straight to Ale brewery, which was very strong but not at all heavy. The “imperial” distinction reportedly comes from extra strong porters that Russian monarchs ordered from England in the 18th century. Imperial now refers to almost any brew with a high alcohol content (usually over 8 percent), so be careful tippling back too many of them!
Another recommendation was the No Chill Milk Stout from Tulsa, Oklahoma’s, Prairie Artisan Ales, a brewer I’d never heard of before. It was a fairly traditional stout, but light — it looked more like a Coke than a beer. While “milk stout” connotes a creamy texture, there is actually no milk in a milk stout, but milk sugar, which adds some sweetness to temper the bitterness inherent in stouts.
All of our local breweries produce their own stouts and/or porters, and I certainly encourage you to given them a try, even if you have previously been a bit hesitant to partake in the dark brews for fear they were too heavy or too bitter. And do so not only when we have a (little) chill in the air, but all year-round.
(Photo | Facebook | Prairie Artisan Ales’ No Chill Milk Stout)