Monday, February 15, 2010

The Difference Between Stout and Porter (rant)

Taddy Porter and Breakfast StoutToo often on homebrewing forums I hear the claim that all stouts should contain (unmalted) roasted barley and all porters should contain black patent.  The truth is that commercial examples of porter and stout are too varied (and the histories of the two styles and their various sub-styles too intertwined) for this to be the case; the difference between a Dry Stout and a Baltic Porter is no greater than the difference between a Sweet Stout and a Russian Imperial Stout.

First of all some great, classic beers do not follow this pattern.  For example Sierra Nevada Stout contains no roasted barley, while Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter does.  With thousands of porters and stouts produced today of course I could just cherry-pick some examples, but in Designing Great Beers Ray Daniels lists the occurrence of various dark malts in a survey of commercial stout and porter recipes.  Out of 14 stouts he surveyed 4 contained roasted barley exclusively compared to 3 that used black malt exclusively (only 1 used both).  Out of 31 porters surveyed a similar pattern emerged, 11 recipes contained solely roasted barley compared to 10 with just black malt (again only 1 used both).  It seems clear from this analysis that as far as commercial brewers are concerned roasted barley and black malt are interchangeable ingredients that accomplish very similar goals in recipe formulation.

Sure (I can hear you say), that may not be the case today, but what about the historic origins of the styles?  Ron Pattinson gives a great deal of historical detail to this difference as well in this post on Shut up about Barclay Perkins.  He comes to this conclusion after analyzing historic recipes for stouts and porters from the same brewery, "So what was the difference between Porter and Stout for Whitbread? The amount of water used." 

The BJCP Stout guidelines only specifically call for roasted barley in one stout sub-style (Dry Stout - "While most commercial versions rely primarily on roasted barley as the dark grain, others use chocolate malt, black malt or combinations of the three."), the rest of the styles simply mention something like "Dark roasted malts and grains."  Jamil's (award winning) sweet stout in Brewing Classic Styles does not have any roasted barley in it, so the BJCP judges don't think roast barley flavor is necessary for every style of stout.  At the 2009 GABF Flying Dog's Gonzo Imperial Porter (which does not contain roasted barley) won a gold medal as an Imperial Stout, apparently those judges can't taste the difference either.

The point is that the flavors created by black patent and roasted barley are very similar.  In many cases the only difference between porters and stouts is the name on the label, if it is dark and roasty a brewery (or homebrewer) can call it whatever it wants without being incorrect.

If you agree (or disagree), let me know in the comments.


Anonymous said...

I have always sort of had the feeling that a porter was more balanced toward the smoother roastiness of chocolate malt while stouts were a little sharper from use of patent malt or roast barley. To me, Anchor Porter is a little closer to a stout, not that it makes any difference - it's still wonderful beer.

Anonymous said...

Uh, not that both the broad regions of beer known as 'porter' and 'stout' can't use both, just that they seem to be on the same basic continuum, with level of darkly roasted grain providing some inexact distinction between them.

Unknown said...

I kind of thought of porters as having more range through the lighter colors: brown porters and so forth, whereas stouts were at least restricted to being relatively black from a dark grain of some kind (roasted, black, or chocolate).

Unknown said...

Paging through the BJCP guidelines seems to bear this out, at least by modern definitions of porter and stout. Porters are listed at SRM 17 through 30, with one "35+". Stouts are listed at 30-40+, with one starting at 25.

Unknown said...

Agreed, this is an old barstool debate with no possible winner. But there is a follow-up question - should there be a different denotation between the styles? Should BJCP be more specific in its style guidelines? Not that real home brewers give a lick about BJCP style guidelines, but some commercial brewers might.

Christopher Pepe said...

I agree, well put and great info in this post. Like Tom said I think porters go lighter but dark robust porters are so similar to stouts (honestly the lines between a lot of styles blur since "beer styles" are an after thought to put everything in a neat discrete little compartments). I generally consider the abv to be the differentiation for my beers.

Aaron said...

I think I disagree.

Firstly, I wouldn't consider Sierra Nevada Stout or Great Lakes Porter to be "classic," even if they are great.

Second, Designing Great Beers is a nice book, but it's grain usage numbers are primarily the result of homebrewers back when homebrewing was still in its infancy. If they're the experts, we're all screwed. I know when I read through the book, I was stunned at how stupid some of the numbers were for many of the styles.

But really, these are just contrarian arguments - singling out the specifics or your argument without dealing with the generality of it. Mostly, I disagree because I think there should be a difference between porter and stout, and black patent vs roasted barley is as good a difference as any. Whether it's historical, or even based in practice, doesn't really matter to me. Very few beers adhere strictly to style guidelines, but this isn't a reason to throw them out or redefine them out of meaning. They serve a purpose - to give one a place to begin learning or experimenting, and they're pretty useful for that.

99% of the time, beer is beer, and what style it is isn't relevant to anything. So that other 1% might as well be super-organized, even if they have to make things up as they go.

Greg said...

With the confusing intermingling of the styles in the commercial world I decided that I had to have some distinct differences to even bother brewing both styles. My stouts use Roasted barley, with American yeast and American hops, my porters use Black Patent with English yeast and English hops. Now I am happy to brew and drink both.

Sean Coates said...

When people ask me the difference, I usually say "I tend to think of porters as more chocolatey, and stouts as more roasty" but obviously, that's not always correct. The label is truly the differentiator.

Sometimes a roasty beer will sell better if people see "porter" on the menu. This is, however, dangerous. In Quebec, we have a horrible market where the beer's colour is the great indicator. Blonde, Rousse (red), Noir (everything darker than a brown).

I've had an IPA at a local brewpub that was marked "Rousse." The same menu contained a scottish 80/- also called "rousse" and a belgian beer with tea that was also called "rousse."

An interesting experiment: taste the Taddy Porter next to Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stout. Both great, but very different.


jaymo said...

Sean brings up a good point at the end of his comment. Obviously there's a ton of proverbial blurring of the lines between the styles when looking at a collection of various brewery's products. What about a bunch of cases of comparing the Porter vs Stout from the same brewery (such as Taddy Porter & Oatmeal Stout from SS, or Porter & Stout from Sierra Nevada.)

While each brewer's idea of what makes something a porter or stout may vary, maybe that could shed more light on where they see the line drawn, if any.

As for myself, while I usually think of porter as smoother and stout as having more roasted/burnt notes, I think it just comes down to a matter of personal intent and perception.

There's never going to be a clear answer to this since many (if not all) examples can fall on either side of the line, but going into the recipe creation/brew with the intent to brew one or the other may be a start. I'd never take an example after the fact and try and place it in one category or the other though.

Matt said...

Right when I saw the title I immediately thought of the Flying Dog example, I'm glad you included it. Someone told me once that stouts were originally imperial porters. I'm not sure this is true or not.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I'll agree with the general sentiment expressed by several people that in general stouts are darker and roastier than porters (especially when looking at multiple offerings from the same brewery). I also was not suggesting that we abolish them as separate style categories, only that we look at them in all their diversity and not based solely on the inclusion or exclusion of a single ingredient.

Aaron, (just to defend the specifics of my argument) you are correct that most of the malt analysis in Designing Great Beers in based on old NHC recipes (and you are right that they can be lacking), but the sections I was referring to on porter/stout dark malt usage were about commercial beers. What would you consider to be better examples of a robust porter and an American stout? Ed Fitz and SN Stout are listed as 1 and 3 respectively as commercial examples by the BJCP.

Lee said...

I agree with you and disagree with you on certain points. First, I agree that patent or roast barley are not a single defining characteristic, but they do have flavor differences, which is what tends to direct their usage. Secondly I agree that many beers that are properly a porter or a stout receive the other label by their producers.

That said, the difference between a porter and a stout is more subtle than just the choice of roasted grains. For porter, we are generally talking about what BJCP calls a robust porter, not a brown porter. A brown porter is much closer to a brown ale than a stout.

In my mind, the real difference between a porter and a stout is the focus of the flavors. Stouts tend to be fairly roast focused, even the sweet and oatmeal stouts. Robust porters tend to have a much stronger caramel component and roast is used in a supporting role (to various degrees of assertiveness). That's what makes edmond fitzgerald, anchor, sierra porter (certainly as compared to its stout), and many other robust porters stand out. Brown porters by comparison are like english brown ales--dominated by caramel-type malt flavor generally, but they have an additional roastiness that English Brown don't.

Stouts on the other hand, Dry, American, Sweet, Imperial, always have a dominant roast flavor. Dry stouts are easy to differentiate: they lack the basic caramel/sweetness that porters have. The other styles of stout often have sweetness and caramel, but generally the roast is the dominant flavor over caramel/sweetness, or at the very least is balanced. Jamil's sweet stout is sweet, but it's balanced by a whole pound of black malt / 6 gallon batch! That's more than most homebrewers would ever consider using. Same with his imperial stout: it has 1.5# of caramel malts, but it's still 10% roasted malt! These sweet stouts that are fairly evenly balanced between sweet and roast, I feel, have the most in common with a very sweet roasty porter and the biggest blur to style guidelines.

The decision to use roast barley v. black malt? I think it's because black malt is fairly subtle in smaller amounts and is has somewhat less assertive flavors than roast barley is used with a careful hand, making it easier to balance against carmel malts. You can simlarly balance caramel roast barley, but I feel like it would be less forgiving than black malt and offer a more assertive coffee-like roast.

Perhaps some will disagree with me, but that's my answer to the age-old question of porter v. stout. I've still yet to answer the belgian tripel v. golden strong question though.

Lee said...


Guinness was originally "Guinness Extra Stout Porter" and was actually brewed using black patent malt until the 20th century, when they switched to roasted barley. All Guinness, until WWII was brewed to similar strength to the foreign extra stout they produce, and became weaker. So yes, stout originated as a stout/strong porter, but, in my humble opinion, has since differentiated itself.

My Year Without said...

I've always judged porters versus stouts by one of my favorite lines of local (when I lived in Portland!) beer-Deschutes Brewery:

The Black Butte Porter is my favorite and most likely go-to, however, the Obsidian stout is enough to knock me off my rocker. I always thought it was the alcohol content....little did I know!

Paul! said...

wow, I don't even feel like I need my daily dose of shutupaboutbarclayperkins after reading all this.
and for the record, The only real difference I can see is that when I order a porter instead of a brewery's stout I usually expect it to be a little lower in alchohol and to have a roast character thats ameliorated through caramel malts or lower bitterness. That has nothing to do with the BJCP though, It's just how I have found things to be at the average brew pub

Aaron said...

I wasn't arguing that they aren't great beers, they are. When I think of "classic," I think of traditional/old more than greatness.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

For example? Sierra Nevada Stout has been produced for nearly 30 years. Not many American Stouts have been around longer than that. Edmund Fitzgerald won its first gold at the GABF almost 20 years ago. Sam Smith's Taddy Porter and Oatmeal Stout were introduced 31 and 30 years ago by comparison.

mark said...

I think 'thatguy314' hit on something that clearly seperates the two styles in my opinion, which is the use of Crystal malts. While I tend to use roasted barley in both my version of stout and porter, I don't use crystal malt in my stout recipes. My impression is that the crystal malts cut the 'sharpness' of the flavor and/or mouthfeel created by the roasted or black patent.

Josh said...

I've always thought of stouts being referred to as "stout porters" and in my mind a porter is a dark, malty, rich beer with a smooth and balanced taste, whereas a stout is a very dark, more rough/sharp tasting beer with a more roasted taste, and stronger flavors and more charcoal/burnt tastes.

What the commercial examples are and limiting ingredients doesn't seem as important to me, and really an imperial porter in my mind is a stout, although maybe less smooth.

In my homebrewing I will continue to use roasted barley in all stouts and never in porters. I don't expect everyone else to do the same, of course. In the end it's about perception and marketing.

Ron Pattinson said...

Crystal malt a defining feature of Porter? I've just quickly checked Barclay Perkins and Whitbread. Neither used crystal malt in ant Porter or Stout.

And did Whitbread use black malt or roasted barley in their Stout? No, they didn't use either after about 1920.

Of course, Whitbread party-gyled all their black beers. Porter, London Stout, London Oatmeal Stout, Extra Stout and even Mackeson were all brewed from exactly the same grist.

Nikola Tesla said...

I always thought that Porters were lager fermented at least partially giving it the smoother drinkability? I'm not so sure that's what FD Gonzo does, but I was fairly sure it was what most 'porter tasting' (flag, fullers, samuel smith) porters did.

I could be totally off on this one, but I've thought that for years.

alcaponejunior said...

Well I don't care to try and find the dividing line between stouts and porters!! Black butte porter from Deschutes is probably my favorite commercial porter. And curiously, they also have a very nice stout, Obsidian stout, and it is clearly somewhat different. In what way... well, I don't wanna go there right now!!

Anyway, I just made an oatmeal stout that came out more like a sweet stout. I used only roasted barley for the black malts on that one. I think the recipe needs adjusting, even tho the beer is still quite tasty (it's just not what I expected).

The second iteration will have both black patent and roasted barley. There is certainly more room for dark malts, hopefully hitting the mark of what I wanted more closely.

I'm also cutting back or eliminating the crystal, using a different yeast (the first was US-05, because I forgot the Irish ale yeast I meant for that beer, so I'll use Irish ale yeast on the next batch!).

Anyway, interesting blog as usual. I actually found it googling black patent malt.


Taff in Norway said...

I always find it fascinating the amount of information that gets swallowed up by that pond between us (I'm British) and comes up the other end manifested in a completely different way. The same this side of the pond ( you should see the state of our burgers). The difference between a stout and a porter is within its own grammar. This happens unfortunately with many things and gets lost in time. "Stout" is an adjective and "Porter" is a noun. The drink is the "Porter" the "Stout" is the description of it. Stout effectively meaning strong, in this case, in character and or alcohol. A soldier stood to attention on parade is stout. What is called a Stout today is nothing more than a "Stout Porter" in its traditional case. You'll hear people still in the UK describing any strong Ale as stout. In essence, the author of the above is correct, less or more water ultimately effects alcoholic strength. In short, stout is a stronger porter it's as simple as that.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

That is certainly the derivation of the terms stout and porter, but it doesn't hold much relevance in a world in which Guinness is the best selling stout globally!

Taff in Norway said...

Indeed it is the best selling, a lot of it was actually made at their brewery in Ghana, Africa as much as Ireland and London. Over time, darker Porters have taken on the name "Stout" this is still a reference to the Porters alcoholic strength, colour and body and now shortened. Guinness originally was, Guinness Single Porter, Extra Stout Porter and Foreign for export. These have just been shortened to Stout (I'm talking Guinness terminology here, remember that they started brewing it long after it was made in London) also, the original was very different in taste as the one we see today due to birth of roasted un malted barely now used which wasn't about in the early days. A Stout, is a shortened name for a Stout Porter, not necessarily stronger by alcohol these days but was in the early days. It's more reference to its body and colour now. Originally, the ingredients for a single porter or a stout porter are exactly the same, one simply has more water than the other or more grain, water being the cheaper option.
Slightly off topic here but credit where credit is due to your country and shame on mine. The ONLY place on the planet today that makes anything resembling the original IPA (another annoyance of mine regarding exactly what one is) is the USA. A few places in the UK claim to, but it's nothing more than gnats piss, unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

Taff in Norway-to my knowledge no one anywhere brews an IPA such as went to India.
The typical IPA was relatively low strength (and would have been lower had the law been changed on tax drawback) , very highly attenuated indeed and often had the attention of Brett to dry it out even further.Hopping was intense we all know,using loads of lowish AA hops(the Scots liked Saaz for this purpose). The beer was also aged and subject to wide variations in temperature.
Which US brewer even comes close?

Mattias said...

I agree that there's probably no actual difference between the two at this point, certainly the historical and etymological difference relating to strength is long gone.

That said, I still find it interesting to differentiate between the two for my own brewing purposes, even if the plethora of exceptions to the rules make doing so more hit and miss as far as informing my purchases as a consumer goes.

My thinking (and brewing guidelines) are:

Porters are generally mashed high.
Stouts are generally mashed medium to low.

Porters are more likely to use lighter crystal malts.
Stouts are more likely to use the darkest crystal malts.
Porters generally use more crystal malt than stouts.

Porters generally have a sweet finish.
Stouts are more likely to have a dry finish.

Porters generally have a lower original gravity than stouts.
Stouts generally have more IBUs than porters.

Porters are more likely to use black and brown malts.
Stouts are more likely to use roasted barley.

Porters are more likely to feature chocolate-like flavors.
Stouts are more likely to feature coffee-like flavors.

I don't feel like I absolutely have to stick these guidelines, nor am I claiming any sort of validity as they're based on my own thoughts and experiences, but it does make for a nice springboard in regards to recipe creation.