Photo by Chris Casella

Beer School: Black Days

What’s the difference between and stout and a porter?

Everybody seems to have an opinion on this, but the correct answer is simple: none.

You can go back and study the history of the two styles and form intelligent arguments to the contrary, but the fact remains that the definition is at the discretion of each brewer. It’s got nothing to do with roasted malts, original gravity, or final ABV. Lately, a growing number of brewers have been muddying these dark waters with the dubious “black” IPA style. If you look at most recipes, a black IPA is basically a stout with a ridiculous amount of hops. More hops than one would put into a regular IPA.

A wise aficionado would do well to skip the discussions over fictitious style guidelines and just plunge into the genre with an open mind/palate. Dark beers are a world unto themselves, providing brewers with a robust canvas upon which to express themselves.

It starts with the malt, you see.

Just about everything worthwhile caramelizes when heat is applied, and malted barley is no different. The color and flavor change. When people talk about coffee and chocolate malts, they are talking about the aroma and flavor the malt brings to the table. Those characteristics inspire brewers to introduce actual coffee and chocolate to the process, which has further expanded the portfolio of dark beers. So your mission is to study dark beers this winter. Here’s a list of suggested materials:

Porter You can’t go wrong with Edmund Fitzgerald Porter. The namesake ship met its demise in November, which makes it a perfect fit for this category, but it’s also one of the best porters you can find. If you haven’t had the Great Lakes legend, your life is not complete.

Stout Russian Imperial Stout actually makes good on the promise of being bigger than a porter and Jackie O’s out of Athens makes a remarkable entry called Dark Apparition. RIS is a beefed up version of stout that was originally brewed as a concentrate to be watered down later, but that’s not how we roll these days.

Coffee Stout Coffee and beer? It’s a match made in heaven. Columbus Brewing Company is known to hit the market with Sohio Stout from time to time, and it’s well worth the effort of traveling for if somebody is filling growlers. Short of that, Founders has Breakfast Stout, which is a double oatmeal stout flavored with chocolate and coffee. Ridiculous.

Smoked Porter Stone Brewing Company offers up a Smoked Porter that shows off just how deftly a robust dark beer can handle the acrid aroma of smoke. Smoked beers are a taste some of us never acquire, but this porter pulls it off in a manner most will find agreeable.

Barrel-Aged Dark beers perform well when aged in previously occupied barrels. Lighter beers are often overwhelmed with the flavor of bourbon, but darker beers have enough going on to remain the star of the show while bourbon notes play a supporting role. It’s hard to screw one of these up. Usually they just fall short of what you expected. Elevator Brewing Company doesn’t seem to fall short and their Horny Goat is one of the best barrel aged porters you’ll find.

Beyond that, there are plenty of dark beers that feature some outlandish flavor infusions. When you’re talking about beers that evoke chocolate and coffee, nothing is off limits. There are numerous entries with hot peppers added and most of them are fantastic. Mint has even shown up in a few entries, most of which are surprisingly good. There are a few that taste like drinking a beer right after brushing your teeth, but we’re not going to mention them because part of the fun is finding that out for yourself. That would be your fate.