Looking forward to celebrating St. Patrick’s Day this week? Here’s a guide to the beverage many folks choose to quaff to celebrate the Irish holiday.
When it comes to drinking a specific beer on a certain day of the year, there is no better-known example than drinking stout on St. Patrick’s Day. The tradition goes back a long time, mainly because of the marketing efforts of the Dublin-based Guinness brewery. The craft beer community tends to avoid some of the overdone aspects of St. Patrick’s Day boozing (eg. green-coloured macro-lager), but there’s nothing wrong with celebrating the day by enjoying a pint of your favourite stout (or porter) brewed by a local brewery.
What’s the difference between stouts and porters anyway?
Not much. No, seriously, they are pretty darn similar. Try doing a blind tasting sometime and see if you can identify a porter in a line-up of stouts or vice versa. Ask a few different brewers and you might find you’ll get contradictory answers, too.
According to the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Style Guidelines, porter is “a moderate-strength brown beer with a restrained roasty character and bitterness. May have a range of roasted flavours, generally without burnt qualities, and often has a chocolate-caramel-malty profile.” Meanwhile, Irish Stout is described as “a black beer with a pronounced roasted flavour, often similar to coffee.” The main difference here seems to be the colour but, in my experience, most porters are just as dark as stouts.
That’s because porters and stouts evolved together over the course of the last 300 years or so, shifting as technology and society changed, and nearly dying out entirely (except for Guinness) before the styles were revitalized during the craft beer revolution of the past 40 years. And once craft brewers get their hands on a beer style, well, you know what happens next… (Consider the IPA and all of its offspring: Hazy IPA, Black IPA, White IPA, Sour IPA, Wild IPA, Imperial IPA, Session IPA, Cold IPA, etc.)
Most BC breweries brew a stout or a porter, and some even brew both regularly. I reached out to Tak Guenette, Head Brewer at Gladstone Brewing in Courtenay and asked him to help us learn how to tell them apart. (Note: At the time of our original conversation back in 2021, Guenette was making both styles of beer at Gladstone. Unfortunately, the brewery does not have the stout in its lineup currently.)
Joe: What do you think the difference is between a stout and a porter?
Tak: Porters generally will be more chocolate-forward, while stouts exhibit more coffee notes. Of course, there’s a bit of overlap in those flavours.
Joe: What sort of different ingredients or techniques do you employ in brewing them?
Tak: With our porter and Irish stout, the brewhouse process and fermentation are pretty similar. To achieve the desired flavour profiles, we use about 9% chocolate malt, 6% crystal malt, and 3% black malt in our porter, while our Irish stout contains 10% roast barley and 4% chocolate malt. Both contain a bit of wheat as well for body.
Joe: What do you hope your customer would notice if they tasted them side by side?
Tak: The Irish stout is served on nitrogen, which really helps differentiate the two beers. Even if both beers were served the same way, I’m confident that each beer would be noticeably different. What would be more interesting is asking our patrons how they would classify the two beers.
Brewing evolution through technology
History tells us that porters evolved first. In fact, originally, stouts were just strong porters, as in “stout porters.” The word stout was used to describe stronger versions of all kinds of beer: stout ale, for instance. So is a stout simply a strong porter? Well, it was once, but not anymore.
Porter has a mythical origin story. Back in 1722, according to the Oxford Companion of Beer, a brewer named Ralph Harwood decided to create a special blended beer for “a publican who ran the Blue Last, a working-class watering hole on Shoreditch’s Great Eastern Street.” The pub was popular with so-called “porters,” strong men who carried goods unloaded from ships at the docks to markets, shops and warehouses in the heart of London. The new beer was a hit and came to be named after the porters who loved it.
Beer historians argue that porter wasn’t created in one day, but rather evolved as the population of London swelled and new technological advancements allowed for breweries to grow larger and larger. According to Sean Hoyne, owner-brewmaster at Hoyne Brewing in Victoria, the first breakthrough was the brewer’s hydrometer, which was invented in the late 1700s. Prior to that, brewers could only guess at the efficiency of the malts they used, with the results varying considerably from batch to batch. Hoyne explained that using a hydrometer showed brewers that they could get much better extract out of pale malt than from the brown malt they had mainly been using before that.
Another technological advance in the early 1800s led to the creation of “black patent” malt, which brewers could use to give porter its dark colour while using higher quality (and cheaper) pale malt to make up the majority of the grain bill. It also gave the beer more of a roasted, coffee-like flavour.
Porter was the most popular beer style in England during the 18th and 19th centuries, and one of the many brewers who made it was Arthur Guinness in Dublin, which finally brings us to stout. Guinness started brewing porter in the 1770s, including a stout porter, and his brewery has been making it ever since.
Eventually, with the rise of pale styles like IPAs and pilsners in the late 1800s, porters and stouts dwindles in popularity. In the early 20th century, British beers became dominated by lower alcohol styles like milds and bitters, and porters disappeared almost entirely. Guinness dropped the “porter” part of the name at some point but kept calling it stout, even though it lowered the alcohol content to 4.1% ABV.
Many BC breweries serve stouts using nitrogen gas, just like Guinness, and some even package their stouts in nitrogenated cans, allowing you to enjoy the effect at home. Aside from making the beer extremely photogenic, nitrogen’s smaller bubbles help create a creamy body and pillowy head in the beer.
There are several variations on stouts and porters, including:
- Milk stout, which is brewed with unfermentable lactose to give it a sweet taste and creamy texture
- Baltic porter, a stronger version often brewed with lager yeast; and
- Russian imperial stout, which is very strong (above 10% ABV) and often aged in whisk(e)y barrels for added flavour and booziness.
Craft breweries also like to add ingredients like coffee/espresso, chocolate/cacao nibs, coconut, vanilla, and fruit to stouts and porters. There is even a style called white stouts where breweries brew a beer with only pale malts but try to emulate the flavours and body of a stout with ingredients like vanilla beans, cacao nibs and coffee beans.
Today’s stouts and porters likely don’t resemble the original versions from 200 years ago but, then again, who cares? Find your favourite version of each and there you have the perfect example of the style—for you.
Here are some fine examples of porters and stouts from the BC Ale Trail. Sláinte!
Both stouts and porters are often served on nitro taps at brewery taprooms and pubs, emulating the old Guinness tradition, which results in an ultra-creamy head and body. If you want a Guinness-style stout from your local craft brewery, look for an Irish Stout or Dry Irish Stout on the menu. If you want to try something stronger, ask for an Imperial Stout or Russian Imperial Stout — but be careful, sometimes those are bolstered by being aged in whiskey barrels, resulting in alcohol levels rising well above 10% ABV!
Hoyne uses nine different malts in this stout: “My base pale malts are a couple of varieties from the UK, and then I have five different colouring malts, including black malt and roasted barley, and two different types of chocolate malts.” Although Hoyne does not make a porter regularly, he said, “I’d probably use less Black Patent malt and more roasted barley, and aim for a higher original gravity and final gravity to bump up the sweetness and accentuate the creamier mouthfeel.”
Long considered one of the best stouts in BC, Back Hand of God is hard to find, but if you can find it on tap in your region, you won’t be disappointed.
The first sip will transport you to a pub in Dublin. This dark, medium-bodied Dry Irish Nitro Stout boasts toffee and roasted notes with a silky, creamy finish.
This delicious nitro stout features four different can designs to suit the seasons. Container also brews an imperial stout called Seawise Giant.
Named “Best Beer in Canada” at the Canadian Brewing Awards in 2014, Old Yale’s Sasquatch Stout is smooth with notes of chocolate, espresso and dark roasted malts.
Townsite’s Belgian brewer, Cédric Dauchot, makes one of the tastiest stouts around. This is a rich, round and roasty oatmeal stout using flaked oats and roasted barley along with Columbus, Cascade, and Golding hops.
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Driftwood Brewing (Victoria) – Blackstone Porter (6% ABV)
This very quaffable porter is rich with flavours of chocolate and coffee derived from dark specialty malts. It can often be found served on nitro taps, making it even creamier.
Nitrogenated for a smooth texture, this has a coffee-like aroma with undertones of freshly baked oatmeal cookies and toast with a subtle bitterness.
This delicious stout, which is brewed with birch syrup, has won multiple awards, including 1st place at the 2022 BC Beer Awards — adding to the trophies pictured above!
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!