Ah, beer. Homer Simpson once toasted with a mug of the sudsy elixir and proclaimed that alcohol was the “cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.” Wise words, Homer. Wise words indeed. Alcohol is a such a varied and vast set of liquids on a macro level. There’s a lot of real estate between the world of Italian wines and bourbon, for example. And that’s before even talking about the separate ecosystem of beer. Which is simply to say, there’s a lot to know about what you drink. Plenty of sticking points and opportunities for confusion.
Today, we’re looking at the often-obscured differences between stouts and porters. The dark ales are strikingly similar in taste, texture, aroma, and endgame (they get ya’ drunk). So we asked our beer sherpa Joe Stange — co-author of the Good Beer Guide Belgium — to break down the difference between the styles. “If you look at a Venn diagram of stouts and porters,” Stange says, “you’d be looking at a single circle.” Basically, the two are almost identical as far as beer and drinking beer is concerned.
Some beer drinkers, brewer’s associations, and clubs do judge the styles as separate entities, which only compounds the confusion. So let’s dive in and take a look at two shockingly similar beers styles with two different names. But before we dive in, let’s get this out of the way: We’re talking about standard porters and stouts here. Both styles come in “Imperial” variations that equate to aging and higher ABVs. This piece is focused on the basic styles, not the variations on a theme via smoke, oats, milk, and geographic designations like the Baltic.
Cool? Okay, let’s dive into the black stuff.
A LITTLE HISTORY
The style of beer that would today be called a porter or a stout goes back to England in the 1700s. The myth goes that during those days, porters would head down to the pub after a day of porting heavy shit around the London docks and get tipsy. They’d often order a mix of light and dark beers from the various casks on tap that day. It was called ‘threading’ and allowed them to cut heavier, higher ABV beers with lighter, more palatable beers. Think of it like all those times you took a little soda from every tap at the self-serve soda fountain.
The barmen of the day realized that the porters were doing this to amp up the taste and ABVs of the lighter ales. So sometime around 1720, they started brewing a stronger dark ale with malted barley and a little hop. It was the compromise between the multiple styles that meant porters could order from a single cask and be happy. The Porter ale was born.
As the 1800s rolled around, things got interesting for porters and confusing for us. The ale was hugely popular. People’s taste was changing and they wanted stronger porters to take the edge off of the drudgery of life in 1800. Stronger and stronger porters were being brewed and to differentiate, the English publicans started calling the strong stuff “Stout Porter” because stout means big and strong. If you look back at Guinness’ history, you’ll find that everyone’s favorite stout was actually labeled as an ‘extra stout porter’ back in the day.
You must be thinking, “stout is just a strong porter then, right?” Ugh, we wish it were that easy.