What Stout Has Become Has Led Me Back to Porter
Bedřich Smetana ’s landmark of Czech-Bohemian national music, Ma Vlast (“My Homeland”), features a movement about the Moldau River, “Vltava” in Czech. It’s one of my favorite pieces of music, and it’s in the “tone poem” form, where the music is written to portray a story, or an image.
The piece starts with two quick-running, delicately intertwined melodies, representing the two sources of the Vltava: the Warm Vltava and the Cold Vltava. The two streams, and their melodies, purl and ripple through the Bohemian woods, then merge as Smetana introduces the main Vltava theme, different from the two streams, but related, and combined.
Not for the first time, I was thinking about dark ales and this piece of music came to mind. Porter and stout arrived in American craft brewing at about the same time in the early 1980s. The two beers, like the Warm and Cold Vltava, frisked and flowed through craft brewing’s formative years. The first brewpub I ever visited, the late, lamented Front Street Pub in Santa Cruz, always had a porter on tap, and I remember it fondly. Sierra Nevada’s Stout was a cracking palate-basher back in the day.
Both types were throwbacks to much older Anglo-Irish beers, and as is often the case, the beers that were brewed in the 1980s were, by and large, guesses at what the older beers were like. Much debate ensued over the origins of and differences between porter and stout, usually fueled by glasses of the very beers under discussion. Thinking about those debates brings another song to mind, Mary Hopkin’s Those Were The Days, and like the song’s narrator, it mostly makes me wonder what happened.
Because if porter and stout were the two sources of the river of dark beer that would grow to capture the palate of beer geeks and the Yummy Beer Drinkers (YBDs, that’s my name for the people who want diabeetus dessert in a glass)… Porter’s melody got drowned out. Despite slam-hopping it (“robust” porter), throwback-lagering it (Baltic porter), sweet-tweaking it (coconut and vanilla porter), and bomb-boosting it (the inevitable imperial porter), porter got smacked aside by imperial stout, and never recovered.
Credit where it’s due: imperial stout carved out a place for itself with sheer muscle. In a craft beer world dominated by IPAs, stout not only survived, it punched out a solid corner bounded by big ABV, burly barrel-aging, fat flavors, and goofy gimmicks. Vanilla, coconut, peanut butter, coffee, donuts, almonds, pistachios, mint, marshmallow, ripe fruit, lactose, cinnamon, hot peppers, barrel aging, and about 20 different kinds of chocolate brought the YBDs swarming. Limited editions hyped desire, evocative names amused and beguiled drinkers, and prices continued to climb.
Of course, there was a cost. How do you drink more than two of these things? How do you even drink more than one? It’s not the alcohol; I’ll have two double whiskeys, thank you, and drink them too quickly (I will, I know me). No, it’s the sugar, the weight. It’s the glop.
This isn’t what stout was born for. Stout was supposed to be refreshing, quaffable, not tentatively sippable. Argue that imperial stout is old and traditional, and I’ll remind you that “imperial” stout was made for the out-of-touch and stupidly wealthy Russian imperial court, and you better by God remember what the Bolsheviks did to them. Keep drinking imperial stout, and the Beer Reds will have you up against the wall! (Not to mention, the first imperial stouts were actually imperial porters. Stout took that, too!)
Look, I kid. I relish a well-made imperial stout as much as the next bearded guy or girl, and a well-made one should be properly attenuated. A fat and chunky foreign export? Sure, I’ll do that sometimes, just like sometimes I’ll have a square of bread pudding with bourbon sauce.
But stirring a different bunch of stuff into every batch…what’s that in service of? Making something “delicious”? Sure, and how many of them last beyond one brewing cycle, how many even try to sell more than one four-pack, one glass to a person?
We’ve been trying to make stout something it isn’t, and in the process it has become… Okay, I’ll say it. Stout has become a joke. Stout’s wearing a red nose and oversized shoes. Stout is sinking under the weight of donuts and vanilla beans and oaken barrels.
But I know better than to try to change things. The YBDs like pastry stouts? Have at it. If you’re a brewer, and that’s how you make the bucks, I wish you well. That’s how stout is now, with some exceptions.
Porter, though… Screwing with porter just never caught on the way it did with stout. There are also exceptions here – coffee porters are fairly popular, vanilla and coconut sneaks in – but they are just that. For the most part, porter has remained, and not lost its way. So Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald, Deschutes Black Butte, Anchor Porter, Hill Farmstead Everett – there are pristine porters out there.
And that’s where I’m going to go when I want dark ales. I’m going back to the cool, clean forests of craft beer’s early days. I’m going to kneel by the rippling stream of Porter, and drink my fill. I hope the YBDs don’t start messing around upstream.
Lew Bryson is the Senior Drinks Writer at The Daily Beast. Contributor to Bourbon+, Craft Spirits Magazine.
Author of Whiskey Master Class, Harvard Common Press (2/18/2020 release); “To enhance your knowledge in the magical world of distilling, my friend Lew Bryson is the perfect place to start.” — Colum Egan, Bushmills master distiller
Another great whiskey book I wrote: Tasting Whiskey, Storey Publishing; “Tasting Whiskey is a book that I would have loved to have had close at hand when I first started getting into whiskey.” — David Wondrich, author of Imbibe and Punch
July 23, 2022 @ 7:02 pm
Hooray that. Much of the craft beer world has simply become a bling war of high IBU, high alcohol, fruit stand flavors. All for innovation and experimentation, but it has left behind the less-is-more aesthetic of well balanced, flavourful beers. Porter is definitely a refuge, but so are the better lagers.