North Florida is in the grip of old man winter, which basically means we are going to have a couple of really cold days followed by a week of mild days. Winters here can be confusing to the new arrival. Just about the time you pull out your winter coats, crank up the heat, and stock up on firewood the weather changes and everyone is wearing shorts and flip-flops again. Yes, north Florida is a magical place when it comes to winter weather. But, the schizophrenic weather we Jacksonvillians endure does not mean that we can?t enjoy some good traditional winter beer. And by that I mean stouts and porters. Sure, the beer aficionados out there will argue that there are many other winter brews to choose from and that stouts and porters are quaffable year-round. And they would be correct. But, since this is my column and I want to write about stouts and porters, that is that. Sit back gentle reader and let me take you on a little journey to the world of David Copperfield (the character, not the magician) and the Georgian and Victorian periods of England.
Stouts and porters originated in approximately the same era and their roots can be traced back to similar brewers. Indeed the two dark beers can be traced to have originated only 50 years apart. Both are English and, though there are differences between the two in modern brewing, the two terms were used somewhat interchangeably in early England.
Mention of stout beers can be found as early as 1677; the original meaning of the word stout was “proud’ or “brave” (which begs the question; shouldn’t that movie with Mel Gibson about the Scottish fighters be called “Stoutheart?” Just asking.). It was later that the word took on the meaning of strong and was attached to beer. A stout beer, therefore, meant it was a strong beer, typically over 7% or 8% ABV. The term became synonymous with the strongest – or stoutest – porters. In general stout is a dark beer made using roasted malt or barley, hops, water, and yeast.
It wasn’t until the early 1700s that mention of porters could be found. Porter was originally an attempt to capture the flavor of a popular pub blend known as “three threads.” This potent blend was a favorite of the baggage porters at Victoria Station who often made a meal of the rich brew. This combination of brews consisted of equal parts ale, beer, and twopenny the strongest style of beer produced at the time. The mixture became known as porter in recognition of the above mentioned baggage handlers around 1730 after a brewer named Harwood brewed a single beer called Entire that recreated the “three threads” flavor.
All London Porters were matured in barrels for six to eighteen months before they were racked into smaller casks for distribution to pubs. Thus, porters became known as an aged beer while a stout beer could be a young, strong porter. In modern porter production it is not unusual for the beer to be aged in used bourbon barrels, which impart the smoky flavor of the liqueur to the beer.
Early London Porters were strong by today’s standards, but soon became less strong due to taxation on higher alcohol beers. The popularity of the beers forced brewers to produce these beers in a wide variety of strengths. Brewers began to produce Single Stout Porters, Double Stout Porters (such as Guinness), Triple Stout Porters, and Imperial Stout Porters.
There are a number of types of stouts and porters for the dark beer lover to choose from. Below is a short list of the major categories.
Dry Stout – Very dark, almost black, in color. These beers often have a toast or coffee flavor.
Imperial Stout – Is a strong, dark beer originally brewed in England for export to Catherine the II of Russia. The beer had a higher alcohol content to keep it from freezing during shipment.
Baltic Porter – Big and bold, this style is often brewed with lager yeast and is full of coffee and dark fruit flavors. Some brewers also make a smoked version with flavors ranging from coffee made over a campfire to bacon – yes, really.
Milk Stout – Brewed with lactose, a sugar derived from milk and not digestible and therefore unfermentable, milk stouts are often sweet, heavy in body, and high in calories.
Oatmeal Stout – Just as it sounds, this beer is brewed with oats which can impart a bitter or astringent flavor.
Chocolate Stout – These stouts use darker, more aromatic malts roasted until they are the color of chocolate. Some brewers add actual chocolate as well.
Coffee Stout – As the name indicates, these beers have a pronounced coffee flavor derived from the darkest roasted malts.
Oyster Stout – Yes, they actually brew beer with oysters thrown in the fermentation tank. Not for everyone, but it is out there.
Ok, Mr. Peabody says we have to head back to the Way-Back Machine and return to the modern day. Because I have you, my faithful reader’s best interest at heart, I asked a few beer experts to give me their take on these dark pints of heaven.
Ben Davis is owner and brew master at Intuition Ale Works on King Street in the Riverside area. His King Street Stout is a wonderful blend of roasty caramel and milk chocolate flavors. He brews his beer with brown sugar, which dries the beer out and compliments these flavors as it lightens the body increasing the drinkability. Since it seems to be one of the most popular beers in his tap room – it doesn’t last long when they tap it — it goes without saying; it’s darn good!
Other than his own beers, Ben recommends, Allagash’s Black, which is a Belgian style stout. It is a very drinkable style and I think the King Street Stout and it have a lot in common.” Other recommendations from Ben include: Ten Fidy from Oskar Blues and Old Rasputin from North Coast.
Steve Rushe, owner of local beer blog Beer Junto (www.beerjunto.com), calls stouts one of his favorite styles of beer. His recommendations for a cold night are: Pike XXXXX Extra Stout, Laughing Dog’s The Dogfather, and Great Divide’s Chocolate Oak Aged Yeti. Generally Steve tries to end a tasting session with a stout. He also points out that, though stouts are considered winter beers by many, you can drink and enjoy them year-round.
So, let’s recap: stouts and porters are very similar. They both come from the same era and area of England. There are a number of delicious styles and you can drink them year round. What more do you need to know? Now, go out to your local pub, watering hole, or retailer and find yourself a great porter or stout to warm your innards during the frigid winter months here in Florida. But, if the weather should change, no worries these beers are quaffable anytime of the year.
Until next time, long live the brewers!