Embrace the Darkness: Pair Up with Porter
By Tracy Phillippi | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
It’s that time of year when the days get shorter, the nights get cooler, and doggonit, the beers get darker. If you look closely, you’ll begin to notice more Wisconsinites with their pint glasses full of locally-produced porters.
While some fear its depth and complexity, many others know that the mighty porter deserves our respect. With its cultural longevity, food pairing versatility and overall deliciousness, this dark ale can entice even the most devout wine drinker. Fortunately for us, porters offer an exceptional range of flavors and aromas to pair with the bounty of locally-produced foods in our region.
Most of today’s porters are roasty dark ales with notes of chocolate, caramel, graininess or toffee. They may have a bitter backbone and swing back and forth between slightly bitter and slightly sweet. Porters are the perfect canvas, allowing our local craft brewers to flex their creativity. You don’t need to look far to find a porter with coffee, coconut, vanilla, chilies or even pumpkin.
The history of the porter is a tangled affair, with the style definition having morphed significantly over the last three centuries. In the early 1700s, publicans would blend three beer styles together (think, black and tan) to achieve the local Londoners’ desired flavors, famously called Three Threads. A quarter-century later, a London brewer named Ralph Harwood produced a beer called Entire to recreate the flavor of Three Threads. Dearly loved by the industrial laborers (often the “porters” of materials) who enjoyed the sturdy, satisfying and inexpensive beer after a hard day’s work, Entire and other beers like it soon became known simply as “porter.” Brewed with a brown malt, the beer had a toasty, rich flavor and was highly drinkable with a relatively low alcohol content.
Porters are collectively considered to be the first industrialized beer style. At this point in history, beer was sold to local pubs in small quantities immediately after fermentation, without any aging at the brewery (instead, aging was done by the publican or distributor). Porter, however, was the first beer to be produced at an industrial scale and aged at the brewery before being shipped long distances.
In 1780, technological advancements brought fundamental changes to the porter. When brewers learned how to effectively measure the alcohol content of beer, they found brown malt was contributing too little alcohol to the final pint, so it was dismissed in favor of highly fermentable, but lighter in color, pale malts. Once taken to market, thirsty workers accustomed to their dark-colored porters, found the new lighter stuff just didn’t look right. The invention of the roasting kiln in 1817 allowed the addition of darker roasted malts that restored the hearty porter’s dark color.
Around this time, Guinness picked up on the porter’s popularity in England. Not wanting to miss out on the trend (and perhaps finding greater profit margins) they dropped all other beer production to focus solely on brewing porter for domestic and international markets. Although it seemed like porter was finally perfected and enjoyed by the masses, the brew soon began to lose steam to its slightly stronger cousin, the “stout porter,” or just stout for short. In fact, by 1840, the Guinness Extra Superior Porter became known simply as Guinness Stout.
The story of porter’s evolution in Europe is not complete without recognizing the biggest and baddest of all dark beers: the Baltic porter. By the late 1700s, a famous London producer called Henry Thrale’s Anchor Brewery was shipping boozier versions of their porter to the Baltic states. Russian empress Catherine the Great took a strong liking to this rich fermented delicacy and ordered it in bulk for her court. By the early 1800s the Baltics began producing their own strong porters, often using cold-fermenting lager yeast, which took away some of the fruity character of the original brew. Even today, traditional and craft brewers alike will occasionally brew Baltic porters with lager yeast.
On this side of the pond, famous and influential Americans also enjoyed porters. George Washington, for example, declared in 1769 that he would only drink locally produced porters, and Thomas Jefferson was well known as a great home brewer of porters. Of course, porters were also quite popular among the commoners, particularly in Pennsylvania.
As any local beer nut will tell you, Wisconsin has a rich history of brewing lagers; in the 1830s, German immigrants began to recreate the classic beers of their homeland. Even though Wisconsin’s sudsy history is dominated by crisp and refreshing beer styles, the humble porter has carved out a special niche among craft beer enthusiasts around Southern Wisconsin. Today you’ll have a hard time finding a local brewery that doesn’t dabble in darker beers. (See sidebar for a list of the region’s must-drink porters!)
While porter-style beer has been revived in the era of craft brewing, even seasoned beer aficionados may confuse porters with stouts. Although these two luscious dark ales have quite a lot in common, as a general rule, stouts are brewed with larger amounts of roasted barley, which gives them sharp, roasted bitterness, like coffee, and ends very dry on your palate. Porters, on the other hand, tend to have more grainy, chocolate, bread-like or toffee characteristics from the greater use of brown malts, and they are ever so slightly lighter in color. Both brews have a large variety of sub-styles, from thick and boozy to sweet and light.
A stylistic distinction can also be made between English- and American-style porters. Like most American craft beers, our porters are dominated by aggressive hop profiles, while English versions enjoy a more delicate restraint. Similar to other historical styles, English porters pair particularly well with food because of their restrained bitterness.
Whether porters intimidate or delight your taste buds, I challenge you to fill your glass and support your local brewer this winter!