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The Difference between Stout and Porter (Part 3)

Originally published at GeekBeer. Please leave any comments there.

Modern Investigation


porter_vs_stout
(Thought I’d post this again, just because it took so long to make.)

This endeavor will be ongoing (mostly because it gives me an excuse to drink), but I’ll go over a few examples here. Remember our central question: Historically, stouts were a heavier version of porters, but basically the same recipes otherwise. Is that still the case?

I’ll be comparing stout and porter offerings from the same brewery, and then I’ll do a small comparison across the board. These aren’t cherry-picked to show anything particular; they are chosen because the brewery in question produces both a stout and a porter and provides enough information about the beers to compare them effectively.

Deschutes Obsidian Stout and Black Butte Porter

Deschutes Brewing is based in Bend, Oregon and makes these two brews for a Northwest audience. The Black Butte Porter is listed as an example of a Robust Porter in the BJCP guidelines, and I can attest to the bitterness and roasty/toasty characters that qualify it for this categorization. The listed 30 IBU rating, 5.2% ABV, and dark color are all appropriate for the style.

The Obsidian Stout is also listed in the BJCP guidelines as a typical American stout. The pronounced hop character, 6.4% ABV, and dry, roasted finish from the roasted barley are indicative of this style. Again, the listed 50 IBU and sizable head are appropriate for the style.

The Obsidian Stout can in no way be called a heavier version of the Black Butte Porter.

The Obsidian Stout can in no way be called a heavier version of the Black Butte Porter. The hop character, higher bitterness, more heavily roasted character, dry finish, head retention, and chocolate notes in the stout all distinguish it from Deschutes’ porter. These characteristics require modified hop bill, grain bill, and likely different fermentation and/or mash schedules from the porter.

These examples from Deschutes seem to discount the statement that a stout is a stronger porter, particularly due to the roasted character and dry finish of the stout.

Avery Brewing’s New World Porter, Out of Bounds Stout, and Czar Imperial Stout

Avery hits it out of the park with most of their beer, but I’ll admit that I’ve never had the New World Porter or the Out of Bounds Stout. I’ll try to go over these beers based on the information available online from Avery and in reviews.

The New World Porter is 6.7% ABV, 45 IBU, contains no unmalted barley, and for a twist is dry hopped. This clearly places it in the spirit of the Robust Porter, though at 6.7% it’s a tad high to be there. This decreased BU:GU ratio would probably qualify it to be a Foreign Extra Stout or an American Stout if it contained a stronger roasted flavor. Most online reviewers don’t mention a strong roasted flavor, and the lack of roasted barley in the recipe indicate that such flavor is probably absent. It should probably be categorized as a stout due to alcohol content and bitterness, though clearly Avery considers it a porter.

This is an interesting case, since the higher alcohol content would qualify it for inclusion as a stout (thereby supporting the “stout is a stronger porter” argument) if not for the “roasted” character that the style guidelines emphasize for stouts.

The Out of Bounds stout is listed as an example of an American Stout in the style guidelines, but interestingly is milder in many ways than the beer Avery calls a porter. OOBS is 51 IBU — very similar to the NWP — but is only 5.1% ABV. This heavier bitterness places it firmly in the American Stout section of the style guidelines, and the use of roasted barley gives it a heavy roasted flavor that most online reviewers mention.

Clearly Avery distinguishes their year-round stout from their seasonal porter with one major change: the presence of a significant roast flavor from roasted barley.

Avery’s Russian Imperial Stout, The Czar, is a hefty 11% ABV and 60IBU. It does not employ roasted barley at all and describes no roasted flavor. Its complexity is described as having molasses and dark fruit notes. A lighter version of the Czar would likely have a much lighter body, mouthfeel, and bitterness, and would likely fit well as a brown porter. The BU:GU ratio is in line with that of a lighter, English-style porter. The Czar is probably accurately described as a “heavy porter,” given that the overall flavor profile for it is very similar to that of a porter.

The Czar might accurately be called a heavy porter… the OOB Stout is by no means a heavy porter.

Overall, Avery’s offerings seem to point toward a similar conclusion that Deschutes’ did, albeit with less confidence. The Czar is undoubtedly significantly different from a brown porter in terms of complexity, hop character, and general malt bill, but the flavor profile is very similar to a Brown Porter. The Czar might accurately be called a heavy porter. The Out of Bounds Stout would be a solid Robust Porter if not for the presence of the roasted barley, and the NWP almost fits the guidelines for an American Stout as it stands today. It does seem clear that the OOB Stout is by no means a heavy porter - it fits square in the category of Porter at its current ABV and reported mouthfeel.

The amount of bleed between these styles is significant, but enough changes exist between the beers that its hard to draw conclusions here. The presence of roasted barley is a significant differentiator for Avery’s lower-alcohol offerings, but the Czar doesn’t include it at all. Besides roasted flavors, the differences between these beers and their closest style cousins is a matter of subtle malt changes and degrees.

Sierra Nevada Porter and Stout

Sierra Nevada is another big-name craft brewery that offers both a porter and a stout. Both are rated fairly highly, and based purely on the descriptions, they are the most traditional examples that I will examine today.

The Porter is 5.6% ABV while the stout is 5.8%. The final gravity of the stout indicates a heavier mouthfeel, and the tasting notes online indicate a higher bitterness. Again, the tasting notes for the porter do not indicate roasted flavors while those for the stout do. The Sierra Nevada Stout could be accurately described as a heavier version of some type of Porter, but with a roasted barley flavor. This is clearly a departure from the Stouts of old, but is closer to that tradition than the other beers I’ve looked at here.

What does this mean?

I’ll try to summarize. I’ll presume that you’re at a bar, trying to decide between a stout and a porter.

A porter is generally milder than a stout. If you’re feeling a dark beer but don’t want to venture into 10%+ ABV territory, or even 8%+, you can generally order a porter without any concerns. There are some exceptions here. The presence of the robust porter style guideline, and brewers’ innovations, mean that one brewer’s porter might be another brewer’s stout, and vice versa.

Comparing stouts and porters … across different brewers is usually not useful…

Comparing stouts and porters in terms of overall malt or hop presence and overall mouthfeel and ABV across different brewers is usually not useful in comparing two beers. If you see a stout and a porter on the menu and both are from the same brewery, you can probably always be sure that the porter is milder in every way. Again, there are exceptions to this rule. Indeed, for Avery, even comparing stouts and porters from the same brewery doesn’t give you any idea about how heavy they might be!

The porter style is definitely far more constrained than the stout style, so if you’re not feeling adventurous, or if you’re feeling like something a bit more mild but still dark, you can order a porter and be sure that it’s not off the beaten path for the most part. Stouts have no real “upper bound” on what they might actually be once they are in front of you, so porters are a good choice when you want something that is assuredly drinkable.

Stouts are generally more bitter than porters. Anything labeled American Stout (or, for the most part, anything labeled Stout from an American brewery), or anything labeled Russian Imperial Stout, will likely have a hefty bitterness. Similarly, anything labeled Sweet Stout, or advertised as a traditional Brown Porter, will likely be sweeter than other dark beers. It’s usually a safe assumption that porters will be maltier than stouts.

In the modern day, it seems three things distinguish stouts from porters in general.

  1. Stouts typically have a roasted barley character not found in most porters.
  2. Stouts are more bitter than porters and have a higher ABV — they are “bigger” than porters.
  3. Stouts have no real upper bound on what they might be.
Of course, all rules are made to be broken, and many examples of these styles don’t follow these guidelines.

Whatever you think of this debate, enjoy your dark beers with friends and smile. Cheers!

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