Just like any other holiday, St. Patrick’s Day has come and gone. Neon green everything, including beer, permeates the scenery from Anytown USA to the Big Apple. It’s also during this time that I see more and more people ordering pints of Guinness as if they were Twinkies. Irish mania hits mainstream, if only for a fleeting moment. Now that the Hybernian hype is over, the masses quickly realize that not “everyone is Irish” and go back to ordering the usual. I admit that every year I get caught up in the holiday and its offerings. Nothing wrong with that. This year, I stayed away from the appletini looking beer and chose a Kilkenny Cream Ale for my pint of choice. While I didn’t order a porter or stout, I also knew that having a Guinness shouldn’t be limited to one day or one season of the year. Once the leprechauns (actually just one leprechaun as evidenced below) stopped harassing me, I reignited my affinity for porters and stouts and decided to have a closer look.
My introduction to stouts was a pint of Guinness at The Dubliner pub in Washington, D.C. many years ago. Not having had much experience in beer tasting, I gave it a go despite being frightened by the dark color. Beer as I knew it was golden light in color with little flavor (but refreshing nonetheless). I was pleasantly surprised to taste beer in a new way, and since then have enjoyed many a pint of this dark delicious stuff.
At a recent beer festival I was asked about the difference is between porters and stouts, which really made me stop to think about an explanation. After that encounter, I came across an article on craftbrewingbusiness.com titled, “What’s the difference between a porter and a stout?” The article asked the brew masters of Great Lakes Brewing Co., Founders Brewing Co., and Cigar City Brewing what their take was on the subject. After reading this article and digging a little deeper into my beer reference materials, I came closer to knowing that the distinction between the two is negligible, and in order to understand their nuances is to take a look back to 18th century London, the birthplace of the porter.
While it’s hard to pinpoint the exact origins of the porter, its name is a reference to the working class men who would carry all sorts of goods on their backs from merchant storehouses to London’s public markets. Legend has it that these “porters” frequented the Blue Last, a local watering hole that served this aged brown beer. During this time, the American colonies imported porter from London. However, as tensions arose between England and the colonies, American brewers stepped up and made local versions of porter. During the time of American independence, porter style beer was a popular favorite. Porter’s popularity also reached Ireland, where the English import was prevalent until Arthur Guinness opened his brewery in Dublin in 1759. Guinness made other types of beer, but it was his version of the English porter that became a hit in Ireland, and was the ancestor of the current day Guinness stout that we all know. While Guinness still produces versions of its original porter, it’s only available in a few European countries.
So how did the stout come about? In actuality, a stout is a porter, albeit a stronger, roastier version. In order to differentiate the heavier nature, it was named a “stout porter.” Eventually, the “porter” was dropped from the name and is now simply known as a “stout.” Dark with a creamy foam, stouts and porters are perceived as heavy, strong beers due to their rich, dark color and essence of coffee and chocolate. These beers are actually very dry and light — the dark color comes from the roasted grains, which are roasted enough to give the coffee-chocolate flavor that you taste. Most Irish stout drafts contain less than five percent alcohol by volume (ABV), lower than many pilsners and pale ales.
Guinness is probably the easiest stout to find in the U.S. and as such may have been your Stout 101 beer too. It wasn’t until a trip to Finland in 2008 that I discovered the heaven that is Beamish Irish Stout. Little did I realize that proclaiming my affinity for Beamish over Guinness to an Irish bartender would be considered a political statement. Gareth (pictured here) from Rattle-N-Hum in NYC assured me that he respected my choice even if it was wrong.
It’s almost April now and St. Patrick’s Day is but a distant memory. The parades and parties have ended, but the porters are still flowing. All things green are temporarily shelved and the dark brown leaves its imprint in every savory sip, memory and foam mustache. Cheers!