American Porter: An Undersung Classic Awaits Its Re-Revival

In this edition of Jeff Alworth's Style School, we look to the early days of American microbrewing, when attempts to recreate a neglected British style may not have been historically accurate—but they were something altogether new (and delicious).

Jeff Alworth May 3, 2020 - 9 min read

American Porter: An Undersung Classic Awaits Its Re-Revival Primary Image

Change and evolution are the way of things, and whether this is good depends on your point of view. In one way, it is the process of refinement: American beer has come a long way since the pioneering microbrewers were using recycled dairy equipment in the 1980s. In another way, however, it is the process of selection: The new and shiny replaces the old and stodgy. This process has the unfortunate habit of setting aside that which fashion no longer favors, but which is good and worth preserving.

I speak, now, about American porters.

In the 1980s, these inky pints were broadly available. Drinkers who visited brewpubs would have found a pale ale for sure, probably something very light—a blonde or golden, for the lager drinkers—likely an amber or red ale, and maybe a brown ale. And almost certainly a porter or stout. Indeed, in the first Great American Beer Festival where style categories were judged (1987), porter was one of just six ale styles included. Pale ale, in fact, wouldn’t debut for another year.

This style, so popular during the early part of the craft era, seemed to right a historical oversight. In Britain, the mighty porter had dominated brewing for the better part of two centuries, dying out there after World War II. By the time Americans started making their versions, porter had returned to England, but only as a rare specialty beverage. It seemed that its life as a popular standard would be restored only in a former colony, thousands of miles away. Its luster restored, porter would again become a mighty style.

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That didn’t quite happen, of course. But let’s pause the story here and return to the 1980s.

The Nature of American Porter

British tradition heavily influenced American craft brewers. That classic brewpub lineup was essentially a survey course in British styles, with some odd interpretations blended in. (Brits don’t make “amber” ales; a darker-hued pale ale is just a pale.) Of course, any brewers worth their salt would have included a porter—the most famous and renowned beer ever made on the island.

The original English porters were made very differently from anything the Americans were doing at the time. London porter was characterized by the use of brown malt—something not yet available to Americans. It created a particular, sharp flavor. They were brewed by parti-gyle (pulling successive worts from the mash), an old system largely abandoned even by the English in the 20th century. They were, finally and most importantly, vat aged, producing vinous or sherry-like notes from wild yeast resident in the oak. Over the course of time, British porters got weaker and by the 20th century were no longer vat aged. They were made with brown malt, however, and English base malts, English yeasts, and English water.

When Americans recreated these porters in the 1980s, they no doubt had nostalgic images of cockney porters running around Victorian London, but few had access to old logs or understood how British breweries would have made them. Instead, they adapted their preexisting style of brewing to descriptions they could find, making characteristically American beers.

This is an important point: Porters were inspired by the English lineage, but they were at base largely American. Early craft brewers built their beers around a simple formulation: 2-row malt and specialty malts, single-infusion mashing, hops used at regular and expected intervals, and neutral yeasts. That’s how they made porters as well. They didn’t use characterful base malts or brown malt or English yeasts. What usually distinguished them from a pale or amber ale was the amount of dark malt, perhaps the variety of hops, and very little else.

The most important element—and the one that would make American porters a hit among early craft-beer converts—was that caramel malt. Americans had no history with unique and characterful base malts, so they flavored their beers with specialty malts. Going back to that typical tap list—golden, pale, amber, porter—all except the golden ale would have been made with enough caramel malt to feature prominently as a flavor element. In porters, that made all the difference.

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Winning Converts

When it opened in 1988, Deschutes Brewery had a typical lineup for a brewpub at the time, leaning heavily into the British tradition. While other brewpubs in the region featured amber and pale ales, however, owner Gary Fish decided to promote his porter. He thought it had all the elements that would appeal to customers just encountering craft beer for the first time. It was light and sweet, with flavors of chocolate and toffee. The appearance spoke of something different, but the flavors were familiar.

He describes his approach. “Anytime someone would come in and say, ‘Give me the lightest thing you’ve got,’ you immediately gave them a taste of Black Butte Porter,” Fish says. “Once they got past the color—‘I don’t like dark beer’—you’d say, ‘Just try a sample. It’s free. I’ll get you the beer that you want, but taste this first.’ We figured about 80 percent of them were going, ‘Oh, that’s really good. I’ll have one of those.’”

Fish understood that, despite looking like the opposite of a traditional beer, porter was actually not a huge reach for most consumers. The dark malts produced flavors drinkers understood, such as chocolate and coffee, and the addition of caramel malt created sweetness to balance the dark-roasted bitterness. Porters were often served with less carbonation than lagers and were fuller and creamier. On the one hand, everything about them was different from what drinkers understood “beer” to be, but on the other, the flavors they contained were recognizable. Drinkers could explore a very different kind of beer without getting too far outside their comfort zones.

Changing Fashions

Why didn’t porters stay popular? Caramel malt is no longer a popular ingredient, and it has been stripped down or out of most pales, stouts, and IPAs these days. Red ales and amber ales, beers dependent on caramel malt, have become scarce. The flavor of caramel and the heavy body it imparts is unfashionable, and styles have left it behind.

Porters also have vanished, but this seems to have more to do with the preference for pale beers now. It’s a shame because of all those beers made in the 1980s, porters alone do not taste dated. That balance between caramel and roast that made them so familiar and comforting to the first generation of drinkers is as good today as it was in 1987. It’s complex but sessionable, grown-up but approachable. For those of us who still enjoy porters, finding them is like discovering an old friend.

The American tradition is now characterized by hops flavors and aromas. They have inspired a new generation of brewers here and abroad. But Americans invented their own tradition at the dawn of craft brewing as well, and it would be a shame to see it vanish entirely. If any beer might act as an emissary from that era to remind us of our roots, I would nominate porter. It isn’t stodgy in the least and is well worth preserving.

Photo: Matt Graves/www.mgravesphoto.com

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