Unlike English porters, Baltic porters are lagers, not ales. And as lagers, they are among the most difficult homebrews you’ll attempt. But they could also be the most rewarding. Norman Miller asked Jack Hendler of Jack’s Abby Brewing to offer a few tips for homebrewers.
Porters were the working man’s beer in eighteenth-century England. After a tough day at work, an Englishman would stop on his way home and grab a pint of his favorite dark beer. When England introduced the style to the Balkans region of Europe, the people fell in love with the style. However, most brewers in colder countries brewed with lager yeast, not the ale yeast used for traditional porters. These creative brewers used lager yeast and began brewing stronger and stronger versions of the English porter, creating what today is known as Baltic porter, which is still a popular style in many European countries.
A Baltic porter is almost a lager version of an imperial stout—a lot of roasted character, chocolaty notes, and hints of coffee and creaminess. While traditional English porters may be below 5 percent ABV and the stronger robust porters can be in the 6–7 percent ABV range, a Baltic porter is traditionally a stronger beer, usually 7–8.5 percent ABV. However, some classic examples of the style, such as the Zywiec Porter from Zywiec Breweries in Poland, come in at a hefty 9.5 percent ABV. Other traditional Baltic porters include
- Sinebrychoff, Oy Sinebrychoff AB, Finland, 7.2 percent ABV
- Okocim Porter, Browar Okocim, Poland, 8.1 percent ABV
- Baltika #6 Porter, Baltika Brewery, Russia, 7 percent ABV
Americanizing Baltic Porters
In the past few years, the Baltic porter style has grown in popularity in the United States, with many breweries brewing the strong beer. And, as U.S. brewers are wont to do, they took a style known for being high in alcohol and . . . made it higher in alcohol. They ramped up the roastiness and the chocolate and began aging it in barrels. They have made a style that started as a working man’s end-of-the-day beer into a style distinctively American.
Many American versions of Baltic porter cross into the double digits when it comes to alcohol by volume. Jack’s Abby Brewing in Framingham, Massachusetts, has taken Baltic porter to another level, brewing numerous iterations of its Framinghammer, a 10 percent ABV Baltic porter that took a gold medal at the 2014 World Beer Cup. They have brewed versions that are aged in bourbon barrels and made with a variety of ingredients: vanilla beans, coffee, coconut, peanut butter and jelly, and hot peppers.
Some other standout American versions of the style include
- Baltic Thunder, Victory Brewing Company (Downingtown, Pennsylvania), 9.2 percent ABV
- Baltic Porter, Smuttynose Brewing Company (Hampton, New Hampshire), 9.2 percent ABV
- 3Bean, Sixpoint Brewery (Brooklyn, New York), 10 percent ABV
- Baltic Porter, Thomas Hooker Brewing Company (Bloomfield, Connecticut), 8 percent ABV
Making Your Own Baltic Porter
Jack Hendler, co-owner and head brewer at Jack’s Abby Brewing, may be the authority on brewing Baltic porters. Jack’s Abby’s Framinghammer is regarded as one of the best Baltic porters in the country. And, if you look at Beer Advocate’s list of most popular Baltic porters, as ranked by its members, eight of Hendler’s different versions of Framinghammer are in the top twenty-five, including the top four.
So, when Hendler says a Baltic porter will probably be the most difficult homebrew you have attempted, it’s probably good to listen to him. “This beer will take a long time,” says Hendler. “At day ten, you’ll begin freaking out about it. It would be easier to do an imperial stout.”
But, if you’re dead set on brewing one, here are some tips.
“The key to Baltic porters is the roasted character,” says Hendler. “If it’s too much, it’s not pleasant, and if it’s not enough, it’s way too sweet. Getting to the right percentage of roasted malt is really important. There’s nothing worse than a burnt flavor.”
For a base malt, Hendler uses 2-row barley malt, but says that any basic base malt will work. He then adds “a lot of” Munich malt. He also uses Caramunich malt, which will add some sweetness. Although he prefers German malts for most of his beers, Hendler does use some British chocolate malt in the Baltic porter to add some chocolate notes and roastiness, and then some roasted barley.
About 70 percent of the malt is base malt, followed by 10–15 percent of the dark Munich Malt and 5 percent Caramunich malt. About 7 percent of the malt is a 50/ 50 split between roasted barley and chocolate malt. To add some creaminess to the mouthfeel, the rest (about 3 percent) is oats.
“It’s a big beer, so there’s going to be some sweetness,” says Hendler. “We did that on purpose. We wanted something we could put in barrels and age.”
Jack’s Abby’s version of Baltic porter has more IBUs than a typical Baltic porter, in the 50–60 IBU range, rather than in the 20s. But, Hendler says, that is necessary to have a drinkable beer because of the sweetness. “It doesn’t taste hoppy, but because it is so high in alcohol and so sweet, you have to have the bitterness to balance it out.”
Although Hendler likes to use Magnum hops, he says you can use pretty much any hops with herbal, “noble” characteristics, such as Hallertau, Saaz, and Tettnang. But, he says, whatever you do, avoid the typical American hops that are known for adding citrusy flavors. “Don’t think you can use a citrusy hops such as Citra or Mosaic,” he says. “It’s not the beer for that.”
When you choose your hops, Hendler says to split the use of bittering and aroma hops 50/ 50 because you need high doses of bittering hops to get the IBUs needed to balance out this big beer.
And while adding hops, make 5 to 10 percent of your additions brown sugar to make the beer more drinkable. “If you don’t want to use sugar, add more hops, but the sugar will dry it out, and it’ll make it more drinkable for that strong of a beer. Lager yeast at that ABV is a little sluggish, so the sugar will help keep it going.”
Most homebrewers use ale yeast. It’s easy, more forgiving, and ferments much more rapidly. For a traditional Baltic porter, Hendler says you need to use lager yeast, which is a much different animal than ale yeast. “Everything you have come to know about ale yeast doesn’t apply to lager yeast,” Hendler says. “There are some serious challenges to working with lager yeast.”
For starters, you’ll need a lot of yeast. He says that, on average, he uses five times as much yeast as someone who would be brewing a similar style with ale yeast. For example, his Baltic porter, brewed on the commercial scale, uses six to ten pounds of yeast. A comparable brew size of imperial stout would use one to two pounds.
So, load up the homebrew version of Baltic porter with lots of yeast, he says. “My suggestion would be to use double the amount of yeast you think you’ll need. The great thing about lager yeast is if you over pitch it, there’s no problem. But if you under pitch it, it’ll never ferment.”
Hendler says that if you don’t have access to a good lager yeast (he recommends using a German or Pilsner yeast), or you just don’t want to wait for the lager yeast to ferment, use a clean ale yeast, such as a Kolsch yeast. If you use an ale yeast that is too aggressive, you’ll end up with an imperial stout.
Be prepared to wait for your Baltic porter. It won’t be ready to drink for many weeks. Hendler recommends boiling it for about two hours before letting it ferment at 54°F (12°C). At the end, he says, let it warm to about 60°F (16°C) to finish fermenting.
At first, things will look like a typical beer, with 75 percent of the fermentation taking place within the first five to seven days. Then nothing. Day ten will look the same as day seven. He says it can take another full seven days before the final 25 percent is done. Again, he stresses that yeast quality is important. “If you don’t have healthy yeast, that last 25 percent will never finish.”
Hendler says he doesn’t bottle Framinghammer for four to six weeks, and then he lets it bottle ferment for another eight weeks before drinking.
Be patient and, if it comes out how you imagine, you’ve got yourself a winner of a beer.