Brewing Traditions: Baltic Indulgence

Thick, rich, smooth Baltic porter is a comforting treat for the frigid months. If only it were easier to brew...

Josh Weikert Feb 23, 2020 - 13 min read

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Everyone into craft beer has an early experience that locks them in as a “beer person.” For me, it wasn’t some hop-bomb IPA, stark German Pilsner, or florid Belgian ale. It was a thick Baltic porter. It was in a bottle with a gold-foil top and fancy label, as if it were designed for a Russian czar. It poured like motor oil and smelled like dark chocolate truffles. It was warming, full, and smooth, and it tasted like the love child of English toffee and Jamaican coffee. And it was so very, very clean and organized on the palate that it made the stout I’d just drunk taste like the flavor equivalent of a Jackson Pollock.

Yup, I was hooked.

Baltic porter is a strong beer with a history as rich as its flavor. Brewing it is a significant (but manageable) challenge, and it is one of the more satisfying styles to have on hand when the cold winds blow and the fireplace is raging. It’s not easy making a beer that’s dark in flavor but not overly “roasty”—one that’s high-strength and full-bodied but not overly sweet, despite fermenting at cooler temperatures. But it’s worth the trouble.

History and Style

Historically, porter gives us a jumping off point for understanding Baltic porter, but it’s important to acknowledge that for what it is: a starting point. This style evolved into something distinct from its English roots.

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Porters have their origins in 18th century London, where laborers and others would enjoy pints of a more characterful, mature beer than they’d get from casks of pale and brown ale. Matured at the brewery instead of the pub, those porters were relatively strong (though over the years, tax laws and changing tastes weakened them to more moderate strength). Industrial-size London breweries exported their strong porter to the frosty climes of the Baltic seaports, where people may have acquired an enduring taste for it. In those markets, porter retained its strength and richer flavor. By the mid-19th century, breweries in the region were producing their own porters using regional ingredients under regionally defined conditions. More than a century later, the writer Michael Jackson became intrigued by this regional variation. He dubbed it “Baltic” porter; to the locals, it was just porter.

If you sail east from Britain across the North Sea, you’ll find yourself looping around Denmark into the Baltic. This is the land of the Swedes and Finns and Norwegians, and as you move eastward, you’ll find Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia; the north coasts of Poland and Germany are the region’s “warmer” locales. Maybe it isn’t surprising, then, that Baltic porter evolved as it did. Rather than reining in the alcohol, Baltic brewers increased it a notch; these days most examples range from 8 percent ABV up into double digits. Recipes began to include primarily Continental malts and hops. Also important, from a style perspective: 19th century brewers in the Baltic were more familiar with German brewing practice—many of them were German—and lager yeast was readily available.

It is this feature that, to the present day, really distinguishes Baltic porter from other porters and from strong stouts (notably the Russian imperial stout): restraint. While other imperial-strength beers are “loud” in their flavors and aromas (pushing into the higher ranges commensurate with their higher alcohol levels), Baltic porter is smoother and rounder, retaining a modest level of intensity in most of its stylistic attributes. That restraint is possible, in large part, thanks to the cleaner fermentation profile.

Flavor Profile

The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) guidelines provide a snapshot of the character and intensity of flavors common to Baltic porter. While not usually as strong as an imperial stout, this is nevertheless a dark, strong beer. It is comparatively restrained and moderate, with a smooth, full-bodied mouthfeel and relatively subtle roast characteristics for so dark a beer. The flavor profile is anything but subtle, however.

Aromas should be rich and complex, highlighting the full range of crystal- and roasted-malt flavors. Toast, licorice, anise, black currant, pit fruits, and molasses are common, and an impression of roast (coffee, cocoa) is usually evident but not overpowering. The flavor matches that malt-driven complexity while adding some light spice from alcohols or the judicious use of herbal Continental hops (Styrian Goldings are a nice fit). This is not an especially bitter beer, though, especially given its gravity. The bittering-to-gravity unit ratio is usually in the 1:3 vicinity, making it all the more important to achieve a healthy, thorough fermentation that processes out the wort’s simpler, sweeter sugars.

Mouthfeel is an important characteristic. It should be full-bodied but not too heavy, a seeming contradiction that is nevertheless a hallmark of the style. This is accomplished via a moderate level of carbonation paired with a high final gravity (owing to the high original gravity and extensive use of crystal and roasted malts). The final result tends to be a surprisingly drinkable beer in the same vein as better Belgian strong ales and bigger German bocks.

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“All well and good,” you might be thinking, “but how do I brew one?” Glad you asked.

Brewing a Baltic Porter

Before we dive in, it’s important to note some general challenges associated with higher-gravity brewing. Higher alcohol levels present a tougher task for your yeast. The environment is going to be a little more toxic, which will inhibit their performance and increase their tendency to produce off-flavors. Robust attenuation thus becomes a bit tougher to achieve and more important in terms of flavor, since higher gravity already means more sweetness. These concerns are amplified in a strong lager (which is essentially what we’re brewing), since we want a cleaner fermentation profile and are working with a slower-acting yeast strain. It’s for these reasons that temperature management is going to be centrally important later on. (For more information about brewing high-gravity beers, see “Over the Top: Brewing High-Gravity Beers,” beerandbrewing.com.)

Recipe Construction
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. Recipe construction is an important step in any beer, but all the more so in a style with regional character and a specific flavor profile (as opposed to, say, an American amber ale, where we can get about as creative as we want).

Target an ABV of about 7.5 percent. We want to notice some warmth, but there’s no reason to gild the lily and produce an über-gravity wort. As you get more comfortable with the style, you can always bump up the gravity (mine comes in at about 9 percent) to a level you think best accentuates your flavors and/or matches your ability to ferment cleanly and completely.

However, I nearly always advise aiming low and working up from there. If your early attempts are “too clean” and no one can tell that they’re drinking a strong lager, then there are worse sins. Lean heavy on 9–10°L Munich malt (about two-thirds of the total grist) to give yourself a nice rich base and top off with a crackery Pils malt. Then add a selection of medium-to-dark crystal malts (English 65L, Briess Special or Extra Special Roast, etc.) and some huskless chocolate malts (Carafa Special II or III, chocolate rye) to the tune of about a pound of crystal and a pound of chocolate, net. The dehusked/huskless malts are key because they’re how you’ll get a deep, dark flavor without the sharper and dryer roasty flavors.

For hops, shoot for the aforementioned 1:3 bittering-gravity unit ratio. This will mostly come from a 25–30 IBU hops addition at the top of the boil, and (optional, but I like it) a late or whirlpool addition of Styrian Goldings or any of the Saaz-family hops.

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Finally, choose a high-attenuating lager yeast strain that you’ve used before and enjoyed. The specific flavor descriptors attached to it are less important than your ability to get a “lager” profile out of it, so go with what you know. If this is your first lager and you don’t really “know” any lager yeasts yet, stop reading here, tear this article out, stuff it in your brewing binder, go brew a helles and a couple of Pilsners, then double back to this. See you in a few months!

Process
Now, on to the process because while the recipe is important, it’s really the fermentation that “makes” it (true of most styles, but especially true of this one). On the hot side, don’t change a thing. Produce your usual wort in the usual way. Assuming you took my earlier advice and didn’t turn this into a 110-gravity-point monster, there’s no heavy lifting (literally/figuratively) at the front end. On the cold side, though, take it niiiiiiiice and easy. Start fermentation right around (just below, ideally) 50°F (10°C) and bump up the temperature slowly. An increase of about one degree Fahrenheit per day for about two weeks will encourage steady, healthy activity in your yeast without creating much in the way of precursors or off-flavors. Once you reach that low-ale temperature, leave the beer for an additional two weeks before packaging and carbonating to about 2.5 volumes of CO2. You want to give the yeast all the time it needs to finish fermenting and cleaning up.

The hard part, honestly, is about to come: waiting. I don’t really “age” my beers. One exception is my English barleywine, which I’ll hoard until it peaks at about 18–24 months. Another is my Baltic porter, and while a year or two isn’t necessary, you should hold off for the three or four months it needs to really hit its stride. Much like the fermentation, don’t rush. This is a style that ages beautifully, and oxidation (assuming it isn’t excessive) should do some nice things to its flavor. If you pop open a bottle at six months and notice an old-grain, dusty, basement-like aroma and flat, dull, malt flavors, then you should take a good, hard look at your cold-side process and clamp down on opportunities to pick up oxygen.

Finally, what happens if you end up with a hot or overly sweet beer? You may need a recipe adjustment. If you went high in ABV, lower that original gravity. But if you stuck to the 7–8 percent range and it’s still hot, check your initial temperature controls to make sure your yeast cells aren’t getting ahead of themselves. If it’s sweetness, try upping the IBUs (or, again, lowering ABV if you went high), but I’d avoid trying to balance it with roast—it’s easy to overdo, and a little huskiness goes a long way.

Finally, if you’re overly roasty (maybe because you were trying to correct for sweetness), double-check to make sure you used a de-husked or huskless chocolate malt. If you did, it’s genuinely hard to get to “burnt.”

Baltic Interlude

When you finally do crack open a bottle (and I genuinely prefer it that way, rather than off the tap) and pour it, you’ll appreciate the time you put into it. Ultimately, a central source of the love I feel for Baltic porter is the sense of accomplishment that comes from the time and care it takes to make it. It takes me back to my brother-in-law’s basement when we opened that bottle of Finnish porter that blew my socks off with its structured, clean, complex flavors. Raise a glass, shout “Skol,” and enjoy!

Photo: Matt Graves/www.mgravesphoto.com

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