If you’re reading this in the early summer, it’s time to make that Baltic Porter that you’re going to want to drink when the first snowflakes fall in about six months! No, the heat isn’t getting to my head. This is a beer with a high degree-of-difficulty rating, and with good reason.
High ABV? Check.
Complex grist? Check.
Easy to turn into a syrupy, burnt, hot, undrinkable mess? Check, check, check, and check.
But when it goes right, it goes very right. There’s really no other beer like a Baltic Porter, and when you take a look around the beer marketplace, they can be quite tough to find: so there’s no better excuse to make your own.
Baltic Porter, as its name makes evident, is a style of porter that was common to the areas around the Baltic Sea; in other words, the places where winter isn’t a mere season, it’s way of life. As you might imagine, then, this is a beer that should be able to keep you warm on a cold evening. It has a relatively high ABV (examples range from 7 to more than 10 percent), a clean lager fermentation character, and a complex malt profile.
Despite its dark color, this is most certainly not a roasty beer—at least not in the traditional sense. There are perceivable dark malt flavors, but what’s left out is the burnt, husky, coffee-grounds flavor you’d taste in a strong stout. Instead, the flavor is more like hot chocolate, and it’s only one of many featured flavors that usually include dark fruit, anise, molasses, toffee, and black currant.
And all of this needs to be accomplished without making the beer overly sweet.
You can thread this needle by choosing the best ingredients for the job. We can start simple by choosing a good, attenuation-minded lager yeast—White Labs WLP830 German Lager Yeast is my personal favorite. It produces a crisp beer with just a touch of pit-fruit esters and fully ferments even at sub-50°F (10°C) temperatures.
When it comes to hops, you’re going to have to fight the urge to over-bitter this beer. In our quest to avoid an overly-sweet beer, the natural inclination is to increase the IBUs—the reason that won’t work here is that you’re trying to make a very smooth-feeling and -tasting lager, and anything more than 30–35 IBUs runs the risk of undermining that effort. I prefer about 30 IBUs from a 60-minute hops addition (any variety), and then an ounce of Styrian Goldings at 10 minutes (or flame-out, if you do a whirlpool), which will add a pleasant earthy/herbal aroma that will still be recognizable a few months from now when you’re drinking it.
But this beer is made in the grist. To give yourself a good, rich base you should start with a 2:1 ratio of Munich to Pilsner malt (for a 5-gallon/19-liter batch, probably about 10 lbs/4.5 kg of Munich to 5 lbs/2.25 kg of Pilsner). On top, to add complexity, you want some really flavorful character malts. I use equal parts (about 0.5 lbs/0.2kg) Fawcett Crystal 65, Briess Extra Special Malt, and Carafa II.
The Fawcett 65 adds a nice toffee note, the Extra Special lends a unique toasted marshmallow flavor, and the Carafa II imparts a smooth chocolate taste without the husky (since it’s de-husked) and astringent flavor of a traditional chocolate malt. But since we want a touch of astringency to give us an impression of dryness in the finish, you’ll want just a dash of either a Pale Chocolate or Chocolate Rye (if you’re more daring)—3–4 oz (85–113 g) will be more than sufficient.
You want complex—not roasty. Most of the time I advocate for simpler, but in this case, we need the complex malt bill to get the desired effect!
I like to let ingredients do what they want to do anyway, which is why I bristle whenever I hear people talk about “adding” or “leaving” sweetness in this beer and trying to “balance” it with roast, bitterness or anything else. I say that we should choose the cleanest malts we can and trust the yeast to do its job of taking care of all of the simple sugars. There will be plenty of sweetness left over from the alcohol that’s produced. For my rationale to work, though, we need a top-notch performance out of the yeast—so in terms of process that’s what we’re focusing on. There’s nothing to the hot side on this one, but the cold side will make or break you.
You’ll want this fermentation to start cold—figure on 2°F/1°C below your usual lager fermentation temperature (I start at 48°F/9°C). Once you see activity in the air lock (about 36 hours), increase by 1°F (0.5°C) per day for 10 days. There should be a slow, steady march upward to consume all of the available sugars in a responsible, flavor-neutral way and avoid by-products and off-flavors.
On what should now be day 12, go ahead and set your temperature to 60°F/16°C and ignore this thing for at least an additional 2 weeks. Don’t worry about autolysis or anything else, just leave it be. At that point, you can go ahead and package it—if you’re bottle conditioning, give it about 3–4 weeks at room temperature before cold conditioning.
And then the waiting begins…
If you brew this beer in June, don’t open your first bottle until at least September 1. Store it in any standard refrigerator (or even a cold cellar), and it will only improve for the first three months. You should get at least another three months of peak flavor stability out of it. As it begins to age, oxidation may even add a deeper plum or sherry flavor. You almost can’t age this one too long. When you open it, it’ll pour like motor oil before it forms a dense tan head, and as that deep, dark complexity hits your nose, you’ll know it was worth the wait.
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