It was still balmy Indian summer weather when my friend Stuart and I made plans to meet for a beer. So the umbrella-snapping squalls and whipping, ice-cold spray of November’s first wintry storm was a bit of a shock. The door to Stuart’s neighborhood bar blew open with a gust when I, sopping wet, turned the knob. As I stepped into the warm room, I already knew what I wanted. It was finally dark beer season.
Buying the first round, I came back from the bar with two dark pints. For Stuart, it was the Deschutes Brewery Black Butte Porter from Bend, Oregon. And I had a pint of North Coast Brewing’s Old No. 38 Stout from Fort Bragg, California. In the bar’s dim light, both beers were inky black with an inch of creamy beige foam. The Deschutes was thick, rich, and bittersweet, tasting of toast, coffee, and dark chocolate. Its slightly sour tang kept the richness in balance. The stout had a similar dark-roasted flavor but was highlighted with floral and fruity notes. The beers were similar, yet different enough to prompt the obvious query from Stuart: “What’s the difference between a porter and a stout?”
I had no answer. In my mind, stouts are defined by the Irish beers—Guinness, Murphy’s, and Beamish, which are dark in color and mighty in flavor but deceptively light in body and alcohol. Porter is an ancient style of beer, but today’s versions are a revivalist phenomenon, and I tend to think of them as juiced-up stouts with a little more alcohol and body, and the intense flavoring that modern brewers are enamored with. I told Stuart I’d do some research and get back to him.
Research wasn’t terribly illuminating. There appears to be a great deal of disagreement as to whether porter predated stout or vice versa. Both terms seem to crop up independently in various writings between 1730 and 1850. Porter was the most popular style of beer in London in the 18th century. It most likely got its name from the rough-and-tumble longshoremen of London, who were called porters—and they liked their dark beer. Brewers learned how to make the beer cheaply in large quantities, and it became a sensation. Some speculate that porter’s characteristically dark color and heavy, overroasted flavors were designed to cover up flaws in appearance and taste that would have made a paler beer unpalatable. In fact, porter started to decline in England just as beer- and glassmaking technologies in other parts of Europe allowed for the production of the crisp, new style of translucent beer called lager. Stout may have been coined to describe a strong porter, as the term stout porter has been found in the old literature. But that definition no longer holds, given that beers like Guinness are lighter than most modern porters and, indeed, many of today’s ales.
I still didn’t have the answer to my question, so I asked an acquaintance who owns a brewery. He answered in the exasperated tone of someone who has heard the question more than a few times: “There is no distinction! Maybe there was one day, but now the two terms are practically interchangeable.”
The next time I met up with Stuart I reported my findings. We were waiting for our two pints of Guinness to settle. He didn’t seem disappointed to learn that there was no real difference between porter and stout. Wiping the froth of foam from his upper lip, he said, “As long as it tastes good, who cares?”