I have seen the future, and it’s dark. Not in a cataclysmic, greed-driven economic meltdown kinda way (been there, done that), nor in an apocalyptic end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it kinda way (the peculiarity of an 1,100-year-old Mayan astronomical cycle ending in 2012 of the Common Era IS NOT a harbinger of the end), but in the sense that trends old and long forgotten often become new again.
According to some estimates, as much as 75% of beer produced in London in the mid-19th century was Porter-style ale. First produced late in the 18th century, the brew had caught on among the workers of London, and through trade had become a rampant success across Europe, on order of the beaver-pelt hat. While the latter faded from fashion around 1850, Porter continued to be produced by British brewers until grain rationing during the First World War forced the beer to be brewed with lower alcohol content, on the order of Stout. This, along with the increasing popularity of Stout, nearly led to the demise of the style until a number of breweries began producing Porters again in the 1980s.
Porter is dark ale, brewed with heavily roasted malts to create a rich body balanced with dry flavors of coffee and nuts or sometimes a sweet character of caramel or toffee. Porter is commonly brewed to finish at 5-6% abv, with its heavier cousin, Baltic Porter, finishing between 7-10% abv. Hopping rates vary, with many Porters using modest amounts of hops to compliment the astringency already present from the darker malts. Some domestically produced porters, such as Deschutes Brewing Co.’s Black Butte Porter and Avery Brewing Co.’s New World Porter, hop to much higher levels, on order of a Pale Ale or India Pale Ale. (Avery has even been so bold as to lay claim to their New World Porter being the first Black IPA, thus entering an ongoing dispute among Pacific Northwest brewers and the Stone Brewing Co. of Escondido, CA, over the origination of the style). Occasionally, breweries choose to add a small amount of smoked malt to the grain bill. This is roasted malt that has been placed in a smoker or dried over a wood fire. Generally found in bigger Baltic Porters, a modest touch of smoke can be an excellent addition to the overall flavor, and hearkens back to a time prior to kiln-drying of malt, when all beer would have contained some level of smoke flavor from the use of fire-dried barley.
Today, Porter is readily available at the package store, and is offered by many craft breweries. For a baseline example of the style, one can’t miss with a bottle of Fuller’s, or Samuel Smith’s Old Taddy Porter. The latter was a crowd favorite in parking lots outside of music venues in the ’90s, and while drinking a bottle in preparation for this article, a friend reminisced fondly that it and a piece of paper had been dinner on more than one occasion before seeing a band.
For a smoked variety, pick up a bottle of Smoked Baltic Porter from Great Divide Brewing Co. or the excellent Smoked Porter from Alaskan Brewing Co. Alaskan has chosen to add their alder-wood smoked malt to a base brew of modest (5.5% abv) strength, allowing the smoke to play a more prominent role in the flavor profile than it does in the offering from Great Divide. The brew is released annually and labeled with the year of release. I was lucky enough to find a bottle from 2009, and was happy to find that it had mellowed nicely in the bottle with little loss of body.
And so, will darker beer, like Porter, become the norm again? I don’t know, but for every beer, there is a person who drinks it. The two major international beer producing conglomerates, (AB/InBev and MillerCoors together controlling 265+ brands between them), are making quite a bit of money selling the likes of Michelob Amber Bock and other filthy poisons of a non-yellow color to someone. This was unheard of 15 years ago, and as the craft industry continues its impressive year-over-year growth, I can’t help but hope for a mass change in consciousness away from lite “beer.” Perhaps this time, it can be done without the beaver-pelt hat craze and the near extinction of the hapless beaver from North America.