American Robust Porters – A blind taste test

Here at Pat’s Pints we do our best to describe, compare, and contrast beers that fall under the same style category.  In December we surveyed various holiday beers.  Much of January was spent drinking and writing about Belgian Quadrupel Ales.  In this post and its follow up we profile a historically important, but underappreciated style, porters.  The impetus for looking at Porters came from my friend Mark Richards, who organized and hosted a night of drinking Porters.  Our friends Ralph, Nick and Hans joined in on the fun as we compared eight of the best known American brewed porters in a blind review using the BJCP scoring system.   Here are the results of that evening, which hopefully will help you make an informed decision the next time you want to quench your thirst with a beer that was all the rage at the birth of our country.  Because Porter has such an interesting history we wanted to give some background before jumping into the results of the evening. Feel free to jump ahead if the history of beers is not your thing.

Through the Porter Glass1

The History of Porters

Porter’s first recorded history dates back to 1720’s London.  The most recurring story holds that it was a mixture of 3 to 4 beers which were all drawn from their individual casks, combining beers known at the time as pales, two penny, and brown.  It is said that in 1722, Ralph Harwood a brewer in Shoreditch, East London combined a blended concoction that he coined “Entire Butt”.  The beer was known as porter after gaining popularity with the working class of the area.  It became rapidly popular and soon was being produced by other London brewers with a grain bill consisting mostly of brown malt.

There are quite a few reputable sources who assert that the history of Porter cannot be traced so neatly back to a single stroke of genius.  Quoting from Randy Mosher’s book “Tasting Beer”

“Porter emerged over generation or more, transforming itself from an assemblage of brown ales into a pedigreed family of chestnut colored brews that eventually came to be named for the transportation workers who were its most visible enthusiasts.  There never was a single thing called “porter.”  By the time the name came to be applied to it, there were many variations in both name and interpretation.”

What is not in dispute is the fact that porter was an immensely popular beer in Georgian England.  By the end of the 18th century Whitbread & Co Ltd was producing 200,000 barrels of porter annually.  Love for porters was not confined to England.  Records show that amateur brewer and first president of the United States, George Washington, was an avid fan of porters.  In Ireland, Arthur Guinness’ fledgling Dublin brewery began brewing a porter in 1778. Guinness went on to offer a stronger version of their porter that was successively called West India Porter, Extra Superior Porter and eventually Extra Stout, the beer for which Guinness is famous.  Hence the murky distinction between porters and stouts is a centuries old point of confusion (and one that we will not attempt to address in this post).

“Patent black malt” developed by Daniel Weaver in 1817 allowed brewers to use pale malt in place of brown malt, which is advantageous because pale malts are much higher in fermentables than brown malts.   The desired color and flavor of the porter style could be retained by using a small amount of black malt.

black malt

A resurgence of the style can be traced to smaller breweries in the US and England.  San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing was first American brewery to release a porter in 1972, while Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter, first released in 1979, signaled a rebirth of the style in England.  Other breweries soon followed suit.  In 1988 Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon made the bold choice of pinning their hopes on a porter, Black Butte Porter, as their flagship beer.  As most of you know, this gamble paid off for Deschutes, which is now the 4th largest craft brewery in the US.

Types of Porter

The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) has three subcategories of Porter: Mild Porter, Robust Porter and Baltic Porter.  The main event of the evening was a blind taste test of eight American brewed Robust porters, but first let’s see the differences between the three varieties of Porter.  Quoting directly from the BJCP guidelines:

Mild Porter: A fairly substantial English dark ale with restrained roasty characteristics, 4.0−5.4% abv.

Robust Porter:  A substantial, malty dark ale with a complex and flavorful roasty character, 4.8−6.5% abv.

Baltic Porter: A Baltic Porter often has the malt flavors reminiscent of an English brown porter and the restrained roast of a schwarzbier, but with a higher OG and alcohol content than either. Very complex, with multi-layered flavors, 5.5−9.5% abv.  Unlike the other two styles Baltic porter is generally made with lager yeast.

Porters in a row

American Robust Porters 

Now we come to the main event, a showdown of eight widely distributed American porters. To calibrate our tastes we started with a couple of excellent English porters, Fuller’s London Porter and Samuel Smiths Taddy Porter.  Although both are classified as mild porters, each possesses bold aromas and flavors of coffee and chocolate from the roasted malts, balanced with a enough hops to keep the sweetness in check.

Once we finished our warm ups we moved onto the American porters.  Mark was serving the beers so the rest of us could rate them blind to their identity.  We used the BJCP scoring system, where a maximum of 50 points are awarded broken down into the following categories: 12 points for aroma, 3 points for appearance, 20 points for flavor, 5 points for mouthfeel, and 10 points for overall impression.  The order of tasting, as revealed at the end, was (1) Edmund Fitzgerald, (2) Revolution’s Eugene Porter, (3) Founders Porter, (4) Anchor Porter, (5) Old Leghumper, (6) Sierra Nevada Porter, (7) Black Butte Porter, (8) Bell’s Porter.  Roughly speaking the beers can be broken down into three tiers.

Porters Judging Sheet

Top Tier

Two beers separated themselves from the pack and were our clear favorites of the night.

1. Founders Porter 

  • Score = 43
  • ABV = 6.5%
  • Price = $10.99 for 6-pack

Close to perfection in a modern porter.  A nearly opaque black beer with a nice mocha colored head.  It’s the darkest beer of all the porters we sampled, and among the most aromatic.  Dark malts give big coffee and chocolate flavors.   Despite its inherent maltiness a combination of roasted malts and hops lends an appropriate level of bitterness that keeps it from becoming sweet or cloying.  To top it all off, it has a nice creamy mouthfeel that was easily the best of any beer in the competition.  I’ve heard people describe Founders Porter as a lighter version of Founder’s Breakfast Stout and I think that is an apt description.

2. Thirsty Dog’s Old Leghumper

  • Score = 41
  • ABV = 6.7%
  • Price = $9.99 for 6-pack

Two beers separated themselves from the pack.  For one of those beers to be Founders Porter was expected, but it was a big surprise when the identities of the beers were revealed and the other top scoring beer was Old Leghumper.  Like Founders Porter it’s a very stout-like take on the style.  Both are north of 6.0% abv and have a lot of roasted malt character.  While coffee would be the first taste descriptor I would use to describe Founders Porter, for Old Leghumper it would be chocolate.   While quite similar to Founders there were subtle differences.  Old Leghumper is not quite as dark, a little less aromatic, and the mouthfeel is not quite as creamy.

The Second Tier

Bell’s Porter, Black Butte Porter and Edmund Fitzgerald Porter all finished in a tight grouping (only 1 point separated the three on the 0-50 BJCP scoring system).  All three are dark brown beers that let through ruby highlights when held up to the light, all three feature coffee flavors from the dark malts.  Compared to the top tier beers, all three have a slightly thinner mouthfeel, some hop bitterness can be detected, and the taste seems to fade a bit at the finish.  These characteristics are perhaps a reflection of the fact that they have a lower abv than the Founders and Thirsty Dog entries.  They are in many ways closer to Fuller’s London Porter and Sam Smith’s Taddy Porter in their malt/hop balance.

3. Bell’s Porter

  • Score = 30.5
  • ABV = 5.6%
  • Price = $9.99 for 6-pack

Bell’s edged out Deschutes and Great Lakes largely based on the fact that it was a little more aromatic.  Interestingly, it had hints of dark fruits (plums, raisins) on the nose, something that was not present in its competitors.

4. Deschutes Black Butte Porter

  • Score = 30
  • ABV = 5.2%
  • Price = $9.99 for 6-pack

Malt flavors up front, then the hops peak through in mid-taste, before giving way to coffee notes at the finish.  Compared to the Bell’s Porter, Black Butte was slightly less aromatic but had a little better head retention and lacing.

5. Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter

  • Score = 29.5
  • ABV = 5.8%
  • Price = $8.99 for 6-pack

The one thing that stuck out about this beer was the relatively high level of carbonation that leaves a lingering prickly sensation on the front of the tongue.  In my opinion it was a little overcarbonated.  A lower score for aroma led to EF finishing just below Bells and Deschutes, but to be fair this was the first beer of the contest and may have been just a little colder than the other two.  For practical purposes these three beers finished in a 3-way tie.

The Bottom Tier

Three beers finished a little further back for various reasons.  Of the three, both Anchor Porter and Eugene Porter were interesting beers in their own right, just not quite as much to our tastes.  On the other hand Sierra Nevada Porter was easily our least favorite beer of the bunch, not terrible but a timid stab at the style.

6. Anchor Porter 

  • Score = 24
  • ABV = 5.6%
  • Price = $10.99 for 6-pack

A dark mahogany color with a decent mocha colored head.  Although it has a dark malt base, unlike the other porters here that base is accented by notes of vanilla and hints of fruit.  We enjoyed this beer but it lost some points because those flavors seemed not quite appropriate for the style.  This is ironic because Anchor Porter has been brewed longer than any other modern porter and could claim to be the beer that defines the style.  If we throw out the style guidelines this beer might move up into the second tier of beers.

7. Revolution’s Eugene Porter

  • Score = 23
  • ABV = 6.8%
  • Price = $9.99 for 6-pack

This beer is very dark, nearly opaque with a relatively high abv, but that is where the similarities to the Founders and Thirsty Dog beers ends.  The nose and taste in this beer are defined more by caramel and dark fruits (plums, raisins) than coffee and chocolate.  This was the sweetest beer of the night with little bitterness to balance it.  The mouthfeel is a bit syrupy and seems undercarbonated.  While the taste was interesting, overall we felt the beer was just a little too heavy and sweet.

8. Sierra Nevada Porter (abv = 5.6%, BA = 3.92, RB = 3.58)

  • Score = 20
  • ABV = 5.6%
  • Price = $8.99 for 6-pack

Both in terms of color and mouthfeel this was the lightest beer of the night.  There was not much aroma and the taste was ephemeral, there was a bit of caramel and faint notes of coffee, but what flavor there was seemed to vanish by the end of the drink.  On the whole this beer lacks the gravitas expected for a decent porter.  This result was another surprise for us because Sierra Nevada normally makes outstanding beers.

Through the Porter Glass2

Summary

Let’s compare the rank order from our taste test with the rankings from the two big beer ratings sites.

Rank

Pat’s Pints

Rate Beer

Beer Advocate

1

Founders Porter

Founders Porter

Edmund Fitzgerald

2

Old Leghumper

Edmund Fitzgerald

Founders Porter

3

Bell’s Porter

Anchor Porter

Black Butte Porter

4

Black Butte Porter

Black Butte Porter

Anchor Porter

5

Edmund Fitzgerald

Bell’s Porter

Eugene Porter

6

Anchor Porter

Eugene Porter

Sierra Nevada Porter

7

Eugene Porter

Sierra Nevada Porter

Bell’s Porter

8

Sierra Nevada Porter

Old Leghumper

Old Leghumper

The two biggest discrepancies between our ratings and those of the broader beer community are Thirsty Dog’s Old Leghumper and Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald.  How can we explain this?  It could just be our tastes are a little different than the average, but the blind format presents some other possibilities.

thirstydog-leghumper

In my opinion Thirsty Dog uses rather corny labels for their beers (Old Leghumper is no exception) and possibly that subconsciously impacts people’s impressions.  I know that I’ve never bought this beer before in part for that reason (and the quality/reputation of other readily available Porters).  I will say that I’ve now tried three Thirsty Dog beers in the last 6 months (Wulver and 12 Dogs of Christmas being the other two) that were better than more celebrated beers of the same style (Backwoods Bastard and Great Lakes Christmas Ale).

By reputation and ratings one would expect Edmund Fitzgerald to be neck and neck with Founders Porter, but in our competition Founders finished comfortably ahead.  However, this result does duplicate my pick from the Ohio vs. Michigan blind tasting back in November.   Here it could be a question of what flavors you prefer.  There is no doubt that Edmund Fitzgerald has more hops and less dominant roasted malt flavors than Founders Porter.  I guess we prefer the Founders approach but I could see where others might like the drier Edmund Fitzgerald better.

Porters Empty Bottles

Well that’s it.  As always we’d love to hear your thoughts on the best porter’s out there.

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5 Responses to American Robust Porters – A blind taste test

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