It’s a fairly good bet in this day and age to say that most casual beer drinkers understand that there are two overarching categories of beer – ales and lagers – even if they can’t necessarily tell the difference between them at a glance. But those two are just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath that, there are literal dozens of sub-styles, sometimes extremely niche with the slightest variations from one to the next, other times the styles’ differences are abundantly obvious. There are two ale styles, however, that are both quite popular and still rather difficult to discern from one another – even amongst beer fanatics. We are, of course, talking about porters and stouts.
These dark brews are delicious and complex, with flavors that range across everything from campfire smoke to milk chocolate. And while they’re perhaps best enjoyed during the colder months of the year, stellar examples of each can be found year-round. The question is: how – by taste, appearance, or otherwise – can anybody be sure which of these two darker beer styles they’re drinking? Well, you can start right here, because we’ve put together the following explanation of the difference between porter and stout beers.
The History of Porters
Born of British Pubs
There’s no chicken-and-egg situation with porters and stouts. It’s just a fact that porters came first. How it came to be, however, is a greater mystery. One thing is for sure, though – the porter style of beer was undoubtedly born in England. More specifically, London. So the story goes that the term was first applied to the beer style in the 18th century and may have something to do with its popularity amongst the cargo transporters of the city’s streets and waterways (‘porters’ for short) who frequented the local bars around the city.
There are some conflicting stories on how the beer style came to be (including a popular, but unverifiable account by writer John Feltham), but the most likely explanation is that it was the natural developmental arc of English brown ales. You see, back then in London, popular beers were being made with roasted malt – the ingredient responsible for adding a darker color to beer. But a dark color alone doesn’t necessarily make a beer a porter. What differentiated porter from the other beer styles of the time was how it was aged. Again, aging alone was not a new thing for beer at this point, but back then the aging process wasn’t performed by the brewers themselves. Rather, the publicans (AKA pub owners/managers) or dealers would receive young unaged beer from the brewers and then they would age it in their own facility to prepare it for sale. Porter, however, is reportedly the first darker beer to be aged by brewers – meaning that it was ready-to-drink straight from the cask upon delivery, saving the bar proprietors some time and effort.
The flavor profile of this beer trends toward things like chocolate, nuts, and smoke, but is by no means limited just to that – as there are a wide variety of additives commonly seen in the style, including most commonly coffee, fruit, and/or spices. These beers also tend to be on the drier sides and, despite some popular belief, are not necessarily “heavier” than their golden-colored counterparts in either body or flavor. Concurrently, their color is also no indication of their ABV (alcohol by volume), as the ingredients which made a beer a porter have virtually nothing to do with alcohol content.
The History of Stouts
The Next Step
The way we know that porters came before stout beers is based on what stouts were originally called: porter-stouts or brown-stout porters. You see, designating something as “stout” originally just meant “bigger” or “stronger” and had no direct tie to any specific beer style. So, when porter-stouts were originally created, they were named such for the fact that they were stronger versions of the average porter. In fact, that wasn’t the only term used to describe a stronger porter – they were also referred to as “extra porter” or “double porter” – but the porter-stout moniker prevailed in regards to popularity and, eventually, standardization. Over time, the name became shortened to just “stout,” dropping the “porter” altogether.
This change can actually be seen in the history of what is inarguably the most popular stout beer of all time, Guinness. Originally, Guinness was marketed not as a stout, but as a porter – dating as far back as 1778. It wasn’t until the 1840s that Guinness swapped out the “porter” and replaced it with, simply, “stout.” There are also a few stories which tie the stout style to Ireland in the same manner that porters are tied to England, which makes sense when considering the history of the inexorably-Irish Guinness brand and is probably true, but concrete evidence is hard to come by.
A Problem for Publicans
Traditionally, it was at least somewhat possible to tell the difference between a porter and a stout. Stouts were often stronger and blacker, whereas porters had a lesser ABV and a more brownish color. But, with the explosion of craft beer over the last decade or so, those differences have gone the way of the dodo. That is, to say, there isn’t really a difference anymore outside of individually named beer. Two brewers could literally make two beers with the exact same ingredients and one might call it a porter and the other a stout.
And it isn’t just ingredients, either. Porters can now run the whole gamut of alcohol content and still be considered porters – usually with the term “imperial” tacked onto the front if they’re on the higher end of the spectrum. Same goes for stouts. Some experts still suggest that porters tend to be lighter in color and are often nuttier while stouts lean toward smoky and chocolate flavors, but you could go into any craft beer retailer and find beers to suggest the exact opposite. Common porter styles include (but are not limited to) imperial, coffee, baltic, smoked, toasted, etc. Common stout styles include milk, dry or Irish, oatmeal, chocolate, and oyster. But, again, they could technically swing both ways. So what is the difference? Well – at least in this case, it’s all in the name.
Best Beers According To Brewers
If you want a little more of an inside scoop on the craft beer scene, check out our article on the best beers according to the brewers that make them.