Porters and Stouts, what's the difference?

Porters and Stouts

These days lots is written and debated about the differences between porters and stouts. Are stouts drier than porters? Are Porters darker than stouts? Are stouts British and Porters from other countries? These and other questions can be answered if we look at how porter came about and at how the words porter and stout were used back in the 18th and 19th century.  

Three threads

Beer writer and historian Martyn Cornell talks about the types of beer most commonly found at the beginning of the 18th century: mild beer, stale beer, amber beer and ale. Stronger versions of these beers were sold as 'stout' beers (stout stale, stout mild, stout amber, etc.).  Around that time, it was rather common among beer drinkers to order a blend of two beers consisting of stale beer (aged or matured not off) and mild beer . Other drinkers would order a blend called 'three threads' which consisted of 'common ale and stout or double beer'. Many people assume that London brewers decided to create a beer that contained the flavours of these popular blends. Many beer bloggers argue that brewers intended to recreate the stale flavours of beer and on doing so invented a beer which became the tipple of choice among porters in London. Martyn Cornell has carried out extensive research on the topic and his findings on the origins of porter beer debunk this myth. In his website Zythophile, Martyn Cornell argues that it was brewers of brown beer who adapted it to the competitive environment around them. The popularity of 'twopenny' (pale ale) beer due to its flavour and low price was something that worried brewers of brown beer. Not only that, wholesalers were buying 'mild beer' (freshly brewed) and were storing it in barrels. They were selling the beer as 'stale beer' (aged and matured) to alehouses and brewers of stale beer were being left with lots of unsold stale beer. Brown beer brewers decided to innovate and become more competitive. They added extra hops to their beers and prolonged their storage time. This resulted in a beer full of flavour which was mellow on the palate and that sold at a very competitive price. Newspaper and book records from 1762, 1764 and 1768 referred to brown beer by its newly acquired nickname: porter. This name was given to the renewed brown beer given its popularity among the working classes in London, specially among porters. The porter beer brewed around this time was strong even for today's standards with average strengths of 7% Abv. Some specially brewed porters were being sent to the Baltic states (today's Finland, Latvia and Estonia) these Baltic porters were even darker in colour, higher in alcoholic strength and fuller bodied. The beer was brewed darker on purpose to hide cloudiness while brown malts and bitterer flavours concealed imperfections deriving from the brewing process. The need for ageing beer to give it the desired mellow flavour drove brewers to store it in larger and larger casks. Brewers were always trying to outdo each other by building larger and larger wooden maturation vats. So large were the maturation vats that tragedies occurred when they burst. In 1814, a vast maturation tank at the Horseshoe Brewery in Central London burst. The wave of porter inflicted heavy damages to the brewery, destroyed a line of adjacent houses and killed 8 people.

Stout

Taxation and consumer preferences shaped the way brewers produced and promoted porter beers of different strengths through the years. Some breweries produced a stronger porter and they called it 'stout porter', porters weren't the only beers to be called stout. In fact, all beers could be called stout as long as they were strong. Since the early 1720's, the terms 'stout' and 'porter' were being used interchangeably and arbitrarily by brewers and consumers according to various beer writers and and historians like Martyn Cornell. According to this latter author, porters and stouts were almost indistinguishable by the early 19th century. In his brilliant website zytophile he quotes an article from The Times newspaper from 1803. There, a court case referring to the crime of 'sucking the monkey' mentions how an attorney sued a carrier whose name is recorded as being: Ottadfield. The attorney was trying to recover the price of a 36 gallon cask of  '...porter, of superior quality called Brown Stout... '. The attorney had bought the cask as a present for his mother who lived in Barnsley, Yorkshire. By the time the cask arrived, it was empty as someone somewhere along the road had drilled a hole into it and had decanted all of the contents. During the proceedings, the 'liquid' in the cask was described as 'remarkably fine old porter and very strong' and as 'an excellent brown stout'. The attorney was awarded damages, court expenses and related costs. Almost 30 years after these events, both terms were still being used interchangeably. There was however, a tendency to call 'top quality porters' stouts. Martyn Cornell cites the lease terms of a property being used as a brewery in Bricklane (East London) as an example of such terminology. The lease was renewed for 61 years at a price of '£1500 per annum plus four kilderkins (barrels) of the best beer or porter called stout'. From the above we can conclude that a stout was a stronger porter beer at least in the late 19th century. As some records show, from the very early 18th century 'stout' was a descriptive name given to strong beers regardless of their style. Eventually stout simply meant to consumers strong porter and by the early 20th century, when porters and stouts were declining in popularity, some people even referred to porters as a 'sub-style' of stout. So, what is nowadays the difference between porters and stouts? Some breweries call their beers porters and others call it stout, that's it it seems.
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