What’s a Stout? What’s a Porter? What’s the Difference?

stout-porter-beer

Stout? Porter? Can you tell the difference?

I love Twitter, if only for its constant stream of real-time information. It’s also good to provide inspiration, like when Beer Is My Church posited these lines:

… so that got me to thinking: is there a discernible difference between a porter and stout? More important, is that something we see today?

Beauty is in the eye of the beerholder, so what makes a porter a porter or a stout a stout could simply be left up to the whimsy of the brewer (or drinker). There are set “guidelines” of course, but let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.

So, I’ve turned to some trusty beer reading materials to see just what this difference might be and how much weight this “porter vs stout” issue had. I found that there might just be something to this after all.

First, I opened my copy of the Oxford Companion to Beer in an attempt to get some historical perspective. You can actually read all about porter and the birth of stout here, but the gist is that stout emerged in England in the 1700s as a simple descriptor for a more “bold” version of any beer style, similar to how we throw around “imperial” today.

From a style standpoint of today’s beers, here’s what Oxford had to offer:

Stout

Porter

Color Opaque deep brown or black Opaque, although originally believed to be a deep shade of brown to mahogany
Smell Distinct roasted character that is often perceived as dark chocolate or coffee Predominant notes of rich chocolate as well as coffee and sometimes smokiness
Taste N/A – depends on specific style Acidic and/or dry

Very similar, but you can see where the subtle differences may arise. When you say “stout,” people may automatically associate the tar-black look of Guinness, which wouldn’t be far off from a typical representation. Say “porter,” and that black hole of beer may not come up in someone’s mind.

As for smell, according to Oxford, stouts rely more on roasted or nutty characteristics, while porter may smell more of chocolate.

To try and further understand these differences, I checked out Tasting Beer and found these descriptions:

Stout

Porter

Flavor Always roasty; may have caramel and hops too Creamy roasty-toasty malt, hoppy or not
Aroma Roasty malt; with or without hop aroma Roasty maltiness; usually little or no hop aroma
Balance Very dry to very sweet (depending on style) Malt, hops, roast in various proportions
Seasonality Year-round Year-round, great in cooler weather
SRM (Beer color – higher=darker)
Minimum of 20 to 40+ 20 to 50

Again, the difference between the two may be small. A stout is “always roasty” in flavor while a porter is a Dr. Seuss-appropriate “creamy roasty-toasty,” whatever that means. There’s a slight change in aroma here, offering the potential for hop aroma in stouts but nearly nothing for porters. Color is a wash.

Lastly, I turned to Designing Great Beers to get into the weeds of what makes these two beers great homebrews. No charts here, but definitely worthwhile differences to note.

According to Ray Daniels, the key difference with the winning porter and stout recipes from the National Homebrew Competition is – no surprise – the use of malt. The average grain bill of well-performing homebrewed porter used 80 percent pale ale malt while stout recipes used an average of 61 percent. The other big difference was the use of roasted barley, which was twice as much in stouts (8 percent) compared to use in some porters (4 percent).

Generally speaking, pale ale malt would supply a beer with more “toasty” flavors. Roasted barley, of course, would impart flavors closely associated to coffee.

That is important, because roasted grains were widely used in successful competition homebrewed stouts (90+ percent) compared to porters, where roasted grains appeared in 30 to 60 percent of “robust” porters, but not at all in brown porters.

All those numbers are to say, for homebrewers, “roasted” is to stouts as “toasty” is to porters.

So what does all this mean?

Yes, there are certainly differences between porters and stouts, but is there enough for the average beer drinker to notice … or care? Perhaps Beer Is My Church is right in suggesting the two are interchangeable. However, there is certainly enough subtle difference in the construction of each beer that a craft beer lover may pick up.

However, maybe we shouldn’t focus as much on porter vs stout as much as the differences between versions of porters against porters and stouts against stouts.

The elephant in the room is there are many different versions of stouts and porters within their own style.  For example, BJCP offers guidelines for six different styles of stout and three kinds of porters. Some may align in general principle for Average Joe Drinker (robust porter and dry stout, Baltic porter and Russian Imperial stout) and others would certainly showcase as complete opposites (brown porter and sweet stout).

Here we are again, fellow beer lovers … what’s the difference to you?

+Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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23 thoughts on “What’s a Stout? What’s a Porter? What’s the Difference?

  1. I generally think of porters as being a lighter body, smoother taste, and slightly lower alcohol content.

  2. I agree with Tom, I’ve always thought stouts were heavier and thicker, almost creamy with a dense head while porters had a more standard beer body and a fluffier head. I also associated stouts with a roastier, enjoyably burnt characteristic.

    • My first stout experience was with – naturally – Guinness. I wonder if that skewed my perception of the style.

      When I think stout, I’m in the same boat as you. That’s even in spite of the fact I know a sweet stout may be completely different.

  3. I always assumed porters were to have a lighter body and less bold flavor than stouts. Come to think of it though, it depends on who’s brewing it. Sierra Nevada makes a porter and a stout. They have comparable %ABV, but the porter starts with a lower gravity and ends with a lower gravity then their stout. Maybe there is more specialty malts in the stout, I’m not sure. It makes me want to do a side by side of these two beers and see what the main differences are!

  4. Getting all technical, I wonder if any of it has to do with mash temperatures for the different grain bills. If they are comparable, but a porter is held at a lower mash temp (say 145ish) and a stout is held at the top end (160ish) the different lengths of sugars in the final wort could yield pretty different beers.

    I’m definitely going to look into this. Maybe even do two batches using the same exact grain bill and just different mash temps.

    • That’s a great point! Here’s a line, minimally paraphrased, from Designing Great Beers about stouts:

      “The basic stout is so easy that the recipe can be written in less than 20 words: 90% pale ale malt, 10% roast barley, 1.042 gravity, 45 IBU at the start of the boil.

      This recipe, brewed with almost any water, mashed at almost any temperature, and fermented with almost any yeast, should give an enjoyable product.”

      • Sweet!

        Here’s my plan (as soon as two carboys are free):

        Brew two small batches of the exact same stout, using that recipe you just listed. Same hops and yeast too. The only difference I’ll make is the mash temp (one really high, one really low, within yeast tolerance).

        Then I’ll drink and compare both and see if it makes any difference.

        Science!

  5. Well done. This is a topic in dire need of elucidation. I had always associated stouts with roast (as well as a little richer with a denser head). But the line has been blurred. There are definitely some roasty porters out there, like Edmund Fitzgerald (which, coincidentally, uses roasted barley).

    The Haybag is reading over my shoulder and said, “Stouts are usually good, and porters usually suck.” The debate wouldn’t be complete without an outrageous comment from the Haybag.

    • I believe this is the first time I’ve received a quote via Haybag, so I can only assume I’m Big Time now. I’m going to let that go straight to me head.

      Fitzgerald didn’t cross my mind, but that is far and away my favorite porter, mostly because it doesn’t taste like a “normal” porter to me. Funny how that works out.

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  11. According to theses descriptions Guinness is more of a porter than a Stout and the Irish definitely see their Guinness as a porter!
    Great discussion

    Damo

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