Where have all the porters gone?

Last week, a guest at my bar asked, “Do you have a good porter on tap?

Not many standard Porters are available in bottles these days.
Not many standard Porters are available in bottles these days.

After a moment of reflection, I had to inform him that not only did I not have one on tap, but I only had one porter on the bottle list. This left me wondering, where have all the porters gone?

I spent some time searching the Internet for porters later that evening. Plenty of examples are available infused with coffee, maple, vanilla beans, chocolate and even coconut.

Many of them, like Fiddlehead (Shelburne, VT) “Hodad” and Funky Buddha (Florida) bourbon barrel-aged “Snowed In,” are truly exceptional beers. But there seems to be a dearth of standard, unflavored porters in the market.

Beer styles come in and out of vogue as our collective tastes change. IPA has ruled the roost for sometime now, with non-hoppy styles taking turns around the edges of the limelight. Black IPA had a moment, but that faded into non-hoppy dark beers. With that change, I thought porter —  medium-light bodied and roasty/toasty, but not overly bitter —  would have been well positioned to take over.

I took a stroll through a local beer shop and only turned up two standard American-brewed porters. There had to be more out there, right? I drove across town to a larger beer shop, and only found three more examples. Five unflavored porters in the sea of over a thousand brews to choose from…whoa.

When beer styles fall out of vogue, breweries slowly stop brewing them. Some stalwart brewers who focus on tradition and not trends can be counted on to keep a style alive in the dark times. I’m not sure exactly what lead to porter’s paltry representation in the market, but maybe the style isn’t deemed “sexy enough” by brewers still caught in the clutches of the “extreme beer” movement.

A good porter is a special thing, but a subtle thing. “Spiced” porters, if you will, can be stunning, but nothing quite touches an expertly brewed standard porter. They’re light bodied enough to handle warm, sunny fall afternoons, but roasty enough to warm us up as the sun sets and the frost starts to form.

Below are my tasting notes from the five porters that I found at local beer shops. There are two exceptional Vermont-brewed examples that weren’t available to taste which I would also recommend: Hill Farmstead (Greensboro, VT) “Everett” and Queen City (Burlington, VT) “Yorkshire Porter.”

Smuttynose (New Hampshire) Robust Porter:  The nose offers a faint roastiness, like a cup of medium roast coffee with a touch of cream. The palate is medium-light bodied like an Americano. All about coffee notes here.

Foolproof (Rhode Island) Raincloud Robust Porter: Tthis one offers up milk chocolate aromas. Medium bodied with flavors of chocolate and dried fruits like raisins and figs.

Mayflower (Massachusetts) Porter: The earthiest of the bunch with malty aromas and notes of hay, roasted barley on the light bodied palate. Definitely in the English brewing tradition.

Left Hand (Colorado) Black Jack Porter: The lightest bodied porter in this tasting, Black Jack borders on brown ale territory. Flavors of roasted barley, a touch of leather and a hint of coffee.

Founders (Michigan) Porter: Here’s the darkest and richest one in the group. It’s almost into stout territory but stays in the medium bodied category. Lots of coffee and dark chocolate  —  dark and brooding.

This column ran in the Burlington Free Press on 10/30/15 under the same title.

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One thought on “Where have all the porters gone?

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head. The taste of drinkers overall has changed or maybe evolved. When I first started drinking craft beer my taste tended to lean towards dark beers . Stouts and porters were it for me. Brewers started infusing and specializing their beers and I lost interest. Then I moved to Ambers and Bitters and IPA’s. There is a trend now changing classic beers as we know them. With the addition of juices and liqueurs beer drinkers tastes are changing. Especially the new beer drinker coming of age who don’t have the appreciation of what a beer is supposed to taste like.
    With shelf space and tank space at a premium brewers only have so much time and space to devote to cater to drinkers tastes.

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