I'm not convinced that porters get enough respect. They're often passed over at the bar by the hop heads and the sour crowd. They're not as sought-after as many higher-octane American stouts or their Russian imperial cousins. They're not as trendy as black IPAs. But why?
Porters are complex and roasty, filled with chocolate and coffee flavors, yet most still manage to be sessionable. They're damn-near perfect when it's cold outside, and you'd be hard pressed to find a better beer with a meal. Along with Saisons and smoked beers, porter is my pairing go-to. It's not a timid style, so you'll want to put something substantial on your plate. Barbecue, roast meats, sharp and stinky cheeses, stews, dark chocolate...big, hearty flavors go great with American porters' richness and intensity. Porter is also a terrific foil for oysters.
To flesh out my case, I picked eight of my favorite American porters. Do yourself a favor and let them warm up a bit to release their spectrum of flavors and aromas.
Hill Farmstead Brewery Everett
Every once in a while, a keg of Shaun Hill's beer shows up here in NYC. Most people talk about the hoppy ones or his farmhouse ales, but his robust porter is a stunner as well. Everett (7.5% ABV), which is named after Shaun's great uncle, has an intense aromas of roasted grain and chocolate syrup complemented by faint orange, a bit of alcohol and smoke. Rich chocolate lead to an intricate mix of deeper roast flavors, sweet caramel malt, coffee, and burnt sugar. Citrus hops emerge midway, adding to the complexity. The medium body is super smooth, making this beer go down easy despite the higher ABV.
Deschutes Brewery Black Butte Porter
Black Butte (5.2% ABV) smells like baker's chocolate and blackberries with a bit of roasted grain. The first drink opens with a citrus hop bite that's followed by smooth chocolate, burnt sugar and a little sweet vanilla. It's silky on the tongue with bitter cocoa in the finish.
Stone Brewing Co. Smoked Porter
Despite Stone's reputation for "arrogance" in their beers, their smoked porter (5.9% ABV) is all about subtlety. Peat-smoked malt creates a relatively clean and leathery aroma that evolves and expands as the beer warms. Rich malt flavors incorporate caramel, hazelnut, chocolate and a mild roastiness, along with notes of earth and spice from the hops. This is a complex beer, but there's harmony among its elements. It would be terrific with an English cheddar.
Founders Brewing Co. Porter
Founders' porter (6.5% ABV) has pungent aromas of cacao nibs and roasted grain with some caramel underneath. These elements carry over into the flavor, joined by nutty and bready malts. It's a dry, smooth sip that ends with a jab of hops and bitter chocolate. It packs more hop bitterness than most of the others here. This is by far my favorite of their year-round beers.
Great Lakes Brewing Co. Edmund Fitzgerald Porter
The award-winning Edmund Fitzgerald (5.8% ABV) is slightly more on the sweet side. The smell of toffee and mocha lead the roast in the aroma. Woody hops and coffee play against a sweet malty base before ending with a roasty malt bitterness, earth and tobacco. This porter is smooth and full-bodied. Delicious on it's own, it'd also be a strong companion during the dessert course or, on the savory side, roasted meat.
Captain Lawrence Brewing Co. Smoke from the Oak - Wine Barrel
And now for something completely different: This wine barrel-aged imperial smoked porter's dark red fruit character sets it well apart from the others. This was the 2010 version, which spent a year in French oak wine barrels getting awesome prior to bottling day. Along the way, it picked up a dominating red wine character that provides tart, tang and an ample measure of acidity. The barrel character provides a brilliant counterpoint to the base beer's aroma of milk chocolate, roast and wood smoke. There's toffee there too. The taste is vinous and ends with a blast of raspberry. This is barbecue and fatty meats' best friend.
Smuttynose Brewing Co. Robust Porter
Smuttynose's Robust Porter (5.7% ABV) has a slightly dusty malt character lying beneath its roast, which is accompanied by citrus hops and chocolate aromas. Its flavor is milky, with grapefruit and slightly burnt chocolate malt. The body is full and creamy and ends with a firm bitterness and a lingering dry roast.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Porter
Aromas of mocha and earth turn nutty as the Sierra's porter (5.6% ABV) warms in the glass. The taste begins with a roasty twang from the chocolate malt. Bright herbal and woody hops flavors shine through, giving a distinctly West Coast character. This porter is on the lean side of medium-bodied (but by no means thin) and finishes dry.
So that's my list. What are your favorite porters?
Hill Farmstead, Deschutes, Stone, and Great Lakes were provided as samples for review.