The Dark Side: Stouts, Porters and Dark Ales

Written by
Ben Knight
February 16, 2017
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As the craft beer trade booms, the styles of beer we have access to are exploding. We see beers with more hops, Bloody Mary, coffee, chilli and doughnuts; there is seemingly no end to the variation of beers available.

But if we look back almost 400 years to a period when simplicity was at the core of the craft, dark beers were commonplace. It was around this time when the word Stout was first used, and shortly after came Porter. Dark ales, drawing their colour from the roasted malts, were the choice of the day. Let’s go full circle and head back to the dark side to taste this antique flavour that never gets old. ‘Tis the season for dark beers!

Let’s get down to basics first and cover the difference between Stouts and Porters. At the risk of sending beer enthusiasts into a frothing fit, the difference can be indistinguishable. Perhaps, and please be kind, it could be fair to say the styles follow a similar path of production with Stout being arguably the heavier beer.

The king of stouts for this scribe is Coopers Extra Stout. Its dark, smoky chocolate character is rarely challenged. It hides its bitterness behind such an array of flavours that you’d hardly know it was there. I’d argue that this isn’t a sessional beer (one that you throw back casually or by the pool table for many hours), due to its intensity and higher alcohol making it pretty heavy-going. It is so delicious, however, that it is difficult to put down. If you’d like to try your hand at another stout, 4 Pines from New South Wales also offer coffee and chocolate-flavoured goodness. The key to good stout is that there should be a pleasing bitterness that makes your mouth water. This element makes the beer more refreshing and tones down the heaviness that can be present with such flavoursome brews.

If you’d like to test the theory of Porter versus Stout, and bear in mind the test should really involve more than a sample size of two, James Squire make a Jack of Spades Porter. The name Porter is said to have derived from the heavy-set portly people that drank this old style of beer.  Before modern brewing was commonplace, dark beers were the norm as malts were toasted over fires creating the deeper flavours and darker appearance. The newer, clear bright beers are positively sanitised in comparison, albeit refreshing and crisp in an entirely different way.

To really dive deeper into big, American malt-focussed beer, drinkers should look for the amazing Imperial Stouts and Porters coming out of the country. Currently it's hard to find a finer example than Ballast Point - Victory at Sea. A 10% imperial porter with the addition of cold-brewed coffee, this is a fine example of the skill that US brewers presently command even when wielding big flavours.

If the topic is unfamiliar to you and the discussion around dark beers is making you feel weighed down, the idea of a ‘cleanser’ not being fulfilled, then begin by dipping your toe into the dark beer pool with a White Rabbit Dark Ale. I promise it’s not that scary. It has the palate weight not dissimilar to a pale ale, and is far more refreshing and crisp than the beers we’ve discussed. It is the perfect way to move slowly up the ladder of dark beers, porters and stouts.

While these beers are not solely for the colder month, they do work well as the temperature drops and the food grows more comforting. It makes a nice change to the mid-winter glass of red.