This past week - the one before my deadline, when Sioux Falls put on its best Pacific Northwest costume and rained on everyone’s parades for several days in a row - was as gloomy a June as any I can remember, save that one late June when I was in England, or that one early June when we drove to Idaho and had to turn back because there was an avalanche warning. June is typically the peak of summer - the time when I’d be writing about delicious yard beers and camping and summer on the back porch with a hot lawn mower and a cold beer.
This June is not one of those Junes.
So while by the time you read this it will be warmer and sunny - like June’s supposed to be - I’m going to show the few weeks who’s boss. I’m going to treat these last few weeks like what they were: an extended cool spring, perfect for those last gasps of winter darkness and tailor made for stout’s confusing cousin, the porter.
What’s the difference between porters and stouts? Ask anyone and you’ll get a different answer. Some think porters are dryer and hoppier (I am in this camp). Some think roasting is more prominent, or that they’re simply lighter. There are American stouts and porters, descendants of the English and Irish versions of the same, but even then the difference is disputed. Some cynically think the names are interchangeable depending on marketing or contest entry.
Beer Advocate says for the American porter: “Whether it is highly hopping the brew, using smoked malts, or adding coffee or chocolate to complement the burnt flavor associated with this style. Some are even barrel aged in Bourbon or whiskey barrels. The hop bitterness range is quite wide but most are balanced.” It would be convincing, except that it’s the exact thing they say about the American stout, to the word.
In other words, the terminology fails us. Let’s just drink some.
That many connect the porter with colder weather is actually too bad. Typically dryer and thinner than a stout, porters serve as one of the best summertime beers for dark beer fanatics, providing a fuller experience than the summer ales and shandies trotted out as thirst quenchers.
Look at it this way: if porters are such a cold-weather beer, why do most breweries keep their porter as a year-round selection? As if to make a point, two of my favorite porter-brewing breweries - Great Lakes Brewing and Deschutes Brewery - recently combined to celebrate a shared 25th anniversary with their Class of ‘88 collaboration Imperial Smoked Porter. Shandies be damned - this thing is rich and smoky and chocolatey and while it’s certainly not for everyone, it’s decent and worth a try.
I spent most of the time trying to figure out where Deschutes ended (looking for notes of Black Butte Porter) and Great Lakes began (searching for hints of Edmund Fitzgerald Porter), until I realized that, taken alone, I wasn’t completely confident I could tell which was which. I like porters. I like them a lot. But my porter consumption has been spaced out enough that I don’t know the subtleties of the style.
Which means it was time for a blind taste test!
I gathered the usual crew - Neighbor Amy, Wife Kerrie and Writer Myself - and set out the gauntlet: the aforementioned Deschutes Black Butte Porter and Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, along with Odell Brewing’s Cutthroat Porter and Summit’s Great Northern Porter. All four are created in the style of the American Porter (hence the exclusion of any British breweries or Boulevard’s Bully Porter.)
Summit’s porter paled in comparison to the heavy hitters, tasting astringent and thin. Summit is a good brewery that always tends to make beers that are one step from being wonderful, and this is one of those cases. Odell’s Cutthroat Porter tries to bridge the gap between porters and stouts, with its roastiness less of a feature and more of a backbone. It tastes more bitter, and it’s as thin as Summit’s porter, but it’s better in nearly every case.
The real battle came down to Great Lakes vs. Deschutes, as we thought it might, and though the Edmund Fitzgerald was my favorite - boozier and sweeter, almost to the point of tasting like an imperial porter - the room outvoted me two to one in favor of Black Butte Porter, which as Deschutes’ flagship beer is a wonderful representation of both the brewery and the style. It’s smooth and sweet with a perfect roastiness. There are probably better porters out there, but as a commercially accessible porter Black Butte Porter is the best.
Now that the fog has lifted and the rain has subsided, don’t be afraid to go off style. Seasons may dictate some decisions around beer drinking, but they don’t need to be the only factor. Save the yard beer for your post-yardwork break, and as the night cools and the firepit crackles, let a little roasted malt into your life.