As a curious beer drinker, it’s tough to want to do anything at GABF besides taste as many amazing beers as I can get my hands on. But the festival also offers an opportunity for conversation with brewers, other writers and the judges who taste, score and dole out medals at the awards ceremony.
This past October at GABF, our editor-in-chief, Erika Rietz, heard a bit of buzz from Dave McLean, brewmaster at Magnolia Brew Pub. He’d judged the brown porter category this year, and though he didn’t know which beers were from which breweries (judging is conducted blindly), he said that on the whole, the brown porters were awesome. Like, sit-up-and-take-notice awesome. “Huh,” we thought. “Brown porters? Really?” It’s a style that most people don’t even know is distinct from robust porters, the more commonly brewed American subset of porters. Should we be drinking more of these?
McLean would say so. “[I have] a deeper affinity for this sort of style where a brewer can really nail a sweet spot with a lot of flavor going on from the careful use of a variety of different malts that sing together harmoniously,” he told me. “When you taste a bunch of these beers in rapid succession in a structured format like that, good examples really become apparent. Even judging that second round of brown porters, they were all pretty good. By the time we got to the third round, there was a ton of good beer on the table.”
What makes brown porters different from their sibling robust porters is a few details. Most notably, the best brown porters don’t use black and dark-roasted malts that give robust porters their intense charred or ashy aroma and flavor. Brown porters can also have a bit more English character: fruity yeast-derived notes, caramel, chocolate and softer, sweeter malts.
“It’s a style that’s really about harmony and nuance. It takes an intimacy from the brewer knowing what each ingredient contributes,” McLean says. “Right now, there are a lot of styles that are under the radar underneath the world of hops and extreme beers. So I don’t see a ton of brown porters, but I’m drawn to them when I see them. It’s a really food-friendly beer which opens up a lot of doors for pairing possibilities.”
If you want to get acquainted with the style, it might take a bit of work to sort the brown porters from robust porters; many breweries simply label their beers “porters,” so it behooves drinkers to ask whether these are roasty and bitter or sweeter and more toffeelike. To get a hold on what the style should be, start with these four.
Three Creeks FivePine Chocolate Porter (GABF gold medal winner)
A pleasing fruit-and-breadcrust aroma floats above the dark mahogany pour, folding raisin scent into an interlocking base of milky Belgian chocolate (two pounds per barrel) and light peanut shells. Fantastic malt support carries through to the flavor, greeting the tongue with raisin, sweet almond through the midsip and closing with interwoven milk chocolate and brown bread. The swallow does introduce a slightly dry and bitter clip, but it’s like deep, rich chocolate rather than ashy roast. A smooth mouthfeel and easy, balanced flavors make this beer eminently drinkable.
Wachusett Black Shack Porter (GABF silver medal winner)
A sandy-colored head caps this dark pour with ruby highlights; it offers up a quiet aroma of breadcrusts, golden raisins and a thin ribbon of chocolate, like a pain au chocolat. The front of the sip introduces a blend of brown bread and a quiet pecan nuttiness before the back half delivers a punch of ash and slightly scorched malts. The smooth, just-shy-of-medium body is pleasant, if perhaps a touch thin.
Back East Brewing Porter (GABF bronze medal winner)
A lattelike head crowns the deep chocolate-colored beer, emitting scents of milk chocolate, roasted peanuts and a background note of licoricelike fennel. Flavors are much lighter on the palate than expected, though the sip isn’t bland: Milky coffee and brown bread malts arrive first before dry hazelnut shell arrives at the middle, diving into a dry, nutty finish. After the swallow, a bubble of milk chocolate cocoa lingers on the tongue. A soft, pillowy body makes the sip feel fuller than it is; this is a compact, lovely and drinkable example of the style.
Nantahala Pattons Run Porter
Under foam the color of whole grain flour, this deep chocolate-colored beer’s aroma mingles rye bread spiciness with a hard-to-place earthiness reminiscent of the inside of a pumpkin. The flavor is more spot-on: Dark kola nut softens into dark bread crust and chestnuts. A quick rise of medium roast coffee hits just before the lingering cocoa-bitter swallow. This example is clean, balanced and not too sweet or roasty.