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Make way for the black ales


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Old time variations on the stout style, like milk stout, sweetened by the addition of lactose sugars, have found new life in many New World craft breweries, such as this Colorado, U.S.A., operation.

By: Stephen Beaumont


The original porters, extremely popular in London and eventually across Britain in the early 18th century, developed out of the sweet brown beers that were the staple products of any British brewer’s portfolio in the 17th century. (That they evolved from a blend of pub ales known as Three Threads is now considered to be more legend than fact.) By the late 1700’s, the dark, roasty, moderately bitter and frequently aged beer called porter had become the world’s first international beer, exported to drinkers as far away as Australia and the Americas. 


Where the original porters were often aged in massive holding tanks until they developed a drying, tangy, sometimes sour edge to them, most modern porter brewers eschew such techniques.

Porter eventually spawned a big brother: the stronger ale known at first as stout porter and, eventually, just stout. In a reversal of fortune, stout then went on to become the world-famous beer style, notably in its weaker (4% - 4.5% alcohol) and dry Irish style, whereas porter almost died off completely. The latter beer made a comeback in the late 1900’s, however, and now stands proudly, although admittedly not as famously, alongside stout.


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Family brewers Fuller’s of London were among the first British brewers to bring porter back to their portfolio of brands following a lengthy absence.

In modern usage, porter and stout are virtually interchangeable: roasty in flavour, with chocolate, coffee and sometimes anise accents. Irish style stouts will tend to be drier than others, while London style porters will generally be more overtly malty and at least slightly sweet. Another style of stout, made with a portion of oats included in their grain bill, is known as oatmeal stout and will tend towards a creamy, lightly sweet and almost porridgey character.

Other substyles include Imperial stout, strong and deeply roasty, sometimes almost oily in character, which is so named because one brand, when exported from the U.K. to Russia during the Crimean War, had the Imperial warrant bestowed upon it by the Tsar. Oyster stout, another variant, was originally filtered through a bed of crushed oyster shells but is now sometimes flavoured with real oysters and/or oyster “juice,” the liquid from the shell known as oyster liquor. And milk stout, which gained popularity in the early 1900’s, is fortified and sweetened with unfermentable lactose sugars, derived from milk.

Flavoured stouts are also popular with modern craft brewers, most frequently appearing as coffee stouts or chocolate stout, but also sometimes being flavoured with fruit or herbs and spices.


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