Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Brown, Robust, English, American?

Once upon a time, according to the BJCP at least, there were 3 types of porter, brown, robust, and Baltic. Baltic porter is, putting on my product manager hat for a moment, out of scope for this particular conversation/project, so really I am thinking about brown and robust.

When you look at the 2008 BJCP guidelines for Porter, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the difference between brown and robust was largely based on the side of the Pond your drink came from. Listed as commercial examples of brown were:

"Fuller's London Porter, Samuel Smith Taddy Porter, Burton Bridge Burton Porter, RCH Old Slug Porter, Nethergate Old Growler Porter, Hambleton Nightmare Porter, Harvey’s Tom Paine Original Old Porter, Salopian Entire Butt English Porter, St. Peters Old-Style Porter, Shepherd Neame Original Porter, Flag Porter, Wasatch Polygamy Porter"

A predominantly English list. Over in the robust corner though was a generally American list:

"Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, Meantime London Porter, Anchor Porter, Smuttynose Robust Porter, Sierra Nevada Porter, Deschutes Black Butte Porter, Boulevard Bully! Porter, Rogue Mocha Porter, Avery New World Porter, Bell’s Porter, Great Divide Saint Bridget’s Porter"

The current guidelines basically codified the lists as being English Porter and American Porter respectively and the commercial example lists are in essence the same as in 2008.

As I mentioned in last week's post about Fuller's London Porter, I am tasting my way through a rag bag collection of this style over the next few weeks. What started out as not much more than a reason to indulge in a style I have overlooked lately has started to morph into a look at the history of beers called "porter" on this side of the Pond, though more of that when I have something of long read length to inflict on the world.

In the meantime, I am drinking that lays claim to the style's English heritage and one clearly in the American camp, both brewed in Virginia.

Elementary, yeah the name stretches along the top of the label and is thus too long for a simple picture, is a 5.8% English Porter from Harrisonburg's Brothers Craft Brewing, over the mountains in the Shenandoah Valley. Interestingly, their website describes the beer as both an English and robust, what's in a name? In my glass though it looks rather more like a glass of cola, topped with a reasonable half inch of off-white foam. Held up to the light it has very distinct chestnut brown highlights, English, brown, and with monikers. From the glass came a light coffee aroma, think your bog standard Starbucks drip coffee, hints of milk chocolate, toasted brioche, and subtle earthy hops. Upfront in the taste department are the kind of classic roasty notes you come to expect from porters, with that cola thing drifting in and out, mostly though it reminded me of a pale roast coffee with some herbacious hop notes chucked in. I will own that I was disappointed, and perhaps with the Fuller's still fresh in my memory I had expected something approaching the archetype of English porters. I found the finish to be a bit watery and on the light side of medium, it was just kind of dull.

Heading east to Williamsburg, and one of my most trusted, if not most regularly drunk, Virginian breweries. Alewerks Protocol Porter is a tad lower in alcohol than Elementary, 5.6%, and described as being both American and robust on the Alewerks website...more fun with monikers. Oh boy this is a dark, dark, dark beer, swallowing all the available light into a black hole. The ivory head is likewise subject to the gravity of the beer as it dissipates fairly quickly, leaving a mere signatory trace on the glass to remind you it was once there. It's a porter, so the roasty aroma is expected, and it is there in spades, specifically roasted coffee, more in the dark roast realm than a medium. Flitting about in the background, in turns hiding and revealing themselves, were floral and subtle citrus hop notes. Drinking this was like a French roast coffee that you could stand your spoon up in, rich and almost gloopy, but not in a stodgy, syrupy sense, think a rich dark chocolate cake with layers of espresso ganache, and you're there. This is an elegant, smooth, beer that basically demands to be drunk leisurely in an art gallery.

It is clear which of these beers I preferred, but given the remaining clutch of examples in the cellar to be enjoyed, it is too soon to say whether I have a definite preference for a certain sub-style of porter, though my internal league table is currently:

  1. Fuller's London Porter
  2. Alewerks Protocol Porter
  3. Brothers Craft Elementary
How will that change in the coming weeks? We'll see...


  1. Not that I want to piss in your porter, but I've just completed 80,000 words on the subject of porter in the US and I know I've barely dug below the surface – it's a big, big subject. So the more diggers nthe merrier, frankly - go for it! Several areas I found particularly fascinating: (1) the huge popularity of porter in Pennsylvania - they like it in New York , they were fond of it in New England generally, but porter continued to be massively popular in PA even as lager sales expanded, and PA was still the heartland of US porter brewing after Prohibition; (2) the popularity of imported porter:" not just Guinness, but Barclay Perkins, Trumans and other British Isles porter brewers were widely available in the US; (3) the popularity opf Half-and-Half - even Anheuser-Busch produced a half-and-half.

  2. Martyn, I am particularly looking into porter brewing here in Virginia, especially given the esteem that Washington held Robert Hare's porter. I also find it interesting that Jefferson specifically wants Coppinger's "The American Practical Brewer and Tanner" because it contains a process for "malting Indian corn", which Coppinger claims is "peculiarly adapted to the brewing of porter", which makes me wonder what Hemings' was actually brewing at Monticello?


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