The Taste Test: Blind Tasting 24 Minnesota Porters

A selection of the porters submitted for The Growler Magazine's blind taste test // Photo by Aaron Job

A selection of the porters submitted for The Growler Magazine’s blind taste test // Photo by Aaron Job

This black beer in my glass, is it a porter or a stout? What’s the difference, really? In my opinion a beer is one or the other mainly because the brewer says it is. With the exception of certain easily identifiable modern styles like Irish Stout, the sensory differentiations are fluid. The lines that separate the two are blurry.

 If you go back far enough in time, they were all porters. In 18th century England, “stout” simply meant “strong.” There were stout pales, stout browns and stout porters. By the 1950s, porter had gone out of style in England. It became “your grandfather’s beer”—shunned by youthful drinkers. Brewers sought to distance themselves from the unpopular style. It was then that stout became a somewhat generic term for beers that are black.

 Porter was revived as a style in the 1980s by American microbrewers seeking to recreate the beers of England. And so, through both historical emulation and modern innovation, we have arrived at the multitude of porter and stout styles recognized today.

 The styles have been named and described, so differentiate we must. In general terms, stouts lean more heavily on roasted malts—showcasing the bitter, burnt, coffee, and dark chocolate flavors of black malts. In porters the roasted malt expression is more subtle. Sweeter caramel, toffee, nutty, and biscuit notes are allowed to come through. But of course there are always exceptions to these rules.

The Tasting

On October 3, a group of BJCP beer judges and Certified Cicerones gathered at the offices of The Growler to put Minnesota-made porters to the test. A total of 24 entries were tasted blind over two rounds, and judged against the Beer Judge Certification Program style guidelines—those used for homebrew competitions and generally accepted as the authoritative descriptions of classic styles. 

The beers were assigned to one of two categories, American porter and English porter, as identified by the brewers themselves. In the first round, three groups of three judges each assessed eight beers. The best beers from each flight were passed on to a best-of-show round. These beers were ranked by a panel of three highly experienced judges. 

This process is not without potential pitfalls. Judging against a set of guidelines can eliminate good beers because they don’t quite fit the parameters. In this tasting, a few porters had non-traditional ingredients like vanilla or coconut, and the flavor was obvious enough that the beers were judged to be out of style. In a couple of instances, though, the ingredient was subtle enough to be deemed stylistically appropriate. 

Additionally, the guidelines are subject to interpretation. “Pronounced” hop flavor and aroma may mean something different to each judge. There is also a tendency in blind judging to reward boldness over subtlety. And because every beer was not tasted by every judge, it’s possible that differences in experience level and style familiarity between the panels could have skewed the results. 

Nonetheless, the combination of blind tasting, multiple flights, multiple judges per flight, and the requirement that judges’ scores fall within a narrow range, does provide a reasonable assurance of an objective outcome.

The Styles

In general, porters are medium to medium-plus bodied with a roasty—but not burnt—character full of nutty, chocolate, and caramel notes. They’re usually built on standard 2-row pale malt but receive their color and body from dark specialty malts like chocolate or black patent.

English-style porters—or just “porters” as they’re called across the pond—are usually softer and a little sweeter than their American cousins (though they’re still heavier than a British brown ale or English mild). American porters are a little more burly and aggressive—they tend to have more pronounced hop bitterness and alcohol than English examples. The roasted character in American porter might be sharper, but it should never turn the corner into acrid or ashy.

The Takeaways

The sheer number of entries to this tasting was surprising. I recall just a few short years ago trying to generate a list of breweries that made a regularly available porter or stout. The list was short. That 24 porters were submitted suggests a stunning growth in the local popularity of dark beers. 

We were also pleased with the overall quality of the samples. When The Growler did a similar assessment of IPAs two years ago, there were a significant number of problematic beers. These porters fared much better. None of the judging sheets indicated beers with significant flaws. All of the beers scored within a narrow and fairly high range. Lower scores were primarily due to deliberate flavors that didn’t conform to the style guidelines. All eight beers in the best-of-show round were of high quality—it was tough to determine a winner.

Also surprising was the number of beers submitted by breweries unknown to many on the judging panel. Growth in the industry continues apace, especially in areas outside of the immediate Twin Cities Metro. Many of the porters came from breweries that only recently opened or have been operating mostly under the radar in small towns scattered across the state. It’s encouraging to see these new, small brewers making quality beer. 

Beers submitted for judging (in alphabetical order):

10K Coconut Moose Nuts
AEGIR All Fathers Porter
Alloy Pewter Porter
Angry Inch Papa’s Secret Stash
Angry Inch White Rabbit
Bent Paddle Black Ale
BoomTown Porter
Burning Brothers Black Pepper Porter
ENKI Cacao Porter
HeadFlyer Vanilla Bean Porter
Indeed Stir Crazy
Insight Devil’s Companion
Invictus Henley’s Porter
Jack Pine Trespass Imperial Porter
Lift Bridge Barrel Aged Gray Duck Baltic Porter
Modist Once Was Once
Saint Paul’s Flat Earth Cygnus X-1
Summit Great Northern Porter
Surly Porter
Three Twenty Happy Wife Porter
Urban Growler De-Lovely Porter
Venn London Porter
Waconia Porter
Wild Mind Buy In Bulk

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Continue to see the results and Best of Show

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Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint About Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

Michael has a passion for beer. He is Minnesota's first Certified Cicerone (think sommelier for beer) with the Cicerone Certification Program, and a National Beer Judge with the Beer Judge Certification Program. In addition, Michael is himself an award-winning brewer. He writes a monthly column on beer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.