By Gail Oberst and Will Oberst-Cairns
Dark, rich porters arrived on the beer scene in the early 1700s as the love child of London’s brown beer and strong ale. It was the first beer to be aged and mixed at any brewery. Before porters arrived on the scene, beers were delivered fresh to the pub, and if there was aging to be done, it was done because the patrons didn’t drink it fast enough. I lie. Sometimes, the publicans and distributors aged it on purpose.
I could talk about Harwood’s Entire Butt, and a lot of other geeky stuff (look it up!), but suffice it to say early porters weighed in at over 6 percent ABV, rather strong by historic standards. Early porters were also brewed with brown malt, but the invention of black patent malt in 1817 made it possible to brew porter with pale malts, as they still are. It was the porter that prompted the use of thermometers and hydrometers in brewing, to push the ABV. Thanks, porter!
For various reasons – I think it was because porters were growing weaker than their predecessors – the popularity of porters began to wane from the mid-1800s until the mid-1900s.
The 1970s saw a revival in the production of porters, including the Baltic porter, originally brewed with top-fermenting yeasts in the 1800s, and with lager yeasts later on.
American porters have followed both British and Baltic traditions. You may find them as lagers or ales. Oregon’s porters are no less various.
One of Oregon’s oldest porters, Black Butte, produced in 1988, is still Deschute’s flagship beer. Other Oregon porters, as you will see below, vary in strength and ingredients.
Our porter tasters included industry professionals, distributors, writers, and friends and family of Blake Crosby, who gathered at his hop farm last month to celebrate the hop harvest. Here are their favorites, chosen in a blind tasting.
McMenamins Black Widow, Oregon 7.35% ABV, 40 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Originally created at the Thompson Brewery over 20 years ago on Oct. 15, 1991, and made once per year by all Thompson Brewers to come after that, Black Widow has generous amounts of black and roast malts, Horizon hops and flavors of caramel and licorice.
Tasters’ Descriptions: Malty goodness, roasty chocolate. Sweet molasses with smoke. Ice cream with a candy aroma like an old-time hardware store.
Laurelwood Organic Tree Hugger, Portland 5.8% ABV, 45 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: This porter features a chocolate malt flavor that finishes dry and roasty. Delicate organic Newport, Cascade, and Fuggle hop flavors round out this rich, full-bodied ale. Brewed with 100% organically-grown crystal, carafa and chocolate malts.
Tasters’ Descriptions: More malty goodness. Get my cigars and tobacco pouch out. Fresh and tangy. Classic and true to style. Excellent balance.
Twisted Snout Honey Oatmeal Porker, Toledo 6.9% ABV
Brewer’s Description: A smooth, roasted chocolaty porter made with whole grain oats and wildflower honey from Queen Bee Apiaries, a honey company in Corvallis.
Tasters’ Descriptions: Roasty delicious. Fresh green tobacco leaves with cardamom. Very creamy, thick and chocolaty. Is it bourbon-barrel? It’s sweet and complex.
Rat Hole Vanilla Porter, Bend 5.5% ABV, 30 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: A mild, appealing aroma of vanilla and a soft creamy mouth feel with a chocolate finish. Madagascar vanilla beans, six malts and chocolate and flaked oats.
Tasters’ Descriptions: Mild coffee. Nice chocolate flavor with a light body. Smokey vanilla smooth with hops. Chocolate decadence. Just a hint of coffee with nice malt.
Long Brewing Paul’s Porter, Newberg 6.2% ABV
Brewer’s Description: Intensely black with a thick tan head. Layers of dark bitter-sweet chocolate, coffee and caramel aroma and flavors supported by rich complex malts. Lightly hopped.
Tasters’ Descriptions: Smooooth as molasses. Creamy. Clean. Vanilla notes.
13 Virtues Baltic Porter, Portland 8.0% ABV, 40 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: This Baltic porter is a strong black lager that was given a healthy period of cold-conditioning to achieve its crispness. Chocolate and cocoa entice the taste buds for a moment.
Tasters’ Descriptions: Crisp. Good and clean. Pretty nice. Flavorful.
Mazama Pyroclastic Porter, Corvallis 5.2% ABV, 30 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: This porter pays homage to the bean roaster of the Pacific Northwest. It combines roasty aromas with a dark cocoa finish. Brewed with Oregon hops, these balance the bitter- sweet chocolate malt.
Tasters’ Descriptions: More malty than the others. Good alcohol balance. Good bold flavor but not too heavy. Good body. Lots of chocolate. My favorite.
Oregon Beer Growler each month invites consumers to “blind” taste a different style or group of beers at various locations across the state.