Surrender to the Dark Side
Porters and stouts are polarizing. Start talking about a craft beer made in those styles and you’ll likely hear one of two responses: “Does it taste like Guinness?” or “I don’t really like dark beers.”
It’s a shame that so many beer lovers have such a narrow idea of what a stout could taste like. This is due to some stereotypes, some misconceptions, and the fact that before the craft-beer boom of the early 2000s, Guinness was the only widely available stout on the market. But darker styles are showing up more widely on shelves and tap lists in Maine, not just next to the corned beef and cabbage.
First, let’s address the toucan in the room. When poured correctly, and when it’s at its freshest, Guinness is an impeccable beer. It has a thin body that makes it easily drinkable, and the nitrogen (instead of the traditional CO2) used in its draft lines provides a yielding creaminess. The roasted flavors perfectly accent any hearty comfort food, or even a plate of oysters. But this style of stout, a Dry Irish stout, is certainly not representative of the full spectrum of dark beers brewed today.
The Beer Judge Certification Program (an organization that establishes criteria for competitions) recognizes Stouts and Porters as the two main categories of dark beer, each containing a variety of sub-styles. Stouts were traditionally considered stronger, or stouter, than porters, but that line has been blurred, and even crossed, of late. Stouts have six officially recognized sub-styles (Dry, Sweet, Oatmeal, Foreign Extra, American, and Russian Imperial) and porters have three (Brown, Robust, and Baltic).
Brewers across our state have taken on many of these styles, and arguably some of the best dark beers around are made in Maine, both because we have long winters that pair well with these varieties, and because we’re fortunate to have water that’s very suitable for brewing them.
Unfortunately for Guinness fans, there are relatively few craft stouts made in the Dry Irish style. Many brewers go straight for the bolder and heavier flavors of Imperial stouts, or use barrel-aging to impart flavors of bourbon or rum into their brews. Thankfully, Fore River Brewing Company, in South Portland, has a delicious analog to an Irish stout, dubbed John Henry. It’s an inky black, yet light-bodied milk stout with a familiar roastiness and a slight sweetness. Fore River’s tasting room often offers John Henry on nitrogen and CO2 draft lines. Try them side by side just to experiment.
If you’re not a fan of the bitter or smoky flavors found in a lot of dark beer, go for some of the slightly sweeter porters. These tend to be rich, but without the vaguely “burnt” notes that more than a few drinkers dislike. A great local example is Foundation Bedrock, a robust porter that carries flavors of dark chocolate and coffee. Its balance makes Bedrock an excellent introduction for those new to the style: it’s packed with flavor, but doesn’t feel heavy, and with an ABV of 6.7%, it’s not a booze bomb, either. Bedrock is also one of the few porters in Maine that’s available in 16 oz. cans.
Drinkers venturing into the Dark Side may also enjoy Baltic porters, which typically have plum-like flavors and a subtle sweetness. Dirigo Brewing Company’s Baltic Porter and Bunker Brewing’s Dark Wave are both stellar examples of this style, available at the breweries’ tasting rooms and elsewhere.
Though they’re often considered to be seasonal beers, the right stout or porter can be just as satisfying in the depths of winter as it is served alongside backyard barbeque. In my book, Baxter Brewing Company’s Per Diem Porter is just such a beer. Per Diem, which made my “Best of 2016” list for its can design, is one of the few dark beers included in a Maine brewery’s lineup year round. It’s on the dry side, which makes this porter crisp but still flavorful, and its light body and 5.5% ABV are such that it isn’t limited to being a sipper.
So when St. Patrick’s Day has come and gone, don’t forget about the stouts and porters. There’s a lot more on the Dark Side worth exploring.