At a family gathering at the weekend I was asked what the difference is between Porter and Stout. This is a common question, and one I’ve always answered by suggesting Porter is usually, but not always, lighter coloured, less alcoholic, and sweeter than ales labelled ‘Stout’. Having drunk Stouts that might have been Porters, and Porters that might have been Stouts, I’ve never been entirely convinced that they were actually all that different, or confident that my attempt to differentiate them really worked. A little digging turned up this 2009 piece on Martin Cornell’s excellent Zythophile blog, in which he traces the parallel histories of Porters and Stouts, showing exactly that uncertainty. Interestingly, he begins his piece by saying that this question is one of the top ten search terms leading visitors to his site:
I’m not sure that there was ever a point, even when porter was at its most debased, when you could point to any truly distinctive difference between porter and stout except to say that “stout” meant a stronger version of porter. Indeed, for much of the past 300 years, to ask “what’s the difference between porter and stout?” would have been like asking “what’s the difference between dogs and Rottweilers?”
The extract above, from the ledger of the brewer at Liverpool’s Cains brewery, on Stanhope Street in 1867, confirms that Porter was, and is, a kind of Stout. Here the brewer begins by saying that on March 2nd 1867 he brewed a “XXXX Porter” using a combination of pale, brown, and black malts, but his closing statement gives it away: this was “a good fermentation and excellent Stout”. Perhaps a brewer might like to comment on the hops used in this brew: 130lb of Hereford (1865) and 130lb of Kent (1856). That’s not a misprint: brews in this ledger often include hops a decade old, or older.
So the answer to the question seems to be that Porter is a kind of Stout, but that what makes a Porter Porter (and not Stout), is open to interpretation. Is that clear now?