So what IS the difference between porter and stout?

One of the top 10 questions people who end up at this site put into search engines such as Google is a query about how to distinguish between porter and stout, something I’ve not actually tackled head-on yet. So – what difference is there between the two beers?

Er …


Not now, anyway, not in any meaningful way. 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?”

Since the revival of porter brewing, or to be more accurate, “the revival of beers being called porter”, even the “different strength” division has vanished, with several brewers making “stouts” that are weaker than their “porters”, I don’t believe it’s at all possible to draw a line and state categorically about dark beers being brewed today: “Everything over here is a stout and everything over there is a porter.” You can’t even draw a couple of meaningful Venn diagram circles and label one stout and the other porter: in terms of strength, ingredients, flavour and appearance, modern-day stouts and porters, I suggest, with the exception of “milk stouts”, occupy effectively identical spaces.

Here’s a quick and dirty survey of 30 more or less randomly chosen porters and stouts from the 2009 Good Beer Guide, 15 of each, with their ABVs and the adjectives used to describe them:

Porters 2009




Elland 6.5% creamy liquorice chocolate roast malt
Larkins 5.2% roast bitter-sweet fruity
Oulton 5.2% fruity bitter-sweet
Cox & Holbrook 5.0% caramel roast malt very sweet
White Horse 5.0% dark red chocolate fruity berry
Wicked Hathern 4.8% ruby lightly smoked chocolately nutty
Beowolf 4.7% mint-chocolate liquorice roast fruit toffee
Berrow 4.6% ruby hops
Bartrams 4.5% ruby hops
Burton Bridge 4.5% malty roast fruit liquorice bitter
Enville 4.5% sulphurous sweet fruity
Moor 4.5% fruity roast malt slightly sweet
RCH 4.5% chocolate coffee roast dark fruits
Vale 4.3% roast rich fruitiness sweet to dry hoppy
Pilgrim 4.0% roast bitter-sweet berry fruit
Average 4.8%

Stouts 2009




Outstanding 5.5% bitter liquorice
Burton Bridge 5.0% roast malty fruity
Famous Railway Tavern 5.0% full-bodied intense roast grain sweet to dry
Keynsham 5.0% roast liquorice smoky
Wapping 5.0% bitter fruit dry
Bartrams 4.8% biscuity smoked lightly roast coffee
Beowulf 4.7% charcoal liquorice raisins
Wye Valley 4.6% smooth roast bitter
B&T 4.5% bitter coffee roast
Goachers 4.5% Irish-style
Hop Back 4.5% roast sweet malty
Titanic 4.5% tobacco smoke liquorice chocolate dry
Town House 4.5% roast chocolate toffee sweet to bitter
Big Lamp 4.4% roast malty
Woodlands 4.4% creamy roast dry
Average 4.7%

The porters, you will notice, are on average slightly stronger than the stouts, though if you take the Elland 1872 Porter out, the averages are exactly the same. Commonest adjectives used for porters: roast (60%) fruity (53%) chocolate (33%) sweet (27%) liquorice (20%) ruby (20%). Commonest adjectives used for stouts: roast (67%) liquorice (27%) bitter (27%) dry (27%) fruity (20%) smoked (20%). I’m not certain how meaningful this is – it suggests that porters (in the UK at least) have a tendency to fall on the fruity-chocolate-sweet side, stouts on the liquorice-bitter-dry side, but the differences are not that marked. A survey that chose a different 30 porters and stouts might easily have different results, and there are certainly stouts that are fruity, porters that are dry.

I suspect that when a brewer brews something today he or she calls “stout” this is simply meant to mean that it will be a dark beer, while if it is named “porter”, the beer is very probably meant to be making a nod at an idea of authenticity, a suggestion that it is true to an earlier model. However, since anyone looking for an earlier model of porter has a choice of at least six or seven different versions (roughly 1720s, 1740s, 1780s, 1820s, 1880s, 1910s and 1930s, I would suggest, with each era of porter being significantly different from its predecessor in one or more of ingredients, method of manufacture, flavour and strength), “authentic” is meaningless without being specific about which period you’re trying to be authentic to, and it certainly doesn’t tell you what sort of drink you’re going to get.

Historically, from the 1720s to the early 20th century “stout” (or to be more accurate, brown stout – it is possible to find references to “pale stout” right up to the early 1840s) was just another name for strong porter. There are plenty of references from the early 19th century showing that, for both brewers and drinkers, “strong porter” and “stout” were interchangeable terms: one of my favourites comes from a court case reported in The Times in July 1803, which revolves around the marvellously named crime of “sucking the monkey”.

An attorney called Johnson was suing a carrier called Ottadfield (sic) for the price of a 36-gallon cask “of porter, of superior quality, called Brown Stout”, which he had bought as a present for his mother and had paid to have delivered to her in Barnsley by wagon. The cask arrived safely but on the way north “an accident happened to it, which now and then took place, namely the sucking the monkey.” Someone had inserted a straw or tube into the cask through a hole bored into it with a gimlet and sucked out all the rich and doubtless deliciously alcoholic contents. All that arrived in Barnsley was what The Times called the “caput mortuum”, the empty cask. The beer was described in court as “remarkably fine old porter and very strong” and “excellent brown stout”. Johnson was awarded £5 2s 2d damages for the loss of the porter and the cost of the cask, the carriage and the booking.

Three decades later, in 1831, “stout” still mean “top quality porter”: when the partners at Truman’s brewery in Brick Lane, on the eastern edge of London, one of the three or four biggest porter brewers in Britain (and thus the world) renewed their lease on the premises for 61 years at £1,500 per annum and four kilderkins of “the Best Beer or Porter called Stout”.

As Ron Pattinson has pointed out, notably here, early 19th century brown stouts very often had identical recipes to the same brewer’s porter, differing only in the amount of wort drawn off a given quantity of malt: less water was used for mashing stouts, so that they would be stronger.

Ron has also put together a survey of stout and porter gravities showing that in the 19th century the average beer described as porter had a gravity of a little less than 1058, while stouts were on average about 1078. In the second half of the 19th century, recipes for stout and porter start to diverge: I’m indebted once again to “Statto” Pattinson for the figures: as his tables here and here show, as the strength of the black beer grew, generally speaking London brewers in the later 19th century dropped the proportion of black (or roast) malt and increased the proportion of brown malt, while final gravities in the stronger beers climbed. If I’m interpreting this correctly, the stronger stouts would thus have tended to be less roasty and rather sweeter than the porters – particularly if they were sold “mild”, that is, unaged.

My suspicion is that this was the start of a long move towards English brewers producing sweeter stouts, which was definitely in progress by the 1880s, and which culminated in the arrival of “milk” stout, containing some unfermentable lactose sugars, in the 1900s. In 1883 the Brewer’s Journal made several references to sweet-tasting stouts brewed with a considerable quantity of non-malt saccharine. “one-fifth or even larger proportions of Egyptian sugar… This stout …tastes extremely sweet.” The move to sweet stouts, the Journal said, was “rendered necessary, perhaps, by a desire for rapid turn-over and a changeable public taste.”

These sweet stouts had to be sold quickly, however, or secondary fermentation would destroy their sweetness, The arrival of milk stout around 1908, which would stay sweet without any danger of further fermentation, probably hastened the end of production of the slightly older types of sweet stout. made from 20 per cent and more sugar. (Though as Ron P has shown [thanks again, Big Man], sugar usage rose during the First World War.)

There is no evidence that I’ve been able to find from the literature, however, of any major difference developing between the standard, drier porters and stouts, except that stouts continued to be stronger, Recipes were changing, though: the Journal wrote in February 1890 that brown malt was now

“no longer used by the majority of brewers in the production of black beers to anything like the original extent … [original, here, meaning 20 or 30 years earlier rather than the 1720s] … the brown malt of the present day neither corresponds in physical appearance or value to the “blown” material that was manufactured with the greatest possible care fifteen or twenty years ago. In fact crystal and candied forms of coloured malt have latterly been taking the place of the brown, while dextrinous forms of caramelized sugar are now frequently used …”

By now porter was losing ground to mild as Britain’s (though not Ireland’s) favourite drink, a process hastened by the tax rises and restrictions of the First World War. After the war the strength of stout had dropped to the same level as pre-war porter, around 1055 OG, while porter was down to 1038 or so. As porter sales declined even more, one publication, written in 1934, could say; “Porter is a variety of stout”, and similarly TEB Clarke’s book What’s Yours in 1938 called porter “a lowly brand of draught stout”. In the public’s eye, the roles had been turned upside down, and stout was now the generic, porter merely a sub-type. Soon after, British brewers stopped brewing porter, so that Maurice Gorham in 1949 called it “obsolete … though its name survives on the beer pulls of some unmodernised houses. It was originally to stout as X is to XX [that is, as ordinary mild was to best mild]”

There we are, then – a chase down the centuries, during which we’ve been unable to find any real difference between porter and stout except that stout was originally stronger, something which, as was demonstrated way up there at the top of this post, is now no longer true. Hope that answers your question, Google queryist …

86 thoughts on “So what IS the difference between porter and stout?

  1. Nice post! They’re not gonna like it on Wikipedia though. Oh well I expect we can live with that.

    Keep up the good work. Fascinating stuff.

  2. You’ve described very well the dynamic nature of beer styles. And how imprecise and unhelpful adjectives like “authentic”, “original” and “traditional” are. Something that appears to have eluded the style nazis.

  3. Time for a beer-spoof version of the famous Hitler rant scene from Downfall, I think, Ron:

    “Mein Fuhrer, ze BJCP has called your Imperial Dubbel Schtout ‘not true to style’.”

    “Vot! Vot! Schweinehunder!! Anybody else who zinks Imperial Dubbel Schtout shouldn’t contain toasted erdbeeren, leave ze room immediately! Mein Gott, vot is wrong mit zeze Gottverdammt Amerikanischer Arschbanditer, who do zey zink zey are, laying down ze law like ein bunch of … bunch of … ach, vot do you call zose pipple who vant everybody to do things zere way, und march around in uniforms mit zere right hands in ze air … you know … like Sir Osvald Moseley … or zat wop prat Mussolini …”

  4. Marvelous … if only for the phrase “sucking the monkey”, which one could hope that this post has done to the continuing silliness of “true to style”…

    … although that hope might be a stout whimsy.

  5. I’ve always considered stouts to have been brewed with hops added only at the start of boiling, whilst porters are late hopped. This leads to a striking difference in character.

    1. And your documentary evidence from 18th or 19th century sources for the early hops v late hops assertion is …?

      We don’t believe nuttin’ around here without a signed affidavit from a long-dead porter brewer to confirm its veracity …

  6. Zyth, I’m talking about the difference today, I have no idea what happened before the 70’s ‘cos I weren’t around.

    My assertion is based simply on the very particular character of bitterness attained when only early copper hops are employed.

    I have no doubts there are brewers who late hop and yet title their brew a ‘stout’ though. Anyway, you know what brewers are like, they’ll call a beer anything you like so long as it encourages you to drink it so style classing is a fruitless endeavor.

    Which I suppose was the point of your point.

    I’m off for a Burton Ale.

  7. Simple – porter tastes like porter (and is one of my favourite styles), whereas stout tastes like stout (and, with a few positive exceptions, runs all the way from just-about-drinkable to totally-undrinkable).

    Interesting stuff. Apart from anything else, it helps explain my puzzlement over Titanic Iron Curtain, which despite being black as pitch (and 6%) tastes very like a porter. Perhaps this is less surprising than I thought.

    1. Yes, but what to you tastes like a porter (or what you think a porter ought to taste like) might well taste to someone else like a stout (or what they think a stout ought to taste like). Thjere are no rules which say “porters must have this, which stouts must not have; and stouts must have this, which porters must not have.”

    1. No, no, the comments/descriptions.adjectives are from the Good Beer Guide – I didn’t drink them all myslf … sadly …

  8. Absolutely – that was the point I was trying to make about the Titanic stout. Trouble is, now I’ll have to find new words to describe the “porter-y” stouts I like and the “stouty” porters that I don’t!

  9. At last two people, Ron and Zyth that is, who right about beer with a genuine sense of historicity. I shall spend tomorrow looking for a genuine post war IPA or maybe a West Riding Light Ale. They still sell Toby Light in Huddersfield, sometimes out of Toby Jug fonts. Then again I may drink that bottle of SSS that I have reserved in the celler of the Grove.

  10. Gee, a big article on stout and not a single mention of the world’s largest brewer of stout — Guinness? I’m kinda thinking the little company on the island next door had something to do with redefining the style for the rest of the world.

    1. Well, you’d be kinda thinking wrong, mate. And it wasn’t an article on stout, it was an article on the difference between porter and stout, to which Guinness is not that relevant,

      1. No, actually, you’re wrong, mate.

        First, an article on a difference between porter and stout IS, by definition about stout — as is further evidenced by the 49 references to “stout” in the article. (Of course it’s about stout.)

        Second, the article — in an attempt to give a historical perspective on the evolution of stout — fails to mention even once the world’s singularly most important producer/ developer/brewer of stout — Guinness. My point is that it’s omission is conspicuous in its absence.

        Third, to dismiss Guinness as “noty that relevant” to the discussion of porter and / or stout calls into question the validity of the entire article.

        But hey, it’s your blog and you can write as you see fit, mate.

        1. If Guinness was relevant to the discussion, I would have mentioned it. It wasn’t. I didn’t. Not every discussion about stout has to nod to St James’s Gate.

          1. Actually, failing to acknowledge, or even mention, Guinness’ contributions to the style — in an article purportedly about the history and evolution of stout — renders your entire article irrelevant. And what is today’s biggest-selling brand of stout on your island? But oh, well. It was an almost interesting article about the stouts brewed on that other island.

    2. ” Guinness…I’m kinda thinking the little company on the island next door had something to do with redefining the style for the rest of the world.” ~Zamboni Driver
      Interesting point (and I appreciate that this is an entirely different discussion) but is it not the case that porter was effectively forced upon Ireland by taxation laws that favoured London breweries and eventually changed the taste of Irish drinkers from their traditional tipples to porter, a taste which remained consistent in the emerald isle after British tastes had changed… so although I’m not offering an opinion on whether Guinness should or should not be included in this article, the idea that ignoring Guinness is some sort of slight on Ireland is an odd concept. I may be misinterpreting your post, but if you’re looking for a slight (not that you have to look far in history to have a beef with the English (or the Scottish) if you’re from Ireland, then you may as well go back to the start and take offence at the imposition of an English taste in beer (porter) upon Ireland.

      1. Well, the reason the brewers of Ireland turned to making porter was certainly because of competition from English porter brewers who had a more favourable tax regime, but the taste for porter wasn’t “forced” upon the Irish, they leapt upon it with glee: Irish drinkers wanted porter, and Irish brewers complained that they couldn’t brew a competitive product because of English brewers’ tax advantages.

  11. I recognize a Porter as a Porter and a Stout as a Stout when I am forewarned by the label; however, I doubt I could catogorize them correctly in a blind setting. It seems to me in general that Stouts are more burnt and chocolate, and Porters are hoppier and more bisquity.

  12. I don’t know about porter since none of the local pubs have it on draft, but the stout is propelled by nitrogen rather than carbon dioxide gas from the tap.

  13. I think the intent of the article is sound, but…the differences in the two styles has almost nothing to do with alcohol strength. Back in the day, porters were simply blended beers, typically pale ales blended with stouts. Today, porters are typically brewed with black (patent) malt as the dark grain of choice (at least in the case of robust porters), with the more “English style” brown porters using a significant amount of chocolate and/or brown malt. Stouts are typically distinguished by using roasted barley as the dark malt of choice.

    1. That’s is what I always thought, roasted barley tips it into the stout camp. I find that porter lacks that roasted bitterness that is to the fore of a stout, not that lacking it is a bad thing. I tend to favour porters but may not be able to pick them out in a blind test! lol Good article.

  14. Oh, for Gambrinus’s sake – look, what is the title of this piece? Go on, scroll up to the top and have a look. It says: “What is the difference between porter and stout?” Not “The history of stout”. It is NOT an article about the history and evolution of stout, it is an article about the difference between stout and porter. If it WERE an article about the history of stout, Guinness would be relevant. It isn’t. It’s another subject. If you have some interesting information involving Guinness that is relevant to a discussion about the difference between porter and stout, please contribute it. If not, troll off and sit under your bridge waiting for another goat to pass by.

  15. By and large the difference between stouts and Porters today has to do with the dark grain schedule. I draw the distinction between a robust porter and any stout is (generally) the use of Black patent in a porter and roasted barley in a stout. However, the only porter that can even be considered close to many stouts is the robust porter. You’re forgetting brown porter – which is more akin to Southern English Brown ale than to Stout in my estimation. Also, the magic that is Baltic porter which is, unlike most all stouts, a lager (most of the time). So there.

    1. Mmmm – you’re looking at this through the spectacles of the BJCP, I fear. In the UK, such terms as “robust porter” and “brown porter” are meaningless. Roast barley is a comparatively new ingredient (since it was illegal in the UK until 1880) and Guinness, for example, never started using it, as far as I can discover, until around 1930. In addition, I’d be prepared to bet that when Guinness DID start using roast barley, it went into both its stout and its porter – and Guinness has certainly used patent black malt in its porters AND stouts since the 1820s. So historically, to say roast barley is a differentiator between porternand stout is wrong. If the BJCP wants to declare otherwise, thast’s up to them …

      1. Guinness’s Porter and Stout grists were practically identical. In the early days patent malt in both, later in the 20th century roasted barley in both.

        The BJCP guidelines for Porter and Stout will be radically overhauled at some point. There are plenty in the organisation who know how wrong they currently are.

    2. Brown Porter like Southern Brown Ale? Well both are made-up styles, that’s for sure.

      The Porters and Brown Ales brewed in London in the 20th century were totally different. Different grists, different mashing schedules, different colour, different hopping regime, different gravity. Next you’ll be trying to say that Porter mutated into Dark Mild.

      And Baltic Porters are really Stouts anyway, if you’re going to split hairs. Take a look at the labels of many of the Danish examples: they say Stowt or Stout as well as Porter.

      All this proves is how dangerous inaccurate information is. Once it’s escaped the lab, it’s nigh on impossible to hunt down and destroy.

      1. I don’t think you’re allowed to mention Guinness on this blog. But good on the grists used in both its stout and porter, Ron. I wonder if it was a cost savings issue in the grain bill that prompted them two switch. (Oops, talking about Guinness again …)

  16. Folks,

    as a stude years ago I built up a collection of olde pint glasses from charity shops/car boots and jumble sales. Wifey won’t allow them in the house now ( taking up too much room),so they are now boxed and preserved to be given as gifts to friends and family.
    I know they are oldish , as most are G-R,( pre 1952) but I don’t understand the printed number, beneath the G-R, or it’s significance e.g 478. Can someone emlighten me please?

    peace and love John

    1. The number refers to the manufacturer, or, more specifically, the local authority that certified that the glasses had the capacity they claimed … if you have the number, you can usually find out where the glass was made.

  17. Thanks for this very informative article. I learned a lot. I am brewing a chocolate porter for my wife as a birthday present and we recently had a debate about whether it should be a chocolate stout or a porter. I guess the discussion was irrelevant.

    We settled on calling it a porter. Thanks again.


  18. Let’s bottom line this, shall we?
    The reason Zythophile and Patto are right is this –
    Go and buy 10 bottles of any Stouts and Porters you like. Pour them out into identical glasses and get all your friends to taste them blindfold. Then have a discussion as to which are Porters and which are Stouts………
    Get my point?

  19. Being that “Stout Porters” were marketed as “bigger” Porters and eventually dropped the “Porter” designation, Stouts are still Porters to me. Besides, you have to remember the bottom line, the breweries continuously “marketed” their beers to sell! They were affected by taxation and consumer trends and had to adjust to market conditions to survive. Just my two cents on the matter. Maybe we should call them Black or Brown Beers! Marty, can you opine about the origination of the word Porter, I’ve heard the age old story wondering if THAT was a myth. TIA!

  20. […] Originally Posted by osagedr Best source I know of to answer questions like this is the BJCP style guidelines. Take a look at categories 12 and 13. IIRC stout (aka "porter extra stout") began as a style of porter (I might have read that on Wikipedia once upon a time). I laughed out loud when I read that recommendation. That's the worst place to go for clarification on Porter and Stout This is a much better place to look: […]

  21. According to chemist and brewing author Terry Foster, authentic English Porter has very little to no roasted malts in the grist. Authentic English Porter derives all of its bitterness for the hops. His book on Porter contains several recipes, and he did acknowledge there are several interpetations of this style. Since 1992 (the year Foster published the book) there has been an explosion in sub-styles of Porter. I do agree that in modern times there is no difference between the 2. And in the 18 years I’ve homebrewed I’ve only drank on commerical variety (from the now closed Mishawak Brewpub) which did not contain any roasted malts. American styled Porter, as well as most coming from the UK are no different from Stout. Which is too bad. A truly authentic English Porter properly brewed and stored is a thing of beauty. An English Porter is both complex and rich; bitter and malty with a smooth finish. Not that I have anything against Stouts. My fav is Guiness Foreign Export. But the merging of stouts and porters I believe is a brewing sin (just as it is a sin to merge Bavarian Helles with Pils).

    I know this is a late post to a dead thread. But I had to give my 2 cents worth for whatever its worth.

    1. JP, there is no such thing as “authentic English Porter”. There are a number of different porter recipes, each of which can be described as authentic for their time. And if you look at how porter and stout are made by brewers today, it’s clear that wile in the past stout was “strong porter”, today there is no meaningful difference between the two styles.

  22. Since there there seems to be much overlapping in how Porters & Stouts are made, I seem to seperate the two by the three distinct differences: color, taste and nitrogen. So many beers destinguish themselves by color (red ales, brown ales, black ales, pale ales, etc)–a black pilsner is indeed rare. Stouts, generally, appear black/darker to me. I’ve often said, even before tasting an beer, “That looks more like a Stout” or, “That looks like it should be called a Porter”. Similarly, after the first sip I’ve said, “That tastes more creamy like a Stout” or “more hoppy like Porter” afterwhich I try to understand what the brewer was doing & why they are calling it as they did. Lastly, I’ve only experienced nitrogen added to Stouts. So that seems like an easy one.

    Even after all that, we live in a time where we love mashups and to create/find things that are ouside the brew box. (If we didn’t we would just be happy w the mass produced crap!) These are just the way I had been seperating the two in my experience.

  23. When I’m in the pub, I exept either name. But If I brew my own, with traditional ale methods, I call it Porter. Mainly because the term Stout will now always draw comparisons with 20th century Guinness/Murphys/Beamish, and so expectancy of nitrogen texture.

  24. What a great post! I have always had a problem with the BJCP use of “robust” and “brown” Porter and have tried to convince my North American friends of its inaccuracy, now I can just tell them about this site (as well as Ron’s) I have also tried to claim that in a blind tasting (non Nitro) many craft stouts and Porters are indistinguishable.
    I may have posteed this question on Ron’s site but I think it has been answered here

    Where Baltic Porters-if they were called that in Britain at the time, (i.e. strong porters exported to Russia/Baltic ports) the same as Imperial Stouts?

    I’m guessing the terms can be interchangeable….

  25. Hey,

    I came across your post from an AHA column. Very interesting.

    I think defining modern porter and stout historically isn’t really representing what we have today. They have common origins and they have diverged. Today, I think the difference is the focus of the beer. Stouts are roast-dominated beers with a supporting maltiness, and porters are malty beers with a strong roast character in balance with the rest of the maltiness. If you want to read a really long rendition of it towards brewers, you can check it out here

    1. If the home brewing competition fraternity want to decree that this roast/not roast distinction is how they’re going to differentiate between porters and stouts, it’s their game and they can make the rules. The serious problem arises when people try to make those home-brew competition rules apply to commercial beers, because they don’t work in the commercial world, and they don’t work, in large part, because they’re ahistorical.

  26. Great article. As others have said, the distinction between Porter and Stout to me is that Porter is sweeter and richer, with Stout being dryer, and more ‘burnt’. One of the first cask porters I drank was Timothy Taylor’s which is rich, sweet and hoppy, and could never be mistaken for a Stout, but only 3.8% alcohol.

      1. I didn’t know that. Maybe that just adds to the debate then, and maybe many ‘porters’ are in fact Sweet Stouts?

        1. I think there are three main points here. Firstly, brewers and retailers originally applied the names ‘porter’ and ‘stout’ to, essentially, the same style of beer. Secondly, brewers currently apply the names ‘porter’ and ‘stout’ to different variants on the same style of beer without much definitional rhyme or reason, and with no real consistency. Thirdly, while enthusiasts may now try and tidy all this up by coming up with hard-and-fast definitions of “porter” and “stout”, their definitions will always be unhistorical and ultimately rather arbitrary, because of point 1 – and they’re also likely to be rather divorced from beer-drinker reality, because of point 2.

  27. I really can’t add anything relevant to the discussion except to say that if a 2-year old article is still being discussed/debated, well… beautifully written Mr. Cornell.

  28. […] 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. […]

  29. What I see in tasting the 350 or so Stouts and Porters my reps drag in every year is that they’re named more for marketing purposes than stylistic accuracy, an idea which has become murky, at best. “Pecan Porter” is more musical than “Pecan Stout” in the same sense that “Imperial Russian Stout” sounds better than “Imperial Russian Porter” and has a far more memorable acronym. In writng about them, I’ve pretty much stopped drawing distinctions. They’re more properly tossed into the grab-bag bin as “Dark Beers” than relying on the names to say anything accurate about what’s in the bottle.

      1. Indeed, irrelevant. I think what Mits is getting at, or in part, is that Baltic Porter is typically bottom-fermented today. But of course that is juts a regional variation – and not limited to the Baltic countries – and one without historical significance in that all porter and stout, including the ones sent to the Baltic from London in the heyday of the style (note the singular), were top-fermented.

        Interesting how the debate lingers even though the history to anyone who takes even a cursory glance is so clear.

        I would put it this way: porter is the genus and always was. Stout was a sub-genus, meaning only, a strong variety of porter. The term brown stout probably predates that of porter pace the stout porter theory of origin. There was a pale stout as we all know. Sp brown stout was simply the strong beer version of porter, the evolving black/dark brown beer style. Materials had nothing to do with it and were all over the map (over time) for both styles.

        Even in the 1800’s though, many brewers were satisfied to call their strong porter “porter” and some still do, hence Imperial Porter on some U.S. beer labels.

        Ron and Martyn – and Rod – have shown that current examples of black beer cannot be distinguished based on a stylistic difference. There may be a vestigial one based on strength but I doubt even that. Guinness Stout today was originally called Guinness Porter, or at least in certain times it was in the 1800’s and 1900’s.

        The long hand of Michael Jackson lays on the enduring distinction in the mind of so many because he felt Guinness’s use of roasted barley and flaked barley denoted a dry style of black beer. It did, but in a purely contemporary sense and also this was not consistent since e.g. in Canada at the time we had commercial porters and stouts (so-named) which I’d imagine must have used the same brewing approach, or tasted like they did. Surely Yuengling Porter for example wasn’t all malt and still probably isn’t.

        Thus, sweeter beer that may well have been all-malt was something he thought was more in the porter vein. Understandable for his time and the knowledge available, since I wonder if he knew that before the 1930’s Guinness had never used a particle of raw grain in its beer, it was all-malt until then. (1930’s or early 70’s have been suggested for the change, not sure it’s been pinned down 100% as yet).

        There is a slow shedding of the carapace placed on the issue (IMO) by the great Jackson, of whose admirers I stand in the very front row, but it does not correction and this ongoing discussion will I hope contribute to a final turning around of the ship.


        1. Apologies, over-fast typing, sorry for the typos but probably I only need clarify the last one: I meant of course that the issue does still need correction.

          Thanks Martyn and it’s a sign of the significance of your posting that it still raises discussion in the comments.


  30. Having read all of the above, I think there has been too much emphasis on definition by ingredients or process, at the expense of a more humble generic notion of the etymology of the words.

    We know that “stout” was a word traditionally used to mean strong – hence why historically you had “brown stout” and “pale stout’ etc, as these were just the brewers’ ways of describing/marketing the strongest tasting versions of their ranges of various ales.

    “Porter” beer, I think, originated separately as a term by brewers because, being of somewhat higher alcohol content to the same brewer’s regular ale meant it could travel a bit farther (i.e. be more easily “ported”, for the same reason that “export” beers are stronger – higher alcohol generally extends the shelf life of live beer, traditionally allowing a beer more time to be transported and sold farther afield.

    There was thus never any bible as to what ingredients defined a stout as opposed to a porter, they were merely descriptors of strength and portability. Of course, both were typically darker and stronger than other ales and, before porters fell out of fashion, “stout porter” or “porter stout” was just meant to describe a brewer’s strongest portable beer, and stouts were thus generally stronger than porters. Maybe so-called “stouts” and faster shipping times played a role in the eventual demise of original so-called “porters”?

    I think now that the term “porter” is making a come-back alongside “stouts”, people are maybe forgetting the etymology of both terms? Or does anyone else have a different notion of the etymology of “porter” that might shed more light on the subject?

    1. The two big problems with your theory are that (1) there isn’t the slightest atom of evidence for it – none. Whatsoever – and (2) there is plenty of evidence from writers in the 18th century that porter was called porter because porters drank it. The name is nothing to do with “portability”. And in any case, porter was not “of somewhat higher alcohol content to the same brewer’s regular ale”, regular ale – as brewed in the 18th century – was stronger than porter.

      1. There is some evidence for it because:

        a) you yourself quote a report of a fine porter being “very strong”. One can infer that porters were not weaker than regular ales. Of course, beers could be strong or weak – I’m not making an absolute claim, just proposing a notion of how some brewers may have ended up applying relative descriptors that subsequently caught on.

        b) You quote porters as having a gravity in the 1050s. This seems slightly stronger than average traditional regular ales. Remember, many common-or-garden locally produced ales back then would have no written evidence today – so you cannot definitively proclaim that 18th century regular ales were stronger than porters. However, one can infer from reading 18th century literature that ales could often be very weak (or perhaps sold watered down).

        c) The suggestion that Porter was so named for being popular with porters is itself based on the simplistic guesswork of some writers coming after-the-fact and is certainly not a cast-iron explanation. Perhaps that backward, half-understood link was made because they drank some of the porter they ported and the writers didn’t know it was already called porter. Who knows? – you don’t, so no need to be “holier-than-thou” in your response.

        d) As you yourself demonstrate above, there appears to be no evidence whatsoever for the opposite approach – i.e. a definitive, absolute difference between porters and stouts based on ingredients or process. So I was just trying to be helpful in proposing a more etymological approach, for which, if you read a lot of 18th and early 19th century literature, you can at least infer some possible suggestion of the linkages I’ve made.

        They are just possible inferences, nothing more, and undoubtedly unrefined – I’m just suggesting that the answer to the difference between porters and stouts may lie in how 18th century wordage was loosely applied to describe the quality of a beer rather than the modern retrospective approach of looking for differences in what went into the beer or how it was made. Ultimately, there’s no clear evidence either way, else people wouldn’t still be asking and coming up empty, would they? So there’s no need to be unfriendly. I regret finding your site.

  31. I open my mouth and pour beer in. If it’s good, and beer’s called porter, I say “good porter”. If it’s good and the beer’s called stout, I say “good stout”. If the beer is not good, I simply say “oh dear. Waste of good water”. Or if it’s particularly bad, I might say “damn, that beer tastes like pish”.

    Doesn’t matter what’s on the label. It’s the taste test which differentiates.

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