I am not a fan of the pastry stout. When the chill starts to settle in, and we’ve moved past our Oktoberfest lagers, fresh-hopped harvest IPAs, and Halloween-adjacent pumpkin ales, I want dark beer. But the syrupy, dessert-flavored, high-ABV stouts that brewers are throwing in whiskey barrels and aging for months on end are not the dark beers I gravitate toward, now or ever. These are beers for a sweet-toothed maximalist, which I am not. The dark beer that I crave is lighter, simpler, and to be honest, a little out of fashion. When I want a dark beer, I want a robust porter.
I’m sure that a regular porter is nothing new to you. You’ve probably consumed a porter in your lifetime, and you might even be familiar with its history, originally brewed by the British in the 1600s and different from a stout in the fact that most of its grain bill comes from malted barley, in opposition to a stout’s unmalted, roasted barley. But there’s more to the style than just a single category.
Porters come in three baseline varieties. To start, there’a a classic brown porter. This is the baseline porter, a porter that you could simply call a porter. It’s the lowest in ABV and the mildest in flavor of the porters. Then there’s the Baltic porter, which exists on the other side of the spectrum. Baltic porters are higher in alcohol (usually hovering around 8% ABV), thicker in body, and possess much more sweetness to balance out a roasted malt flavor. This style of porter is essentially what you’d get if you crossed a brown porter with a Russian imperial stout and added a dash of barleywine.
And then there’s the third—and best, in my opinion—style of porter: The robust porter. Look at that! We’re back to where we started this whole thing. It’s all making sense now! The robust porter is a more modern addition to the wide world of porters, which became known to Americans in the early 1970s.
The robust porter’s flavor is a breath of fresh air when it comes to dark beer—cleaner, lighter, and brighter than most dark beers. Robust porters exist between the brown porter and the Baltic porter when it comes to weight and flavor. These ales lean toward they hoppier side, with a bright bitterness that keeps those dark malts from pulling you under. The typical ABV sits around 6%, slightly higher than a brown porter and slightly lower than a Baltic porter. And the malt build of a robust porter features backbones of caramel and roasted malt flavors without letting them take over the beer completely.
But the most valuable thing about a robust porter is its ability to express flavor without wearing down your palate. Robust porters don’t tire out your taste buds or stomach like an imperial stout, and they bring more flavor to the table than what you’d find in an ESB or brown porter. Each sip offers something new, without ever exhausting your interest in going back for more.
So which robust porters are worth your time? A great question. The breweries I’m about to mention are not the new kids on the block. These are breweries that have been brewing for a while, and that makes sense, since the robust porter isn’t the trendiest of styles. If you want a pure, shining example of everything a robust porter can be, seek out Smuttynose Brewing’s Robust Porter, Anchor Brewing Company’s Porter, or Founders Brewing Company’s Porter. These three beers have been around for over 15 years, and they strike the perfect balance of malt sweetness and hop bitterness, with just enough going on to keep you returning for sip after sip. For the record, Smuttynose is my favorite of the three, but you’ll most likely find one of the three in my fridge at any given time between the months of October and March.
If you’re looking for something a little newer to the scene, Rhode Island’s Foolproof Brewing Company makes a tasty robust porter called Raincloud Porter, and Pennsylvania’s Vault Brewing Company’s Robust Porter is a go-to when I’m in the area. And while robust porter isn’t the most in-demand brew, plenty of young breweries are working them into their seasonal rotations.
And it’s certainly in my seasonal rotation. In the second half of fall, as the the pastry stouts get forced upon me from bartenders jacked up on lactose, chile peppers, and bourbon barrels loaded with cocoa nibs, you’ll find me politely declining. I’ve got robust porter on the mind.