Make Your Best Robust Porter

You grow as a brewer, and as you do, you sometimes end up pushing yourself into more complex, technically challenging, obscure beer styles. It’s natural. It’s also a great idea, though, to occasionally double back to what can be described as more “beginner” styles, and when you do, you might be shocked at how much better they are this time around. One of my favorites is the robust porter (sometimes called an American porter, though for reasons I’ll get into later, that’s a bit of a misnomer for this version of it), for a very simple reason: this is a beer that can showcase almost any set of flavors you want. Brew one up now, and it’ll be perfect for your winter social events!

Style

Porter is one of the oldest styles, referring to dark ales made with brown malt, originally in London and around England. The name refers to its reported popularity among porters or bearers who worked the docks, rivers, and streets of England at the time as manual laborers and haulers. After a day like that, who wouldn’t want a rich, roasty, hoppy beer?

Porters and stouts bear a number of similarities and came of age in the same era, to the extent that many dispute whether there is even a demonstrable, consistent difference. One commonly touted difference is that stouts tend to make use of unmalted roasted barley, whereas porters rely on black patent—for practical purposes, though, you don’t need to know the difference…if there even is one. (But if you really want to explore the difference, see Ron Pattinson’s “What’s the Difference Between Porter and Stout?”

All you need to know is that this is a beer that should feature substance. Rich character from its grist, a bite from black patent malt, significant bittering and flavor hops, and even a touch of alcohol warmth. Not every example fits this bill, but I (obviously) believe that the best do.

Ingredients

There’s a lot going into the grist here, so you’ll want to apologize in advance to your local homebrew shop! 

  • Start with about 10 lb (4.5 kg) of Maris Otter
  • 2 lb (907 kg) Munich malt—you want about 50 gravity points from the base malts.
  • Then add 1 lb (454 g) of Fawcett Crystal 45, 1 lb (454 g) of pale chocolate malt, and ½ lb (227 g) of black patent malt. 
  • If you want to really ramp up the richness, you might also consider a couple of ounces of melanoidin malt.
  • To recommend (though it’s optional) is ½ lb (227 g) of flaked barley to promote head retention and a creamy mouthfeel.

You want an aggressive hopping regimen that’s fairly evenly balanced across the bittering, flavor, and aroma additions. 

  • Use a tri-blend of hops: blend 1 oz (28 g) each of East Kent Goldings, Styrian Goldings, and Fuggles, and add in equal parts at 60 minutes, 10 minutes, and flame out, reserving about ¼ oz (7 g) of the blend for later
  • This should give you plenty of bitterness (about 40 IBUs, assuming all three are in the neighborhood of 5 percent AA) and an earthy, spicy hops character than meshes perfectly with the rich-but-sharp malt flavors.

And for yeast, use Wyeast 1318 (London Ale III). I’ve extolled its virtues before, but to review, it provides some great fruity esters when fermented at the right temperature, and though Wyeast cautions that it finishes “slightly sweet,” I’ve never had that issue, especially in a beer with a healthy roasty bite and medium bittering.

If, like me, you’re working with slightly hard water, you might also consider ¼ tsp of baking soda to round off the dark malt flavors.

Process

Mash at your center-line, everyday temperature (152°F/67°C, for me). We’re not shooting for a particularly fermentable (or unfermentable) wort, and while this is expected to be a rich beer, it shouldn’t be unduly “heavy.” Let the crystal and flaked barley do their job, and you shouldn’t have any body issues.

In terms of fermentation, you can treat this as you would any ale. Start cool, at about 64°F (18°C), to inhibit diacetyl production and prevent the production of fusel alcohols. After 72 hours or so, let the temperature rise by a few degrees (to 68°F/20°C) is good), and hold it there for the rest of fermentation.

Remember that ¼ oz (7 g) of hops blend you held back? It’s for a very, very light dry hopping after about a week in the fermentor. I find that it adds to the nose by brightening up the existing hops flavors and aroma, but it also adds a touch of fresh, resiny, grassy hops aroma. It’s enough to be noticeable but not so much that you think someone just re-labeled a black IPA. Three days of contact time should suffice.

You should be ready to go within 10 days, and then you can package and carbonate. I like a hair under two volumes of CO2 for this one, but don’t go as low as your English bitters or cask ales—this beer needs a bit of carbonation to fill it out and cut down on any perceptions of excess sweetness.

In Closing

So there we have it: a London ale brewed with English and German ingredients, with an American-sized level of hopping (and even a touch of dry hops). This beer also serves as a great base for any winter specialty or spiced beers you might be interested in making—remove the aroma hops and replace with your specialty ingredient(s) as desired.

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