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A glass of stout and a glass of porter on a wooden floor

What is the Difference Between Stout and Porter? A Brewer’s Guide

If you’re not a brewer, beer nerd or someone who pays close attention to seemingly tiny details, you might not know that there are differences between a stout and a porter. If you poured a pint of each side by side, you’d have difficulty picking out what makes them dissimilar. On appearance, they look remarkably similar. Even when you take a sip, the differences aren’t immediately apparent. It’s not like trying a stout and an IPA side by side. So, what exactly is the difference between a stout and a porter?

According to Dereck Hales, brewing expert and co-founder of Bad Shepherd Brewing Co., the two beers, while similar in appearance and initial taste, vary greatly in their production process. The result has a tendency to linger on your tongue.

“Porters are usually dark brown and are brewed with more brown malts that impart chocolatey and dark malt/toast-like flavours,” he explains. “Whilst stouts are brewed with roasted barley to create much darker and roastier flavour reminiscent of coffee and bittersweet dark chocolate.”

Importantly, both beer styles go back a long way and their intrinsic links have been evident throughout history. Before there were stouts, there were porters. The stout porter was a very widely imbibed beer in England in the 1600s and beyond.

The name “stout” was originally added to the beginning of a beer (namely a porter) to let drinkers know that it was richer in flavour and higher in alcohol content. At some point near the turn of the 20th century, the stout porter simply became the stout and the porter became another beer style.

Dark stout beer in a pint glass
What is a stout | Image: Brent Hofacker

What is a stout?

The first thing you notice when a stout is poured into a pint glass is the colour. It’s usually very dark to pitch black in appearance. This warm-fermented ale is also known for its roasted malt, coffee, and dark chocolate-forward flavour profile. This is thanks to the use of roasted barley in the brewing process (among other ingredients).

“Stouts can traditionally have a higher level of bitterness but modern styles can vary a lot so it’s not always the case,” Hales explains.

English and Irish stouts are known for having very little hop presence but a dry, bitter finish. American brewers have been known to add more hops into their recipes, adding a slight floral element to the dark, roasted, bitter flavour profile. Not surprisingly, by far the most popular stout in the world is Guinness. This dry Irish stout is known for its mix of coffee, chocolate, and caramel and gently dry, bitter finish. What’s not to love?

“Irish Foreign Extra Stout (Guinness for the most part, but Coopers Best Extra Stout fits in here) would be the most common, but there are plenty of others, including Oatmeal Stouts and Sweet Stouts, that are fairly common in the UK,” Hales tells us. “We brew an Oatmeal Stout that has won four gold medals at the Australian International Beer Awards and it’s probably the most fun beer to brew. We toast 75kg of oats one tray at a time in our brewpub oven before brewing the beer to impart an ANZAC biscuit-like flavour and it makes it taste amazing!”

Different Types of Stouts:

As Hales explains, stouts are “roasty with coffee notes, possibly light ash and dark chocolate”, giving them a complex flavour profile that is rich on the palate. With that in mind, we’ve outlined the main stout styles every beer lover needs to know.

Dry Irish Stout beer in a pint glass with grey background
Dry Irish Stout | Image: Guinness

Dry Irish Stout

Guinness is one of the most popular beers in the world. It also happens to be a dry Irish stout. The style is known for its use of unmalted roasted barley. Dark brown or pitch black in appearance, it’s known for its chocolate, roasted barley, coffee flavours, and bitter, very dry finish. On top of that, dry Irish stouts are usually lower in alcohol content than many other stouts, making them very sessionable.

Imperial Stout beer in a tulip glass with grey background
Imperial Stout | Image: Wyeast Lab

Imperial Stout

The name is a reference to the bold, rich, higher-ABV stouts made for the Court of Catherine the Great in the 1700s. Sometimes referred to as Russian imperial stouts, this style is known to be potent with an ABV of 8% and above. They’re known for their dark, almost black appearance and mix of sweetness and bitterness with flavours like freshly brewed coffee, roasted barley, chocolate, and dried fruits.

Barrel-Aged Stout beer in a tulip pint glass with grey background
Barrel-Aged Stout | Image: Lakefront Brewery

Barrel-Aged Stout

One of the most popular contemporary stout styles, the barrel-aged stout’s genesis can be traced back to the 1990s when then Goose Island head brewer Greg Hall met Jim Beam’s Booker Noe at a beer and bourbon pairing dinner. The legendary distiller offered to give Hall some barrels to age his beer. Bourbon County Stout was born. In the decades since, brewers all over the world have matured stouts in ex-bourbon, whiskey, rum, and other barrels.

Coffee Stout beer in a tulip glass with grey background
Coffee Stout | Image: BeerCo

Coffee Stout

One of the more popular styles in recent years, this stout is exactly like the name would have you believe. It’s a stout that gets added flavour from the addition of freshly brewed coffee or espresso. The coffee flavour intermingles with the chocolate, caramel, and barley already found in a stout.

Oyster Stout beer in a tulip pint glass with grey background
Oyster Stout | Image: Marston’s Brewery

Oyster Stout

It might not make sense to you, but this style makes sense to brewers and all the drinkers who enjoy it. This is because oyster stouts don’t just have a unique name. They’re brewed with oyster shells. The addition of the mollusc shells adds a mineral, briny quality to the already chocolate, coffee, and roasted barley-centric beer style.

Oatmeal Stout beer in a Nonic pint glass with grey background
Oatmeal Stout | Image: BeerCo

Oatmeal Stout

First brewed in the 1800s, the oatmeal stout gets its name because it’s brewed with as much as 20% oats. Adding oats to the roasted barley-centered recipe adds sweetness and creaminess to the stout. The style itself is well known for its mix of roasted malts and oat sweetness. It’s a very well-balanced beer that has stood the test of time.

Milk Stout beer in a tulip pint glass with grey background
Milk Stout | Image: Left Hand Brewing Co.

Milk Stout

As the name suggests, a milk stout is brewed with milk sugar or lactose. The addition of milk not only adds to the overall sweetness level, but it makes the stout creamy and velvety. The lactose sweetness pairs well with the other flavours of roasted barley, chocolate, and coffee. Many milk stouts also have a kick of hops at the finish as well.

Tulip pint glass with porter beer standing on a pub counter near draft taps
What is a Porter | Image: Kirill Z

What is a Porter?

Like stouts, porters have their history in 18th century London. Named for the workers known for moving and carrying luggage at hotels and on railroads, the beer is known for its dark, sometimes pitch-black appearance. They are most often brewed with top-fermenting yeast and are beloved for their flavour palate featuring notes of caramel, chocolate, coffee, and roasted malts.

According to beer expert Hales, when it comes to finding a good porter, you should start first with the appearance before assessing the flavour. Any porter that is worth its salt should leave you with a slightly bitter finish, making it decidedly richer in flavour.

“A good porter will have a fullness of body and deep rich chocolatey flavour and a lightly bitter finish,” Hales tells us. “It should be dark brown in colour with a dense lightly tan head. And it should have a slightly lower carbonation – not so low that it tastes flat but also not so heavy that it’s like drinking a soda. Oh – and you should look for a couch, fireplace and dark, wet, rainy, winter night to go along if you can.”

Different Types of Porters:

As Hales reveals, porters are “basically chocolate, toasty and malty”, making them an interesting if not acquired taste. There are a vast number of porter styles to indulge in and naturally, growth in the craft brewing industry will likely swell this further. Here are the porter styles you need to know.

English Porter beer in a tulip pint glass with grey background
English Porter | Image: Bader Beer & Wine Supply

English Porter

The most common contemporary porter style, the English porter is often made with Pale malt (and other malts) and Fuggle hops. The result is a dark brown-coloured beer with gently roasted barley, coffee, caramel, and dried fruit flavours. It’s very light and thin and ends with a gentle hint of hop bitterness.

American Porter beer in a tulip pint glass with grey background
American Porter | Image: Beer Sapiens

American Porter

As Americans like to do, US brewers took the English porter and made it darker, added ABV, and more hops. This creates a sweet, malty, bitter, hoppy porter with a ton of fruit flavour as well as roasted malts, toffee, and bitter dark chocolate.

Baltic Porter beer in a tulip glass with grey background
Baltic Porter | Image: Wyeast Lab

Baltic Porter

The Baltic porter is a cold-fermented, cold-lager version of the style brewed with lager yeast. It’s known for its smooth, velvety mouthfeel and high alcohol content. On top of the usually roasted barley, chocolate, and coffee flavours, Baltic porters are well-known for their fruity, bold flavours as well.

Smoke Porter beer in a goblet glass with grey background
Smoke Porter | Image: Craft City

Smoke Porter

As the name suggests, smoke porters are brewed with wood-smoked malt. This creates a smoky, robust porter with notes of coffee, chocolate, caramel, fruity, and bitter hops. It’s definitely the kind of beer you’ll enjoy sipping as you sit around a campfire on an unseasonably cool evening.

Imperial Porter beer in a tulip glass with grey background
Imperial Porter | Image: Adroit Theory Brewing

Imperial Porter

Like the imperial stout, imperial porters are bigger in everything. They have more pronounced chocolate, toffee, dried fruit, and coffee flavours than the original porter. On top of that, these bold bangers are typically in the 8-12% ABV range.

Similarities and Differences

At first glance (and even first taste), you might have a difficult time differentiating between stouts and porters if you’re imbibing them side by side. This is because both are dark beers that are brewed with barley. And while the malting and roasting of the barley are different for each beer style, they do carry many of the same aromas and flavours. We’re talking about chocolate, caramel, and roasted barley.

Historically speaking, their main differences lie in geography. Porters have their history in London, England, while stouts are most commonly associated with Ireland. If you want to get into general specifics, porters are often lighter in body while stouts are heavier.

If you want to get into ingredients, porters are most often made with malted barley. This gives them a sweeter, lighter flavour profile. Stouts, on the other hand, are made with unmalted roasted barley. This is why stouts are drier, more bitter, and have more roasted barley aromas and flavours.