Porters have been around in the beer industry for a while now, debuting around three centuries ago. Since its debut, the beer’s distinctive style has won over many fans. However, not everyone knows how porters differ from lagers, the commonest beer style today. This article addresses that, starting with this quick answer.
Primarily, lagers and porters are different in their fermentation style. Lagers are brewed using the bottom-fermentation technique, while porters are brewed using the top-fermentation technique. Aside from their brewing process, porters generally have a darker appearance and fruitier flavor than lager beers.
The quick answer gives an overview of both beers and how they compare to each other; however, it does not tell the full story. Here, we will look into the origin of both beer styles, beer properties, brewing process, ingredients, and popular examples. Keep reading!
Lagers were first made in Bavaria, Germany, in the 1420s. Before then, ales were the only style of beer produced. The yeast strain used in fermentation is what informs the decision of whether a beer is an ale or a lager. Ales are brewed using top-fermenting yeast, which was the dominant yeast strain long after beers were first fermented.
That changed, though, when a new yeast strain was developed in the early 1400s. The discovery of the new yeast strain was actually accidental. Brewers were trying to brew ale, and they, of course, had to use top-fermenting yeast. However, another yeast strain made its way into the fermentation tank and combined with the top-fermenting yeast. The other yeast strain is bottom-fermenting yeast, which is used to brew all lagers.
Meanwhile, Porter was born in England in the early 1700s, with historians suggesting 1722 as the year porters were first brewed. This beer style is an ale, meaning it involves using top-fermenting yeast. The beer was developed from well-hopped beers made from brown malt.
The man credited for the porter beer style is Ralph Harwood, a London brewmaster. He brewed fresh, hoppy ales with stale and strong beer to make the porter beer. He originally termed his brew Entire, later known as Three Threads. The name porters came into being because beer became hugely popular among English river, market, and street porters.
While porters soon became popular around England, their production was not as widespread as other beers. This is because the beer required an extended period for aging, requiring huge fermentation tanks and vats. As many pubs and bars could not afford to brew the beer style, it was almost exclusively produced by larger breweries.
By the end of the 18th century, Guinness had essentially made the beer style its specialty, further exposing the beer to the rest of the world. Today, there are different styles and porter brand examples.
While porters are highly revered in the beer industry, they have not been able to topple the chokehold lager beers have on the beer market. Nonetheless, porters are among the most popular ale styles today.
While the fundamental difference between lagers and ales is the yeast strain used, the beers are also different in several parameters, including flavor.
Ales have a unique fruity flavor because of the esters and phenols byproducts from the use of top-fermenting yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Again, ales take a shorter time to brew than lagers. This, combined with the fact that the brewing conditions of ales are more suitable to the yeast, means ales have a stronger flavor.
All of the assertions mentioned above are true regarding porters and lager beers. Porter beers have a more robust and complex flavor than lager beers. That, of course, does not mean all porters have stronger flavor profiles than lagers, considering there are several different styles and brands of lagers; however, it does mean you should expect your regular porter to be stronger in flavor than lagers.
Although there are different styles of porter beers, the style generally has a moderate bread-like and toasty malt flavor. There are hints of caramel and chocolate in the beer. Porter beers are also generally fruity, albeit mildly.
As always, the discussion about which flavor profile is better when comparing beer styles is one that will never have a definitive answer, as personal preferences are simply different. You need to taste both beer styles to form a reasonable opinion, but if you like your beer stronger in flavor, then you would likely prefer stout beers.
The mouthfeel of a beer is simply that – how it feels in the mouth. Ales are generally heavier than lagers because of their shorter brewing process and possibly brewing ingredients. As such, you can expect most porter ales to be richer and fuller than lager beers.
Another key factor that influences overall mouthfeel is the beer’s bitterness. The more bitter a beer is, the higher its beer character, which describes the “beer’s kick.” According to the Beer Judge Certification Program, porter beers have an IBU between 18 and 35, higher than most lager beers. There is no strong lingering bitter aftertaste with porters, as well as most lager beers.
However, lager beers are usually more carbonated and, therefore, more refreshing than porters. Also, lagers tend to be clean and crisp beers, properties which porters are not exactly known for.
Porters have a sweetened bread-like and toasty malt aroma. There may also be hints of caramel, chocolate, nuts, and toffee sweetness in the aroma profile of the beer. Lagers, unsurprisingly, have a wide aroma range, depending on the beer ingredients.
The primary difference between lagers and ales, including porters, is the yeast used during fermentation.
Saccharomyces pastorianus, a bottom-fermenting yeast, is used to brew lager beers at cold temperatures between 35 and 50°F. As the yeast never rises to the top of the tank, this brewing process is known as bottom fermentation.
Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a top-fermenting yeast, is used for ale fermentation at warmer temperatures between 60˚ and 70˚F. Since the yeast rises to the top during fermentation, this brewing process is known as top fermentation.
With that out of the way, it is important to note that porters were first created by brewing fresh, hoppy ales with stale beer and strong ale. The triple-threat combination gave the porter style. However, using the help of reverse engineering, brewers could determine how to produce porter beers from scratch.
While the yeast strain used in the fermentation of ales and lagers informs the classification of the beer, it is worth noting that both beers must still use yeast. Other than yeast, the beers also share three other main ingredients: malt, hops, and water. Let’s go through them.
Firstly, malted grains are important as a sugar source for the yeast strain, which allows them to produce alcohol. However, malt also determines the taste and smell of lager beers. Today, the commonest malt grain used is barley, although some brewers favor the addition of a percentage of wheat.
Between porters and lager beers, the former is typically the maltier beer. The malt used for porter fermentation is roasted malt, which plays a huge role in the resultant black color of the beer.
Another main ingredient used when brewing beers is hops. After adding malt, the overall taste of the brew is sweet because of the malt’s sugar. To balance this sweetness, brewers add hop. Aside from instilling bitterness in the beer, hops also help preserve it and contribute to its aroma.
Lager beers are renowned for their use of German noble hops: Hallertau, Saaz, Spalt, and Tettnang. However, at least 80 other hop varieties are used by brewmasters for lagers. For porters, traditional English hops are the go-to. These hops include East Kent Goldings, Fuggles, Northern Brewer, Northdown, and Willamette.
The final ingredient is water. Many brewers use water with specific mineral composition or from a certain geographical location when brewing their beer. This confers a unique flavor and aroma to the beer. And the choice of water used is totally up to the brewer.
One of the impacts of a warmer brewing condition and shorter brewing time is the higher alcohol content. This is because yeast thrives better in warmer environments and will, therefore, produce more alcohol than in colder temperatures. As ales are brewed at a warmer temperature than lagers, it is no surprise that most ales are stronger than most lagers, including porter.
According to the BJCP, porters can have an ABV between 4.5 and 14%, depending on the exact substyle. While some lagers may also have as much as 10% ABV, most are between 4 and 6%.
Another influence of the brewing technique and ingredients used in the fermentation of ales and lagers is the way the resultant beer appears. Again, you would expect ales to be darker in color than lagers. And again, porters fit into this stereotype and are lighter than most lagers.
Porters have a brown to brown to dark brown color, typically having ruby highlights. Most lagers have a medium yellow to golden color. However, some lager beers may have amber and dark colors.
Lagers generally have more clarity than ales. This is because the beer takes longer to brew, and particles in the beer would have subsided when the final brew is collected. This is not exactly the case with porters, who also have good beer clarity.
Popular Examples Of Each Beer Style
Below, we examine popular examples of both beer styles:
- Pilsner Urquell
- Coors Banquet
- Corona Extra
- Bud Light
- Stella Artois
- Sierra Nevada Brewing Company’s Porter
- Stone Smoked Porter
- Shipyard Longfellow Winter Ale
- Arcadia London Porter
- Thomas Hooker Imperial Porter