February 26, 2024

An Ode to the Porter

A love letter to a classic dark beer style
By Craig Manning | Dec. 2, 2023

As year-round beer drinkers, we have a certain level of appreciation for the beer that every season brings into rotation. The arrival of Oberon and other wheat beers in the spring; the shandies, lagers, and fresh-hopped IPAs that dominate the summertime; the string of Oktoberfest beers and pumpkin ales that hit the market in the fall.

But if we had to pick a favorite beer-drinking season, we might just lean toward winter, when dark beer finally gets its moment in the sun. (Metaphorical sun, of course; there’s no sun in a Michigan winter!)

As the temperatures drop and the first snows arrive, there’s a silver lining in knowing that a whole bevy of black ales, stouts, porters, and barrel-aged dark ales are about to take up residence on local shelves and tap lists. Traverse City’s 7 Monks even celebrates the occasion with its annual Black Friday Membership Drive, a popular event that recruits mug club members, raises funds for charity, and taps kegs of dozens of rare dark beers. Forget early morning shopping: That is how to spend the day after Thanksgiving.

In honor of the season, Northern Express is paying tribute to one of our favorite dark beer styles: the porter. Once a staple style of the craft beer world, the porter has become more of a rarity in recent years as IPAs, lagers, pilsners, and other lighter-hued beer options have gained popularity. But that relative scarcity just makes finding a perfect porter that much more satisfying, and northern Michigan has a few perfect porters to its name.

Definitions: Porter vs. Stout

Before we get to those local porters, we have to answer the question that is most commonly asked about the porter style: What exactly is the difference between a porter and a stout? It’s a fair question, even for those who have spent a fair time drinking—or brewing—both styles.

“In the modern context, I honestly do believe the differentiation between a porter and stout has basically lost all of its actual meaning,” laughs James Warren, the head brewer at Traverse City’s Workshop Brewing Company. “There are so many people in the market that are just using the terms interchangeably for marketing purposes. With that said, there is a rich history that does differentiate the beers quite well.”

Specifically, Warren is referring to the most common technical differentiation between porters and stouts, which is that porters are brewed with malted barley and stouts are brewed with unmalted roasted barley. As a result, stouts will usually be darker in color and have a roasty, coffee-like flavor to them, whereas porters are generally lighter-bodied and more “drinkable” beers that have a malty, chocolatey sweetness to them.

One thing that’s for sure is that porters came before stouts. The term “stout,” in the beer world, is actually just the shortened version of the beer’s original name, which was “stout porter.” In other words, the original stouts were just brewed to be stronger porters, with higher alcohol content, thicker mouthfeel, and more robust flavors.

According to the Beer Judge Certification Program—essentially the beer classification bible—a porter is “a substantial, malty dark beer with a complex and flavorful dark malt character,” whereas a stout is described as “fairly strong, highly roasted, bitter, hoppy (and) dark.”

Feel like you know less now than you did before? Welcome to the club!

At the end of the day, Nate Muellenberg—brewer and co-owner of Gaylord’s Snowbelt Brewing Co.—might have the simplest, least fussy, and all-around best philosophy when it comes to separating a porter from a stout.

“The line is very thin, and the styles do overlap quite a bit,” Mullenberg admits. “But for me, a porter tends to be a bit lighter and softer in flavor, whereas a stout is more robust.”

Feel like you need a beer to really grasp those definitions? We do, too. So without further ado, here are three of our favorite northern Michigan porters.

Midnight Peddler Porter | Beards Brewery (Petoskey)

The logline: “Exceptionally smooth with a pronounced chocolatey flavor and balanced sweetness.”

The origin story: Formerly known as the “Serendipity Porter,” the Midnight Peddler is one of Beards Brewery’s four year-round flagships, and has been since the brewery opened its doors in 2012. According to Emily Hengstebeck, who holds the title of “harbinger of beer” for Beards, brewery founders Ben Slocum and Peter Manthei originally brewed a porter because “that’s what ingredients they had on hand that day.” The beer turning out as good as it did gave the porter its original name of Serendipity, and while the name changed in 2022 due to trademark issues, the beer itself remains the same.

What makes it special: While dark beers tend to be something of an acquired taste among beer drinkers, everything about the Midnight Peddler is approachable. The roasted, chocolatey, creamy flavors are familiar and pleasing, with none of the heavy, overpowering, or filling attributes that dark beer agnostics often fear. Plus, the 6.2 percent ABV makes this porter innately drinkable—even if you have two or three!

But our favorite thing about Midnight Peddler might be that it’s a year-round beer. Where most local breweries tend to bring their porters out of the shed for the fall and winter months, Beards has Midnight Peddler on tap year-round. “We think there’s something inherently ‘northern Michigan’ about having a dark beer available 365 days a year,” Hengstebeck says, recommending the Midnight Peddler not just for cold nights, but also warm-weather hikes, summertime ice cream floats, and more.

Pry Bar Porter | Workshop Brewing (Traverse City)

The logline: “Rich and dark with overtones of baker’s chocolate. Modest gravity and hopping make it approachable; nitro draft makes it smooth.”

The origin story: “We’ve brewed that one since day one,” Warren says of the Pry Bar. Similar to the Midnight Peddler at Beards, Pry Bar is Workshop’s “always-on dark beer”—as well as the brewery’s lone “nitro” beer. For the uninitiated, in the beer world, the phrase “on nitro” refers to the gas used in the carbonation process. Most beers are carbonated by way of carbon dioxide, which imparts bigger bubbles and a pricklier texture. Beers carbonated with nitrogen gas have a distinctly different personality, with smaller bubbles that give them a smoother, creamier texture.

What makes it special: Not every beer works when given the nitro treatment. Nitro IPAs or pilsners usually feel wrong, like if someone left a soda bottle in the fridge for too long and let it go flat. But darker beers can gain a lot from nitro: There’s a reason, for instance, that the world’s bestselling stout—Guinness—is a nitro beer. Similarly, the Pry Bar demonstrates just how ideal the porter style is for the nitro tap. The fine bubbles allow the rich flavors to jump to the forefront, and the smooth finish makes the beer one of the most drinkable dark ales you’ll ever taste.

Kazfire S’mores Porter | Snowbelt Brewing Co. (Gaylord)

The logline: “Camping anyone...? Made with real graham crackers and marshmallows.”

The origin story: “There is only one brewer at Snowbelt, but we like to have our staff participate and come up with a recipe and help brew it,” Mullenberg says. “The idea of Kazfire came from our old kitchen manager.” That kitchen manager loved camping and had just had a baby named Kazimir when the first batch of Kazfire was being brewed. The camping aspect gave Kazfire its s’more-inspired flavor profile, while the baby’s name inspired the beer’s designation.

What makes it special: It makes sense to take the chocolate flavor notes that are so common with porters and to pair them with the other two ingredients of the most beloved campfire treat of all time. By using real graham crackers and marshmallows in the brewing process—the recipe for Kazfire calls for more than 10 pounds of graham crackers in the mash, according to Mullenberg—Snowbelt has concocted a beer that really does taste like a s’more.

It’s a perfect dessert beer, and it tastes especially good in colder weather. Unsurprisingly, Mullenberg says the beer tends to “rate pretty high” on Snowbelt’s list of customer favorites, always generating a lot of buzz at the brewery when a new batch comes online each October.

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