Porter Versus Stout: What’s the Difference?

A craft beer brewer breaks down these two popular dark beers.

November 11, 2022
Close up two pints of dark beer above stainless steel bar counter, ready to drink.

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Close up two pints of dark beer above stainless steel bar counter, ready to drink.

Photo by: Kanawa_Studio/Getty Images

Kanawa_Studio/Getty Images

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By Layla Khoury-Hanold for Food Network Kitchen

Layla Khoury-Hanold is a contributor at Food Network

In the glass, porter and stout look similar. But there’s more to these popular dark ales than meets the eye. To help us break down the differences between porters and stouts as well as popular types of each style, we consulted Alia Midoun, head brewer at Burial Beer Co., a craft brewery in Asheville, North Carolina.

Stout Definition

Stouts are beers brewed with un-malted roasted barley. “Stouts are ales that are traditionally categorized by their dark, roasted profile,” Midoun says. “Within the category of stouts, there are a variety of options to choose from, which can range from dry to creamy, sweet to bitter, fruity or nutty.” Because recipe formulation in craft beer is always evolving, styles within the category have become more diverse and are sometimes difficult to categorize. And some stouts bridge several sub-categories of stout at once. That said, Midoun says, “One thing that is for certain is that when you are drinking a stout, you are settling with a beautifully complex and bold beer.”

Dry Irish Stout

“The average person will immediately remind you of Guinness, a tried-and-true classic Irish stout, dry and formulaically simple, yet deeply roasted and complex in its own right. While Guinness was one of the original trailblazers for the stout category, today many folks flock to much stronger and richer varieties,” Midoun says.

Imperial Stout

Midoun notes that imperial stouts, named for their high alcohol content, are among the most popular types of stouts today. She reports that most imperial stouts are also deeply adjuncted—meaning they have added flavor and aromatic ingredients besides the standard required elements of grain, hops and yeast. “An example of common adjuncts in beer are cocoa nibs, coffee, coconut or fruit additions,” she says.

Pastry Stout

Many imperial stouts fall under the category of pastry or dessert stouts, which inspires the choice of added ingredients and are brewed to skew sweeter. Case in point: Burial’s Untold Volumes of Belligerent Indecision, an imperial stout that clocks in at 14 percent ABV (alcohol by volume), is brewed with roasted pistachios, a blend of vanilla beans, cinnamon and coffee. The product description calls to mind “a pistachio cannoli coated in a cinnamon sugar glaze.”

Coffee Stout

Coffee’s layered bitter, toasty flavor profile is a natural match for stout’s roasted, malt-driven flavor profile. Burial’s Skillet and Griddle is both a coffee stout and imperial counterpart that Midoun describes as being “packed with strong roast and chocolate character, some balanced notes of brown sugar and dates, and a generous dose of coffee beans.”

Oatmeal Stout

As the name implies, oatmeal stouts are those that are brewed with the addition of oats to the mash. “These beers lean more thick, often with a velvety mouthfeel from the oats, and of course, a very familiar oatmeal distinct characteristic in flavor and aroma,” Midoun says.

Milk Stout

Milk stouts are those that have lactose or milk sugar added to the beer. Midoun says that this produces a richer, more decadent and creamier flavor and mouthfeel, having a similar effect as adding milk or half and half to your coffee.

Barrel-Aged Stout

Barrel-aged stouts are those that are aged in re-purposed wood barrels from distilleries (most often bourbon barrels) or wineries. “Depending on the type of barrel that a given beer is being aged in, the flavor profile can come with an array of characteristics, including, but not limited to, woodiness or oak, attributes of the barrel-type, such as bourbon or rum, richer and deeper notes of chocolate, caramel, dark fruit, often even cherry and vanilla,” Midoun says. She adds that these beers are typically robust, higher in alcohol content, ranging from 12 to 15 percent ABV and offer a similar, slow-sipping experience to that of Scotch. One of Burial’s latest holiday releases is Houtenhammer, a double bourbon barrel-aged stout that is aged in two different barrels to maximize flavor.

What Is Porter?

Porters are beers that are brewed with malted barley. “Porters, while malt-driven, tend to be more light-bodied and light-colored than a stout, rarely appearing black the way a stout would,” Midoun says. “Once again, through the changes and development of new practices in making beer, we can find a wide range of porters. Traditionally, these beers are expected to be more easy drinking while still maintaining the complexity of dark malt, making them toasty, nutty, sometimes presenting dark fruit, but low ABV for every-occasion enjoyment.”

Like stouts, Midoun notes that lately, porters also seem to lean to a more dominantly adjuncted category. “While stouts are often adjuncted with heavier and more flavor dominant ingredients, many brewers tend to lean more towards lighter, herbal and accentuated additions,” Midoun says. Burial has experimented with different additions to its porter line-up, but the most popular ones have been those adjuncted with coffee or coconut, such as Burial’s series The Beginning is After the End and The End Comes Before the Beginning. “While these beers both have been made with ingredients beyond malt and hops, they still maintain their light body and low ABV, making them very quaffable,” Midoun says.

There are a variety of different styles of porters, including Brown, Robust and Baltic. “When it comes to each of them, they are going to have notes that are often toasty, caramelly and bready, carried with coffee roast, chocolate and sometimes even dark fruit, such as raisins,” Midoun says.

Brown Porter

A brown porter uses the same recipe formulation with brown malt but incorporates additional grains such as barley or caramel malt to amplify the brown ale’s initial characteristics, such as roast and chocolate. “Brown porters were traditionally an elevation of English brown ales—which, while using the malt of its namesake, were often more light-bodied than a porter,” Midoun explains. “A brown porter would use the same recipe formulation with brown malt, but additional grains to accentuate the brown ale's original characteristics, as well as elevate the ABV, landing somewhere between 4 to 5%.” That said, Midoun says that brown porter is a classic distinction for an English style ale used by “old world breweries” and not one typically used by modern breweries.

Robust Porter

Robust porters land somewhere between the traditional baseline porter and a stout. “They are stronger, roastier, hoppier and trending slightly upward in ABV, between 4.8 to 6.5%.” As the name suggests, robust porters are robust in flavor. “It is much more likely that the porters you will find today at a craft brewery can be defined as a robust porter, as many brewers tend to up the complexity of porters exponentially now by increasing their grain load and varieties of grain-type in a recipe,” Midoun says.

Baltic Porter

Just as with other beverage categories, there are regional variations in beer styles that bear the regions in their name. Baltic porters were originally made in countries around the Baltic Sea. “These porters are considered higher gravity (ABV) than our robust porters, ranging from 7 to 9%, and recognized for having a very strong dark roast backbone, similar to a Schwarzbier,” Midoun says. “They are often matched with notes of caramel and toffee, and even sometimes nutty or have subtle dark fruit notes.

Furthermore, Midoun notes that Baltic porters are traditionally made with lager yeast and cold-fermented, so technically it makes them lagers, whereas most porters are made with ale yeast. As with other regional styles, Baltic porters are meant to be crafted with regionally specific malts and hops. “Some would even go so far as to change their water table through salt treatments in the mash to mimic the region’s water. However, much like many say Champagne is not Champagne if it is not made in the region of France, there are many who argue the same for region-specific styles, such as Baltic porters,” Midoun says.

Porter vs Stout: What’s the Difference?

Both porters and stouts are dark beers that are brewed with barley. The biggest difference between them is that porters are made with malted barley and stouts are made with un-malted roasted barley. Porters tend to be more light-bodied with a nice balance of malty sweetness and bitter hoppiness, lighter in color, often lower ABV and generally more drinkable than Stouts—however, not always true! Stouts are darker, bolder and tend to pack more of a flavor punch.

History of Porter vs Stout

When defining the differences between porter and stout, there’s an important historical distinction to note too.

“We have to remember that originally beer was brewed based on what was available. Back when the Sumerians were making beer, they didn’t have the technology that we have today. Even our medieval predecessors were roasting malt over an open flame,” Midoun says. “Historically speaking, beers started off darker due to the lack of technology, and only evolved to become lighter as new techniques were developed. Think of a festbier, this style began as a dunkel and evolved many times, and now today is commonly brewed as a helles.”

As a result, Midoun says there’s an assumption that porter came from stout, since stout is the darker of the two. But that’s a misconception. “Porters were descendants of brown ales, which was the primary English ale at a time before pale malt production,” Midoun says. “Stouts only came after porters, through recipe development in pursuit of a stronger, more full-bodied beer—in fact, stout was at one time considered a genre of porter.”

Photo by: Matt Armendariz ©Copyright 2015

Matt Armendariz, Copyright 2015

How to Cook with Porter and Stout

Both styles can be used in baking and cooking applications. “Braising meat with either style is very common and is solely based on the cook’s intention and flavors they would like to achieve,” she says. “The same goes for baking—if one decides to make bread, what kind of bread are we making? It is nutty, toasted, sweet, fruity, grainy? The options are limitless and in the palate of the beholder. The most important thing is to set the intention and browse your options for what seems best suited for your meal.”

Try adding stout to homey dishes such as Beef Potpies with Cheddar-Stout Crust or Slow Cooker Corned Beef and Cabbage. Or lean on stout’s toasty, maltiness to enhance the cocoa and malty notes of chocolate baked goods, like this Towering Flourless Chocolate Cake or Chocolate Beer Cake (pictured above).

Since porters are lighter-bodied than stouts, they make a fine swap for ales or to supplement stock in classic braised dishes. Try them in Beer-Braised Country-Style Pork Ribs or in this hearty Beef Stew. We think it’d bring stellar savory depth to this cold-weather ready Gouda-and-Beer Fondue Bread Bowl or a tender loaf of Jalapeno-Cheddar Beer Bread.

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