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Create Your Own Great Porter

Do you remember the movie “Johnny Dangerously”? Johnny walks into his mother’s apartment and asks, “Whatcha cookin’ Ma?” His mother says “Beer.” Johnny replies, “With noodles, good idea.” This seemed funny at the time, but as I designed my own recipes over the years, the line took on a new significance. It grew into a philosophy regarding the nature of beer making.

Think, for a moment, of beer as fermented barley soup and your recipes as basic beer “stocks.” In the art of soup making, there are four stock bases: chicken, beef, vegetable, and fish or seafood. Most soups are made of these.

In the world of ale, one could argue, there are also four basic stocks (bases): pale, porter, stout, and wheat. Thousands of beers can be made with virtually the same base simply by adjusting the specialty grains, changing the hop profile or mash profile, or using a different yeast strain. Beyond that there’s a world of spices, fruits, and other ingredients that can be used to flavor your stock.

Porter Soup
The mighty porter is a particularly interesting stock. Traditionally porter is very dark — almost black — and very bitter. It was first brewed in the early 1700s and became popular with the porters who worked in London, hence the name. The popularity of porter in the United Kingdom declined 40 years ago, but the beer has been propelled into the US mainstream largely by homebrewers, along with the US microbrewing industry.

Porter should have a full-bodied, malty flavor that comes from roasted and caramel malts combined with some of the flavor and dextrins (unfermentable) from the pale malt. Porter should also have a reasonable alcohol content to give it warmth and balance (1.052 to 1.060 specific gravity). It should have a slight estery (fruity) flavor, a smooth, coffee-like roasted malt taste, and the chocolaty flavor of chocolate malt.

The hopping rate should be fairly high to balance the estery sweetness and acidic quality (30 to 50 International Bitterness Units). In my opinion, well-made porter ranks among the best-tasting beers. The trick is getting the balance right. All flavors should contribute to the beer, with no one flavor dominating the others.  Chew on some malts and you’ll see where some of these flavors originate.

Favorite Porter
(5 gallons, all-grain)

A very basic porter would look something like this:

Malt:
• 6.6 lbs. pale malt extract
• 5 oz. chocolate malt
• 0.5 lb. caramel malt

Hops:
• 2 oz. Fuggle hops (boil)
• 0.5 oz. Goldings hops (finish)

This is a basic porter, but is it a perfect porter? The “perfect” porter is the one you most enjoy, not the one that just happened to win first place at the last Great American Beer Festival. You need to find one you like and use it as a base.

This is my favorite porter recipe; adjust it to match your taste.

Ingredients:
• 6 lbs. 2-row malt
• 0.25 lb. black malt
• 0.50 lb. roasted malt
• 10 oz. chocolate malt
• 0.75 lb. caramel malt, 40° Lovibond
• 0.75 lb. dextrin
• 2.1 oz. Northern Brewer hops
(8.5% alpha acid), 1.5 oz. for 60 min., 0.6 oz. at end of boil
• Fruity ale yeast (Wyeast 1098)

Step by Step:
Mash malts and dextrin at 155° F for one hour. Sparge with 6 gals. of water. Add 1.5 oz. hops and boil for 60 minutes. Turn off the heat and add 0.6 oz. hops. Cool, pitch the yeast, and ferment at 63° F for seven to 10 days. Bottle or keg as usual.

Variation:
Here’s an extract version of the same recipe. It also makes five gallons.

Ingredients:
• 6.6 lbs. liquid malt extract (light)
• 6 oz. black malt
• 10 oz. roasted malt
• 14 oz. chocolate malt
• 1 lb. caramel malt, 40° Lovibond

Step by Step:
Steep the grains at 150° to 155° F for 30 minutes. Remove the grain bag, add extract, and boil 60 minutes, adding hops as in recipe above.

This recipe makes a porter with a nice balance of roast and chocolate with a little sweetness. It contains fairly large amounts of black, roast, caramel, and chocolate malts. I chose this grain bill because it matched my personal preference. If I chose to make a more round, sweet, and chocolate porter, I would then increase the chocolate by four or five ounces and the caramel to a full pound (in the all-grain version).

The dextrin is used to increase the body. Dextrin is not used in the extract recipe because it must be mashed to do its job. Remember that chocolate, black, and roasted malt have no enzymes. This means that they do not have to be mashed to provide benefits. Many porters contain no roast or black at all. Deleting these additions would make a very chocolaty porter.

Let the Experiments Begin
For the next step, you have many options to make your porter unique. Spices are a great addition to porters. However, I don’t think porters lend themselves well to fruit. Stout and fruit are a much better match, although I have had some tasty raspberry porters.

Let’s say that you would like to make a maple porter, with the maple evident in the aroma as well as the flavor. The first thing to do is take away the finishing hops. You need the bitterness of the boiling hops to offset the sweetness of the maple, yet you don’t need the finishing hops blocking the maple aroma. Use your maple instead of the finishing hop. Add about 16 ounces of maple syrup at the end of the boil and allow it to sit for 10 minutes before you chill the beer. Much of the maple aroma will be retained.

My local homebrew club sponsored a Christmas beer competition in which each entry was required to include 50 ingredients. Yeast, water, and salts or finings could not be counted. The interesting thing was that most of the beers entered were based on a porter, and a good bulk of the ingredients were spices.

Here are some spices that lend themselves to porter. Where possible, amounts are listed. Spice use varies greatly based upon the region where the spice is grown as well as the brand and age of the herb or spice.

Anise (licorice) – Adds a nice subtle flavor or a big kick to a beer depending on use. It’s best to use brewer’s licorice sticks. Use about a quarter of a stick for five gallons or two to three ounces of star anise. It is nice in finishing with a spicy hop.

Bayberry (Myrtle) – Leafy flavors.

Bay leaf – Good flavor enhancer. Good in combination with other spices. Use two to four leaves for five gallons.

Black pepper – Very nice in a roasty porter; turns it into a tenderloin. Use about two tablespoons.

Cassia – Cinnamon-type flavor (used in Dentyne gum). One to three tablespoons. Complements chocolate.

Cinnamon – Nice if used subtly, no more than three tablespoons.

Cocoa – Great! Try to find the powder with the lowest oil content. You can use a lot of this; it will not hurt.

Coffee – Very nice. Good to use as a last hop strike. Use coarsely ground. Remember, it is also bitter. One pound adds a fairly firm flavor and aroma.

Fenugreek – Used as a base of artificial maple flavor. This is also bitter. Good for maple porter. Use as a middle hop strike in small amounts.

Five-spice – Star anise, fennel, pepper, cloves, and cinnamon. Keep at less than 3 tablespoons.

Frangelico – Hazelnut liqueur.

Ginger – Great with hot peppers or five-spice. Two ounces of fresh, grated root is very noticeable.

Heather – Very aromatic.

Honey – A sweet liquid from the nectar of flowers.

Horehound – A bitter Passover herb.

Hot pepper – Nice in higher-gravity porters. It can range from mild to hot.

Lavender – Highly aromatic and bitter. A tablespoon at the end of the boil is nice.

Molasses – Rich and buttery. Up to one cup per five gallons is a nice, noticeable addition. Blackstrap contains about 65 percent less sucrose yet is much more aromatic.

Mint – A liquid thin mint. Two ounces of mint leaf is a good start.

Orange blossom/Orange peel – Nice in chocolate porters.

Raspberry – Makes a nice dessert beer. A quart in the secondary will add a nice touch.

Of course this is barely skimming the surface. Your imagination can yield a wealth of ideas. Just think about the kind of things that you like to combine together: chocolate on vanilla ice cream, hot peppers in teriyaki…

I prefer to use the spices in the boil, generally as late additions for aroma or middle additions for flavor.

Another way to add spices, called the potion method, is preferred by ace homebrewer Randy Mosher, author of The Brewer’s Companion. This involves mixing the spices in vodka and adding them at bottling. Put about four ounces of vodka into a baby-food jar, mason jar, or other small container, and add spices. Taste the mixture to see that the potion is pleasing, and let it set for a week or so to blend. You will want to taste it again, because the profile will change when the spices marry. Use an eyedropper to add the potion to a sample until the desired effect is achieved.

Chocolate Porter
(5 gallons, all-grain)

Here is a chocolate porter. This recipe came about before I had come up with my favorite porter base, although this is still a nice recipe.

Ingredients:

  • 5 lbs. dry malt extract
  • 1 lb. caramel malt, 40° Lovibond
  • 0.25 lb. black malt
  • 0.25 lb. roasted malt
  • 0.25 lb. chocolate malt
  • 0.25 lb. confectioner’s sugar
  • 0.25 lb. corn sugar
  • 1.5 cups blackstrap molasses
  • 2 oz. grated ginger root
  • 8 oz. baker’s chocolate
  • 1/8 tsp. five-spice
  • 1 large cayenne pepper
  • 0.5 oz. Kent Goldings hops (5% alpha) for 60 min.
  • 1 oz. Willamette hops (5.5% alpha) for 60 min.
  • 2 packages dry ale yeast in 1-qt. starter.


Step by Step:

Steep grains at 150° F for 35 min. Remove straining bag, then add extract. Add the rest of the ingredients and boil one hour. I use no finishing hops except maybe a pinch or two of five-spice. Cool and pitch yeast. Ferment for 17 days. For a nice final touch, add a drop of cayenne pepper to every bottle. It’s best to use 750 ml bottles if you choose to do this.

Coffee Porter
(5 gallons, all-grain)

This recipe uses the “Favorite Porter” recipe as a base. Because you are adding coffee, which will add some bitterness, reduce the roasted malt to 0.25 lb. and increase the chocolate to 12 oz. to get a nice chocolaty flavor. The coffee will not add so much bitterness that the first hop strike needs to be changed. But skip the last hop strike altogether to allow the coffee to be the dominant aroma.

The recipe steps are the same, except the final hop addition is eliminated. Add 1 lb. of coarsely ground coffee at the end of the boil
in a muslin bag (a grain bag or even a nylon stocking) and allow it to steep for 10 minutes.

Christmas Porter
(5 gallons, partial mash)

Ingredients:

  • 6.6 lbs. light malt extract
  • 3 oz. black malt
  • 14 oz. chocolate malt
  • 1 lb. caramel malt
  • 1.5 oz. Northern Brewer hops (8.5% alpha acid), 1 oz. for 60 min., 0.5 oz. at end of boil
  • 1 oz. grated ginger root, for 60 min.
  • 1 oz. mint leaves (if whole, use in boil; if ground, use as mid-boil addition)
  • 2 tbls. five-spice, at end of boil
  • Liquid dry-ale yeast (Wyeast 1084)


Step by Step:

Steep the grains for 30 minutes and remove. Add the extract. Add 1 oz. hops, grated ginger, and whole mint leaves if used. Boil 30 minutes and add ground mint if used. Boil 30 more minutes and add 0.5 oz. hops and five spice. Cool, pitch yeast, and ferment four to 10 days.

Remember, you are only limited by your imagination or unwillingness to risk the time it takes to brew another batch. Go for it!