On a recent Sunday, during a hand-numbingly cold afternoon when the sun sank in the sky as people tacked up Christmas decorations, I bought supplies for a dinner at a friend’s apartment. The objectives: bread, beer and cheese. After stopping to buy a baguette (still warm: a small miracle), I picked up a few beers and walked to a grocery store. Then, as if on cue, snow began swirling beneath the streetlights.
“It’s starting to stick,” a woman said. But as I waited in line, sheep’s milk wedge in hand, I thought mainly of the bottles in my bag: Baltic and imperial porters, beers fit for Nordic nights. Strong, dark and elegant — with malty notes ranging from dark fruit to burnt sugar, yet less bitterness and body than imperial stouts — they were ideal for the occasion. I had other reasons to be thankful, too: In the District and elsewhere, craft breweries are making them in abundance, and it can sometimes seem, as they say about snowflakes, that no two are alike.
“You’re seeing just about every brewery putting out a porter, and it’s often going to be Baltic or imperial,” says Dave Coleman, president of D.C.’s 3 Stars Brewing, whose Pandemic Porter is of the imperial variety. The terms refer to distinct but related styles; the differences, like the question of what distinguishes porters from stouts, can be subject to debate. But suffice it to say that Baltic porters tend to be in the high single digits in terms of alcohol by volume, are typically lagers (fermented at cool temperatures) and often contain rich, sweet flavors (raisins and licorice come to mind). Imperial porters are less strictly defined, can be boozier, are usually ales (they’re warm-fermented) and are more prone to variation, regularly featuring more roastiness, hop bitterness and added ingredients such as coffee and chocolate.
Yet both styles fill a similar niche, and both seem to be ascendant, a shift that Coleman attributes to the rise of dark beers in general. “We’re finally dispelling the myth of ‘Dark beers are so heavy,’ ” he says. “I think we’re starting to see a more educated consumer who doesn’t think in terms of black and white, so to speak.”
Evolving tastes, in fact, are the reason strong porters exist in the first place: Descended from brown beers that emerged in the 1700s, according to the “Oxford Companion to Beer,” they arose when the more restrained British porter “traveled the world, morphing as it went to meet the changing needs of time and place.” Shipped to Sweden, Poland and points east, they gave way to Baltic versions inspired by the region’s history of lager brewing; in America, the “imperial” designation has accompanied ales that are bulked-up but nonetheless somewhat more British.
“Think about it like coffee,” says Nathan Zeender, brewer at Right Proper Brewing Company, which opened three weeks ago next to D.C.’s Howard Theatre. “You go to Starbucks, and they have the laid-back blend that isn’t as acrid and acidic and tannic” — akin to the Baltic porter — “and then you have these heavily roasted ones.”
Zeender has kept the roast dialed down in Bête Noire, a Baltic porter brewed with DC Brau’s Jeff Hancock that has been on tap at Right Proper. He has also brewed what he calls a “Baltic-leaning porter,” Häxan. It’s lower in body and alcohol but has retained the style’s trademark maltiness, and is named after a Scandinavian silent horror film.
Toward the other end of the spectrum is Colossal Two, an imperial porter released in February by Port City Brewing of Alexandria (and sadly long gone), featuring beechwood-smoked malt. Or consider Suede Imperial Porter, a three-way collaboration involving California’s Stone Brewing, Oregon’s 10 Barrel Brewing and Bluejacket, the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Navy Yard brewery.
“A straight imperial porter or a straight Baltic porter might not be universally appealing,” Bluejacket brewer Megan Parisi says. But their maltiness, she adds, makes them ideal vehicles for less typical flavors that can intrigue beer geeks and novices alike. Suede, for instance, was brewed with jasmine, calendula and honey.
A similar approach was evident at the beer shop during my bread-beer-cheese expedition, in the form of a taste of Ballast Point Brewing’s Victory at Sea, an imperial porter laced with coffee and vanilla. The bottles I opened at my friend’s apartment, in contrast, contained no such additions yet were admirably complex.
Amager Bryghus’s rye porter, from Denmark, smelled both rumlike and savory and tasted of molasses. Black Boss Porter, from Poland, was more approachable, like milk chocolate. A Baltic porter brewed by Smuttynose Brewing in New Hampshire had the berrylike richness of some Ethiopian coffees.
But they tasted especially good because we drank them alongside braised lamb and bread and cheese, because my friend’s wife and two of his neighbors joined us, because a Christmas tree stood in a corner as the snow came down outside. Sometimes what’s in a beer matters less than what’s around it.
Fromson is the author of the e-book “Finding Shakespeare,” published in August by the Atavist, and a Web copy editor at the New Yorker. He writes Beer monthly.