We tasted nine variations on the theme
Porter, apparently, was first drunk in London in the 1730s and became very popular in Britain and Ireland. It declined in popularity in Britain with the advent of pale ales, but continued to grow in popularity in Ireland.
Strong porter was known as ‘Stout Porter', which was eventually shortened to ‘stout', so, despite the variety of styles, there is no strict difference between the two drinks (although the distinction is made in the US on the grounds that it helps to differentiate categories for beer competitions).
There has been something of a renaissance recently for stouts and porters, with historical recipes being taken up by brewers and reintroduced in the specialist beer market.
The O'Conor Don in London W1 is an Irishinspired pub with a dining room, The Ard-Ri, serving classic, hearty Irish fare and perfectly poured Guinness. It is owned and run by the O'Callaghan family, and Diarmaid O'Callaghan, a passionate fan of ‘the black stuff', gave us the use of his dining room, and his taste buds, to assess our pick off the porters.
The O'Conor Don, 88 Marylebone Lane, London W1.
020 7935 9311, oconordon.com
Meantime London Porter
Recreation of a London porter from the 1750s "This has a very unusual aftertaste, a little harsh when you're used to Guinness, and salty, but it's very drinkable and the presentation is nice – it's in a 750ml bottle with a cork, like wine. In fact, it would be nice out of wine glasses and would suit the ladies served that way. Foodwise, this would go very well with a beef casserole – something to balance the salty/iron taste. In fact, what this would go really well with would be tripe with a white sauce. It has a fine fizz – very distinctive." 750ml, 6.5% ABV. RRP £24 per case of six. 020 8293 1111 meantimebrewing.com
Fuller's London Porter
"This one smells completely different. It has a rounder taste and it's granier. There's a fine ash flavour. It is quite bitter, a bit like black coffee. There's a very pleasant flavour on the front of the tongue, though there's not much at the back of the mouth. This would carry game quite well – something quite strong and punchy like venison." 500ml, 5.4% ABV. RRP £1.83 per bottle. 020 8996 2000, fullers.co.uk
Young's Luxury Double Chocolate Stout
Brewed with chocolate malt and dark chocolate "This one would go well with venison too – the chocolate balances out the iron in a similar way to what happens when you mix orange and lemon juice. This is not too sweet as a result, it's clean and not at all cloying. I'm quite pleasantly surprised as chocolate's not my thing at all." 500ml, 5.2% ABV. RRP £2.85 per bottle, 020 8875 7000 youngs.co.uk
Old Growler Special porter Beer
"Quite different again – pretty unusual. This is very fizzy on the tongue and there's not much behind it but it's quite dry in its aftertaste, so I think it drinks sweeter than it is. The head is good, there's a creamy texture – it even masks the flavour a bit in combination with the fizz – everything is there at once in the mouth. You could drink this on its own. It's surprising that it's as high as 5.5; it doesn't taste like that." 500ml, 5.5% ABV. RRP £42 per case of 24. 01787 283220 partybeers.com
"This one has a nice head – more what I'd expect from a stout, and funnily enough it's 4.2 per cent [closer to Guinness' 4.1 - 4.3]. The head makes a real difference, the taste becomes much cleaner. Having drunk some of the stronger ones now, though, this seems like it's missing something. But it's very nice and would be good for drinking on its own. It's like a light ale, it would be good in the summer. It might go well with lighter meats like chicken or pork." 500ml, 4.2% ABV. RRP £28 per case of 12. 01751 417330 croptonbrewery.com
Black Isle Organic Porter
This is very different, it's very dry in comparison to the others. It smells mulchy, like the country in November. It's a little sour – there's a flavour of soda there, like soda bread that's had too much soda put in it. It's salty and thin and the flavour disappears very fast." 500ml, 4.5% ABV.RRP £44.95 per case of 20. 01463 811871 blackislebrewery.com
Saint Petersburg Imperial Russian Stout
"This is similar to Black Isle but is more rounded. There's more behind it, so you get a better balance, and it's nice after a meal. The strength is good. Spicy food could go well with this – chorizo, perhaps even Indian – it has a peppery taste of it's own. The higher alcohol in this isn't right in front, it's not right in your face but is all of a piece. It's blended well, the high alcohol, but that's true of all of these. This would also be good for offal: tongue, kidney, ox heart maybe, not lamb's. Lamb's liver though. It would carry onion with offal." 500ml, 7.7%ABV. RRP £15.32 + VAT per case of 12. 01629 640617 thornbridge brewery.co.uk
Ellezelloise Hercule Stout
"This one smells completely different. In fact, it smells a bit like Hoegaarden. This is fizzier again, but there's a real sweetness. It's floral, it has almost – I don't want to use this word – a ‘bouquet'. It tastes honeyed. This would go well with moules marinière, paella perhaps, maybe squid. I think you would need food with this one. It would be good with cheese. It's fizzy and that gives the flavour an edge. It would carry cheese like Cashel Blue. Actually, a good bouillabaisse would be perfect with this. 330ml, 8.4% ABV. RRP £2.95 per bottle. 01422 377560 beersolutions.co.uk
"This one is very fizzy and could do with being very cold. I don't like the initial taste, it's too thin on the runthrough and I think it's imbalanced. It doesn't quite finish or round off as I'd like it to. I just think a porter should have a richer taste than this, but that's maybe because I'm so used to Guinness, and that's purely on my first impression." 500ml, 4.5% ABV. RRP £24.99 per case of 12. 01725 510986 hopback.co.uk