Porters and the Left Hand of Darkness

March is typically the season for stouts. Truth be told, it’s the season for stout. As in one. As in Guiness. Oh, some people will bring Murphy’s to your party, and there are lots of good stouts out there (Dogfish Head Chicory Stout comes to mind), but it’s really all about Guiness. I myself have been known to tip a Guiness, or a half and half, a black and tan, or a car bomb with the best of them. But I’m not going there. Stouts are good, but porters are an undiscovered country of dark beer. I set out to map that territory.

Porter is an old brewing style. It’s older than stout (stout started as a style of porter), and was originally just a catch-all term for English dark beer. It was also one of the first styles to be aged for any significant length of time. So, porters should be complex from the aging and rich from the dark malt. But this is all too frequently not the case. Many porters are thin, watered-down stouts with less malt, less viscosity, and less flavor than they should have.

So, here’s my method for today: I selected a list of the best porters from Beer Advocate and Rate Beer, then went around to my local stores to see which ones were available to me. Then, I tasted them.

First up, Smuttynose Robust Porter: A beautiful black color in the glass with little or no head. It definitely has an aroma of roasted malt. It has a coffee-style bitterness to it. It’s actually pretty stout-esque. But it doesn’t have the creamy mouth feel of your better stouts, and that brings it down a peg. I honestly don’t understand the score it gets from “The bros” on Beer Advocate (97: World Class), but that doesn’t make it bad. It’s a nice dark beer. Nothing more, nothing less.

Samuel Smith Taddy Porter: Beautiful to look at. Black and rich with a nice off-white head. Beer Advocate gives it a 100, so I’m excited…and then disappointed. Now I’m really starting to wonder where “The Bros” pull their numbers. The aroma has a peculiar mustiness to it that I don’t find particularly pleasing. It’s thin - American macro-brew thin. There are some of the usual porter flavor profiles here (coffee, toffee, roasted malt), but everything is just too small. I had really wanted to include an English porter, specifically Young’s Porter, but I couldn’t easily find it locally. Now I’m wishing I had tried a little harder. This beer is mediocre at best.

Scuttlebutt Porter: I bought this basically on a whim. I saw it on my porter quest and grabbed it because I liked the label. It’s dark. It has a little bit of viscosity to it. And it has a richer flavor than the Taddy Porter, or even the Robust Porter. In fact, of the porters I’ve been trying, this is the first one that crosses the line into “good.” It’s rich, it tastes malty, and it’s a generally pleasant drinking experience. Oh, and it gets better as it warms.

Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter: Not nearly as black as some of it’s competitors, but oh, baby, does it nail the flavor profile. It’s viscous. It’s malty. It’s got this round, dark, full flavor that’s simply delicious. This - THIS - is a world class porter. This is how good a porter can be. The fact that all porters don’t taste this good is confounding in the extreme. Go out and drink this porter!

Founders Porter: Oh, now, here it is. This is the porter that all other porters should aspire to. It’s viscous, almost a stout in its texture. It’s black as night and beautiful to look at. The flavor has a real chocolate quality to it, though it is not a chocolate porter. It has a real fullness of flavor, including some well-balanced hoppiness. Let it warm for yourself, and the flavors open up to an even greater extent. Founders doesn’t make bad beer, and this one continues that trend. This is clearly the best porter I’ve ever had.

If you’re in the mood for porter, let me recommend that as you enjoy the Founders or Great Lakes offerings, you read Ursula LeGuin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness. The book is complex and a bit time consuming, but it’s rich in character development. And it is set on a planet in eternal winter, so the season is right.

The novel follows Gently Ai, an envoy from the Ekumen (a federation of planets, if you will) making first contact on a planet in near-constant winter. Only, on this planet, the humanoids have developed androgynously. Actually, this word doesn’t even get at the idea. The people are ambisexual - each individual transitions from male to female and back again, existing most of the time between those two poles. It’s thought provoking like all the best literary sci-fi is, and entertaining in its complex and shifting narrative structure. It’s a brilliant novel.

Just as important, though, is her forward. In it, she describes the role of the science-fiction writer with great poetry and accuracy. She makes the well-founded argument that sci-fi writers don’t predict, they describe. It should be mandatory reading for anyone trying to write sci-fi or fantasy.

So, remember as you enjoy your complex, viscous, malty black glass of beer that “the left hand of darkness is light.”

Cheers.