Porter beer pit stop, gas station in rural Ireland

Porter Beer! Explaining the Stout Irish

Why ‘porter beer’? Isn’t that Irish dark beer just called ‘stout’? Yes, it is of course a stout…and a porter. …Ahem…..and a stout porter. But these are words. And words could never fully account for the place this icon occupies in the Irish soul.

But since the fixation is so crazy deep, let’s get the words out of the way first. Another classic entry in the Irish Book of Ambiguity, brewers will rage on the name of this most popular of Irish drinks until the cows come home. But in truth, the difference in classification is largely semantic. More about trading words in a public bar than any major differences. Porter Beer vs. Stout Beer is up there with the Apple Pie Tarts debate, at least to the non-brewer.

Brewing historians (yes, there is such a cool occupation) trace the confusion back to when Irish and British breweries began marketing their stronger dark beer (porter) as ‘stout porter’. Then with the growth in popularity of porters produced by a certain Arthur Guinness Son & Co. at St.James’s Gate in Dublin, just plain ‘stout’ became the norm. Since it began trading, in 1759, Guinness had been closely tied with this type of beer.

Porter beer brands command loyalty

While Guinness remains the quintessential image of stout, it is of course only one producer of this Irish dark beer. In fact, the scope of the brewery has always been quite limited, focusing on a small selection of brews, the most famous being its Draught. But in the world of Irish drinks, porter has long been an institution, where your choice of brand matters. Stout has come to occupy a place deep in the heart of Irish drinkers. An intense liquid-to-human relationship has developed, producing a certain type of consumer. Spurred on by a product capable of inciting argument and ferocious brand loyalty.

Historically, this loyalty has also been due to a regional split among this breed of stout Irish. Or a ‘bi-city’ split might be more accurate. In the past, Murphy’s Irish Stout and Beamish were once upon a time major brands of choice in Ireland’s second city of Cork, with Guinness always dominating in Dublin and elsewhere. Thus Guinness has traditionally been the most popular beer in Ireland overall.

Murphy’s Irish Stout still enjoys a decent market share on its home turf, but its Cork City sparring partner Beamish has fallen on hard times. As the number of craft breweries in Ireland increases, small-batch porter is now also pouring out of that part of the country – with old Irish beer recipes being used to produce award-winning stouts.

The most popular beer in Ireland?

There will of course be much debate as to the best Irish beer, but it is fact that, at the least, Guinness still holds the title of most popular beer in Ireland. And the same goes for its position in the stout market worldwide. It’s such a behemoth at this stage that, outside of Ireland, Guinness Draught has become what Bacardi is to rum. Ordered by many who aren’t always aware what type of beer they are drinking – they’re drinking a Guinness!

While the conglomerate-owned Guinness mega-brand may not technically be synonymous with its type of Irish beer, it simply has such a big market share that it’s often used as a byword for the entire class. And with stout bucking the global trend of shrinking beer sales, the most famous Irish brand looks set to grow even further. On St. Patrick’s Day alone, some 13 million pints of the black stuff are raised in mirth.

Dry Stout

Like Murphy’s Irish Stout, Beamish, and other porter beer brands, the legendary Guinness is by definition a ‘dry stout’, or simply an ‘Irish stout’. Basically meaning it’s a porter that tastes dry, with a sharpish edge. Historically, the term dry/Irish stout was used to distinguish beer with these characteristics from sweeter American and British counterparts. Irish stout didn’t contain sweeteners like oatmeal, or the lactose found in milk stouts.

And, yes, these different brews are porters, too. The whole classification system still today remains confusing. Not least because stout originally had a higher alcohol content than porter – hence the name. But with brewers now crafting porters that make Guinness’ 4.2% ABV look like mother’s milk, this distinction is no longer valid. In the final analysis, at least for the layperson, any confusion over naming is purely semantic.

Perhaps this is because words, labels, and nuances will tend to confuse. But taste buds comprehend directly…

Porter beer etiquette: Taste the innate

Dry stouts are richly complex on the taste front. A true example of this Irish beer is smooth in your mouth, and has a kick, but it’s not acrid. It should indeed be full-on ‘dry’ in taste, but not ‘sour’, nor harsh. The word sometimes used is ‘bitter’, but that’s not accurate either. Something in the region of ‘tart’ might be closer to the mark. It just has an edge to it.

That’s the gag – ask a hardened Guinness drinker how their dear one tastes and they’ll tell you it’s sweet!

Let’s just say that if the phrase ‘an acquired taste’ didn’t enter the lexicon with dry stout in mind, the Irish use it mostly in relation to the black stuff. A 16-year-old scrunches up his nose after his first taste of Guinness, a foreigner refuses to drink the pint of Murphy’s Irish Stout purchased for them: insert phrase.

Irish drinks indoctrination

Hard to define in terms of taste, culturally Irish stout presents an even more entangled prospect. From the time they are born, the Irish native is surrounded by all things Guinness. Advertisements, paraphernalia, discussion on the attributes of the pint pulled at this or that establishment. You know the indoctrination is deep when you see new-borns wrapped in blankets bearing the logo of the famous Irish beer– while the father is off drinking pints of the black stuff in celebration.

For most of the last 300 hundred years when an Irish barman has heard the customer say ‘pint’, he has pulled a pint of stout, probably a Guinness. The brew is so steeped in lore and ritual that it has become a kind of second nature to stout Irish. And considering how much time the average Irish person spends in the pub, you could argue that at this stage it’s more than that – it’s innate.

Indeed, it seems the instinct is becoming deeper as time goes on..

Stout Irish livers, nurtured by Vitamin G

Genetic research has found a genomic identifier for alcoholism in the Irish. The evidence suggests that the Irish are more susceptible to alcohol dependency than most. Of course, this is not due to just avid consumption of stouts but of more top-shelf Irish alcohol. It’s also arguable that having been bred on booze for so long the Irish race has not only developed this genetic predisposition, but also the iron livers required to deal with all it brings!

If they keep the adaptation going, there certainly will never be famine on the Erin’s Isle ever again – hardy Irish organs will be digesting grass!

Porter stout home base, Guinness Brewery in Dublin

St. James’s (back) Gate, Dublin

Black Irish

So, if you happen to be a visitor to the island, do bear in mind the depth of the Irish relationship with stout. Be patient with the local telling you what the black stuff means to them. For better or worse, stout has become embedded in – at the very least – the cultural DNA of black Irish. They’ll try to explain. They’ll tell you facts, they’ll tell you traits. But they’ll inevitably flounder.

At a certain point they’ll just run out of steam, gasp for air, give up. Then take a gulp, to simply feel the knowing. An experience, an idea, a sensation. Resounding truth. Something so definite that indefinite tools like words could never accurately render or explain its essence. You’ll stand there. You’ll wait. But there is just no precise way for them to make you grasp what this dark liquid, a porter beer given a brand name like ‘Guinness’ or ‘Murphy’s’, means to the black(hearted) Irish.

Getting an older Irish person to even attempt to explain is by itself a hard task. These wizened creatures have been through this impossible juncture before. Trying to save themselves the hassle of divulging their dark obsession, they’ll repel you with a curt ‘try it, you might like it’ or a ‘you know yourself’.

Your query may seem perfectly reasonable to you, expressing a genuine wish for comprehension. The question posed may even be grammatically sound and complete in its construction, and the language used both clear and concise. But you will meet with mumbles or half answers.

Be kind, for your inquiry is producing the same effect as asking a question like “What is grass?”…Well, it’s that nature stuff…green, plant nature…wisps. …..Vertically growing wisps of vegetation lodged in the land……that animals eat………that nourish the animals…………cow’s bread…

Porter, stout, stout porter. These are just names, you can’t drink a name. The only way anyone can even begin to understand what this beer means to the Irish is by embracing the black.