What’s the Difference Between Stout and Porter?

Is it a Porter or a Stout? Or is it a Stout Porter? If you’re confused about what distinguishes Stout from Porter, you’re not alone. Let’s take a look and (maybe) clear up some misconceptions.

What’s the Difference Between Stout and Porter?

Historically, “Stout” was an adjective and a classification of the style Porter. The difference was chiefly in the amount of water used when brewing. In modern examples, there are many crossovers in ingredients and flavors and the lines blur. It’s ambiguous and often a matter of labeling.

Recipe Differences

The most commonly cited recipe distinction is that black patent or roasted barley is used in Porters. And Stouts have roasted unmalted barley in the grist. This is historically inaccurate. However, it was definitely a key factor used by craft and home brewers for many years as a way to classify the styles.

There are those that still defend this ingredient difference as what separates and defines the styles. That’s fine. But there are several pro examples that do the opposite.

Micheal Tonsmeire had an epic rant back in 2007 about Porter and Stout. In it he notes, there are many commercial examples of both Stouts and Porters using either roasted unmalted barley or black patent or both.

Examples of Porter and Stout

Because there is a lot of crossover between the styles of Porter and Stout, not that many breweries produce examples of both. Below are some examples of both. They should help clear up the debate and let you decide for yourself what the differences are…at least between these four beers.

Deschutes Brewing makes their Obsidian Stout and the Black Butte Porter. Samuel Smith has their Taddy Porter and Oatmeal Stout. They’re all widely available. Give ’em a try and see what their differences are for yourself.

Historical Perspective

Porter and Stout got their start in the UK. It’s hard to talk about beer history (especially British beer history) without mentioning Ron Patinson

He has a great post about Porter and Stout here. According to Ron, at the end of the day the difference between the two styles was the amount of water being used. This is because Porter and Stout (at various points in history) were brewed from the same grist using the party-gyle technique. Let’s remember we are talking about a specific brewery at a point in time. Namely, Whitbread in 1845.

Ron has been asked about the difference between Porter and Stout. Here is his answer. Patinson says, “The difference between Porter and Stout? All Stouts are types of Porter. But not all Porters are Stouts. Only the stronger ones.”

That’s about as simple and clear of an answer as anyone has. It is also coming from a historical perspective. You can decide if that is important or not.

Anchor Brewing points out in this article that Stout evolved out of the style Porter and the term Stout was originally used as an adjective…because it is one. Stout Porter was the beefier version of Porter. There is certainly an argument to be made that Stout should be used as an adjective and describe a type of Porter.

The Modern Differences

Some argue that Porters are sharper and have a more pronounced roast character while Stouts are softer and include more complex chocolate and coffee notes. However, you can no doubt find someone describing the two styles is exactly the opposite way.

Still others may say that Porters are lighter in body than Stouts. This would make sense but if you put a Baltic Porter next to an Irish Stout that argument falls apart.

What Craft Brewers Say

In an article from Craft Beer and Brewing, Emily Hutto interviewed several pro brewers about how they distinguish Porter and Stout. The result was a lot of varied opinions which leads us to believe…no one really knows.

At the start of that article, Emily also writes, “Historical precedent for beer styles matters less than common usage”. You may disagree with this. That’s fine. But if we agree the fact remains that the “common usage” is so varied and undefined that it’s ambiguous and therefore irrelevant.

Until common usage is unified, the question will continue to be asked…what’s the difference? If no one can currently agree, maybe we should go back to history as our starting point.

The BJCP Speaks

The BJCP says that American Porter is “a substantial, malty dark beer with a complex and flavorful dark malt character.” And American Stout is “A fairly strong, highly roasted, bitter, hoppy dark stout. Has the body and dark flavors typical of stouts with a more aggressive American hop character and bitterness”.

Note that both those mentioned above are the American varieties. This kind of micro comparison is helpful and shows us some differences. It is answering a specific question. The difference between American Stout and American Porter.

The BJCP further breaks Porters into the following: English Porter, American Porter, and Baltic Porter. It seems that they’ve moved to American Porter in favor of Robust Porter as a style guideline.

As an aside, Robust Porter is pretty much like saying Stout Porter.

As for Stouts, we have American, Sweet, Imperial, Oatmeal, Irish, Irish Extra…the list goes on.

There is a point to be made here. In a modern sense, there is so much variety within Stout that it inevitably has a lot of cross over to Porter. Things get blurry when we are comparing the two broad-modern categories of Porter and Stout.

We will all benefit to remember the following. The BJCP exists to define style guidelines for the purpose of judging homebrewing competitions. It doesn’t exist to define styles and tell the world what Stout and Porter are definitively.

Final Thoughts

Ask five brewers what the difference is between Stout and Porter and you’ll get twenty-five different answers. There is a lot of line blurring and beer mythology in the mix. If you’re looking for a simple answer, there may not be one.

Personally, what matters to me is quality and taste. If I set out to brew a historical example then it may be easier for me to call it a porter or a stout. If I set out to win a homebrewing competition, I’ll use BJCP style guidelines and brew a beer that fits a specific description. And if I set out to brew a delicious, roasty, and dark beer, I won’t lose sleep over whether it’s a Porter or a Stout.

If something is ambiguous then it benefits everyone to turn to history for clarity. It would also help if we (the beer nerds) would ask more specific questions. For example, what is the difference between Irish Porter and Irish Stout?

So, what’s the difference between a Stout and a Porter today in North America? To paraphrase Micheal Tonsmeire…the label.

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