Explaining the difference between a stout and a porter can feel a bit like trying to find the difference between a pink and a white marshmallow; is there even one? Baltic Porter, on the other hand, now that’s something I can yarn about.
The story for this regional style begins in 1700s Europe. The Europe-facing part of Russia and the wider Baltic during that period had developed an expensive taste for strong dark beers imported from Britain. Local breweries had tried to compete from as early as 1791 but struggled against the premium perception that British beers commanded.
The early 1800s saw Napoleon Bonaparte introduce a continental blockade against Britain, and the Baltic region was subsequently unable to import their beloved British beer. Baltic brewers began making more of their own versions to fill the shortfall but struggled to persuade the region that locally-brewed beer was better. Those early variations used local ingredients and set the stage for the evolution of a new style.
The new style began to take shape during the early to mid-1800s as brewing with bottom fermenting yeasts spread more broadly to the Baltic. Breweries in the region no longer needed to use warm fermenting yeasts and instead many began making the switch to lager brewing, which better-suited the colder climate. Baltic brewers also began to use new malt blends which, together with the switch to lager brewing, allowed them to rapidly scale up production.
So, confusingly, Baltic Porter is a lager, not an ale. The taste and mouthfeel are far ‘cleaner’ than its stout cousins — less heavy in character than a stout, while still retaining plenty of body. The flavour tends to involve a combination of delectable roasted malts, chocolate, toffee, dark fruits (like plums and berries), and sometimes even licorice. Alcohol content is typically upwards of 8-10 per cent, making this style a perfect choice for winter.
Keen to try one? I’d highly recommend starting with Sawmill’s Baltic Porter. This gold medal winning brew imparts rich flavours of smooth roasted malt, berries, toffee, and subtle coffee. 8-Wired Baltyk-Tasman, Behemoth Cruising to Tallinn, and Garage Project Baltic Porter are easy recommendations. They tend to be hard to find but are well worth the hunt. Baltyk-Tasman even has a Malbec barrel aged iteration which, quite frankly, I cannot get enough of. I’d also recommend trying Poland’s Zywiec 1881 which is affordably priced and packed with an array of complex flavours.
Otherwise, keep an eye on your local breweries. Small batches of Baltic Porter can occasionally pop up and they’re always worth trying. I narrowly missed the chance to try one from Mean Doses back in February – so don’t be like me, buy it when you see it.