Our ongoing series on the essential craft beers that everyone ought to know.
Dark ales are usually intimidating for those new to the world of craft beers. Too many people have been raised with the notion that beers should merely be a pale yellow, crisp, and almost flavorless beverage. When I ask my lager-drinking friends if they would like a sip of my dark ale, their inevitable response is one of mild revulsion, a “blech, I can’t drink dark beers,” or something similar. And who can blame them? Pre-craft beer revolution, most dark ales (which includes porters and stouts) were a sweet, malty mess. The only decent porters and stouts—outside of Anchor Porter, first brewed when dinosaurs roamed the earth back in 1972—were European imports.
DESCHUTES BREWERY was one of the first to reintroduce a good domestic porter. Founder Gary Fish created the Black Butte Porter in 1988 soon after moving to Bend, Oregon, and opening a brew pub; it quickly became a favorite among his customers. Fish’s porter quickly grew in popularity and, after wider distribution after being bottled for the first time in 1994, was one of the main factors that drove the huge success of the Deschutes Brewery.
So, what is a porter, you may ask? First produced in England in the early 18th century, the porter was made with low-grade dark roasted malts, used more for low cost rather than for subtle bittering and flavoring. It was then aged in casks or barrels, where it conditioned anywhere from a month to a couple of years, most likely due to the hungry microflora living in the wood that would mellow the harsh, bitter, smoky flavors from the roasted barley. Porter allegedly got its name from the fact that this was a popular drink among London’s riverfront porters, who carried cargo and other goods along the river banks for customers. Sounds legit?
It’s a pleasing story at least, giving the porter (the ale, not the carrier) a reputation as a down-to-earth, working man’s sort of beer. Porters have come a long way from those working class roots (the Black Butte was initially enjoyed by the aprés-ski crowd coming down from the Oregon mountains and into Fish’s brew pub or the eponymous resort northeast of Bend).
So, how does the Black Butte Porter hold up in today’s world of triple-strength pastry dessert porters and stouts? This is still an amazing ale without any flavoring gimmicks. Black Butte Porter is a dark brown, almost black, color, fitting for its style. The aromas and flavors are also what you would expect from this dark roasted brew—dark roasted malts, sweet hints of brown sugar, hints of black coffee, perfect hoppy bitterness—and I caught the tiniest waft of anise on the tasty dry finish. With a fairly light 5.2% ABV, Black Butte Porter is still easy drinking and doesn’t overwhelm the palate with too much complexity. Like most dark beers, this is not meant to be drunk cold. With its English roots, a porter should be drunk at a slightly warmer temperature (say, room temperature, if your room is in the northern climes). This will allow the true nature of the Black Butte porter to deliciously shine.
The Black Butte Porter is a tasty, well-balanced ale. While dark and toasty, the finish is much lighter and crisper than you might imagine at first glance. If you’re one who has previously been intimidated by dark beers but you’re ready to move on from the standard pale and hoppy fare, this porter should definitely be on your to-drink list. Black Butte Porter is simply a classic beer style made by a classic American brewery and will gently yet insistently remind you that there is much more to beers than the ones we have become accustomed to in the U.S.. It may just nudge you toward exploring the darker and scarier realms of imperial porters and barrel-aged stouts. —J.A.