Like its cousins brown ale and mild, brown porter is another great beer style that doesn't quite get the attention it deserves these days. Whereas most everyone knows what a porter is, or have tried one at some point in time, mention brown porter is to your non-homebrewing friends and chances are you'll only get a puzzled reply. You can't really blame them though. How often does a brown porter show up on tap in your local pub or on the shelf of the beer store? Are there any good American commercial examples of a brown porter you can name off hand?
So what exactly is a brown porter? I’m no beer historian, but I’m pretty sure there weren’t any historical beers called brown porter. A quick look over CAMRA’s “Beer Style Guidelines” and we see there are no designations between various types of porter. If the beer is dark colored, flavored with dark malts (not roasted barley) and the original gravity is between 1.040 and 1.065, it’s a porter. Even the classic examples of the brown porter style, Fullers and Sam Smith’s, are both known as porter… are London Porter and Taddy Porter their own style too?! It is pretty obvious that the BJCP is again responsible for this naming mishap, another attempt to categorize every beer into its own little style. I’ve always thought a better way of differentiating the flavor differences between porters for an American audience would to be to call them by their place of origin and/or ingredients used. Something like English porter, American porter, and Baltic porter. I’ve always labeled my porters (on tap) this way.
Semantics aside, brown porter is a great style to drink and brew. You could say that next to bitter, it is my second most brewed beer; especially when you consider how most of the milds and English style brown ales I brew have more resemblance to porters than whatever I may call them. My interpretation of the brown porter style is generally consistent with the BJCP guidelines, except that I usually prefer my versions to have a bit more roast and caramel character than what a competition judge might be accustomed to. A good example of the style for my tastes is something that has both a complex, full flavored malt base and follows it up with some coffee, chocolate, and dark roast character. I like a bit more caramel and toffee flavors than the style allows for. Hops should be low in flavor and provide a gentle bitterness and the yeast should add some character. Balance is always key.
What is especially nice about brown porters is how easily the flavor profile can be adjusted to individual tastes. Since it combines all the primary characteristics of mild, brown ale, and strong porter, you can essentially pick and choose the things you want from those styles and still be within the established range of flavors. There are few styles that offer as much creative freedom and the potential to pack a whole lot of flavor into a little package, as brown porter. It kills me to hear people say low alcohol beers are boring or uninteresting, especially when a properly made brown porter can rival the best RIS or Belgian in terms of complexity and drinkability.
When brewing brown porters, I always try to include at least three specialty malts in the recipe - usually brown, chocolate, and crystal. Brown malt in particular is a great malt to use, as it combines both a toasty, biscuity character with some light coffee and roast flavor. At lower amounts (3-5%) it will add complexity without being too prominent in the final beer. If you’re looking for some additional complexity in your mild and brown ale recipes, a little bit of brown malt makes a big difference. In contrast, using brown malt at higher percentages can give the beer a very dry and roasted flavor that will overpower much of the other malts in the beer. A good rule of thumb when using brown malt is to either have a simple grist when using a lot of it, or blend smaller amounts with other specialty malts. Also, beers with large amounts of brown ale can require more time before they are ready to drink than those without. Don't expect to drink a beer with a lot of brown malt three weeks after brew day. Give the beer time for the flavors to develop.
Along with brown malt, chocolate and crystal malts are pretty important for a good brown porter. I like using chocolate malts anywhere from 3-8% of the grist, depending on what other roasted malts I am using. Small changes in the amount of chocolate malt can really have a big impact on the overall flavor profile of a beer. A few ounces too much and you can go from a nice dark chocolate type flavor to something more roasty and unbalanced. I've learned that it is always best to err on the side of caution when using roasted malts and start low and work your way up. Don't be afraid to experiment! Also, be careful when choosing your chocolate malt, as some continental maltsters have very dark versions of the same malt. Some chocolate malts, like Thomas Fawcett, are light colored (330L) whereas other can be as dark, or darker than roasted barley. Furthermore, I like using a good amount of crystal malt in my brown porters (5-8%), as it both provides sweetness and helps balance the acidity of the dark malts. Any color crystal malt is fine in a pinch, though I generally use those malts in the 45-85L range. A small percentage of dark crystal (120-150L), in addition to lighter crystal malts, can be very nice, though anything more than 5% is usually too much. Aside, one instance where you really don't need any crystal malts is when brewing historical porters or those that use mostly just pale malt, brown malt (usually more than 15%) and a small amount of black malt. These beers finish dry and roasty and you really don't want lots of sweetness to get in the way.
A few other malts that can be nice in brown porters are biscuit/amber malts, pale chocolate, black malt, carafa type malts, and kiln-coffee malt among others. I found that a good way of adding complexity to a beer is to start with a balanced grist and incorporate a small amount of a similar grain. For instance, adding some pale chocolate malt to a recipe with a good amount of regular chocolate malt is a nice way of getting some toasty notes without having to use an amber or biscuit malt. It is usually better to add a similar malt type than to jump in another direction with something completely different. A common saying in the cooking world that I think applies to making beer recipes is, “if they grow together, they’ll taste good together.” Same is usually true when using different malts.
Finally, a word on yeast and hop choice. There aren't many ‘bad’ choices of yeast for making a brown porter, though it is always a best bet to stick with the English strains. Since much of the flavor of the beer will be yeast derived, I like using characterful, top cropping strains. Yeasts like WY1318, 1968, 1882, 1469, and 1275 are almost always good choices since they produce full flavored beers and add complexity to the final product. A little bit of diacetyl can be good thing too. Strains that I stay away from are those that ferment too clean or don’t highlight the malt character. Nottingham, the Whitbread strains (1098,99, S-04), and very minerally/bready strains (like 1028) don’t always give the best results. And as with any English yeast, fermentation temperatures should always be controlled. Having too much fruity esters is just as bad as having none at all. Finally, hopping should always be a straightforward affair with the emphasis on the bittering addition. Some hop aroma can be nice, though the earthier hops tend to taste better than the flowery, spicy ones. Fuggles and willamette are great choices, along with earthy varieties like challenger. Please don’t use “C” hops in your brown porters.
If you haven't brewed a brown porter yet, give it a try. Chances are you'll really enjoy it!