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Monday, April 05, 2010

Baltic Porters

Last November, I had the good fortune to stumble across a bottle of Żywiec, a Polish Baltic porter. A few weeks ago, I bought a few more bottles and, with the help of some friends, did a sampling. Here are my findings.

History and Style
Although British export to India produced a far more famous style, the actual market to the Baltics was about the same size in 1800. (The market to North America, about which we hear almost nil and which produced zero new styles, was six times as large as either the Baltic or Indian markets.) One of the prominent beers that traveled the Northern route was a hearty stout that was later called Russian Imperial, owing to its favor in the court of Catherine the Great. Heavy black beers in general were favored, though, and eventually local breweries started making them themselves.

The style that emerged is now known as Baltic porter, and we have local examples from the Baltic states, Scandinavia, Poland, and Russia. They bear some similarity to imperial stouts: made with black malts and often roasted barley, these porters are strong and hearty. Yet most are brewed with lager yeasts and have a lighter, cleaner palate, with flavors that tend more toward schwarzbiers than porters.

Baltic porters have a bitter, roasty quality that can produce flavors of licorice and molasses, even tending toward the sour. Because they're lagered, they have little in the way of esters, and the malt provides little sweetness--yet they're also very smooth and silky. In some you might find a sherry-like dry note; in others you find a plummier, port note. Although the BJCP says they can be as small as 5%, the ones I've tried are hefty and alcoholic, a feature that seems to help define the style. I imagine that to address the long, dark, cold winters one would turn to a hearty bear for warmth; a small beer just wouldn't cut it.

Given their obscurity, Baltic porters are pretty easy to find in the US. Belmont Station carries six or eight, and I would suspect this is typical of good bottle shops. (Bonus! They're cheap, with 16.9 ounce bottles at around $3.) I picked up four new bottles and another of Żywiec--to see if I loved it as much when sampled in the company of other Baltics.
  • Alderis Porteris, 6.8% (Latvia). The recipe goes back to the early 20th century and features 10-15% dark malts and 5% roasted malt. Although it had the characteristic roastiness, it was the smoothest and sweetest of the bunch. It had an interesting note--at times I thought it was like beets, at other times like cola. Rating: B+
  • Baltika Porter, 7% (Russia). This was the least impressive version we tried. It was thin and sweetish and lacked the complexity of the others. Baltika doesn't use roasted barley, and I think this is the problem. However, special kudos for this online description: "Brewed with added high-quality ingredients and having a racy flavor ... [and] brewed according to old English recipes from elite hops and special yeast." Rating: C
  • Sinebrychoff Porter, 7.2% (Finland). The brewery produced porter as early as the 1860s, and this recipe has been in production since 1957. The sole ale among the bunch (with a yeast purportedly hustled out of England in a test tube), it tasted much more like an imperial stout. Extremely thick and so roasty it poured out like a cup of Stumptown. The roastiness is intense and gives that slightly sour quality--reminding me of Guinness's Extra Stout. It comes in a little bottle and is a bit spendy, but you won't regret it. Lovely. Rating: A-
  • Utenos Porter, 6.8% (Lithuania). This beer is now owned by Carlsberg, and I wonder if that accounts for its slightly dumbed-down profile. It is the lightest-colored of the Baltics, more a brown than a porter. The roastiness here is rooty, rye-like. Unfortunately, it's a bit thin and mild. On its own, I think it would satisfy; but next to some of the more complex versions, it's a bit of a wallflower. Rating: B-
  • Żywiec Porter, 9.5% (Poland). I was pleased to see that Żywiec matched my memory and stood out as the finest of the group. A bracingly bitter beer, it is defined by roasted malts that suggest dark chocolate and molasses. Yet despite it's strength, it is surprisingly smooth (fuller review here). The standard-bearer for the style--and a world class beer. Rating: A
We didn't try Black Boss, another readily available version from Poland. It's another huge beer (9.4%), bold and aggressive. It's less roasty than some, but smooth and drinkable. I should try another sample before rating it, but I'd put it a notch below Żywiec and Synebrychoff.

The Northwest is porter and stout country, and so it's not surprising that local breweries have started to try their hands at Baltic porters. The versions I've tried, while tasty, differed in character from the European originals. My guess is that they more resemble the original British ales. The ones you get from central Europe have a unique quality we're unlikely to see replicated here. Given how cheap and accessible they are, I strongly recommend them to dark beer fans.


  1. I have had a few of those. My personal favorite is Okocim Porter from Poland. About 8.4-9% and very tasty. If you can find it, I highly recommend it!

  2. Now the question is, can you properly pronounce any of those names?

  3. I am reading this right after signing for a document from the Polski consulate. Margaret is getting dual citizenship since her folks are from there.

  4. @Paul: Zywiec is, as I hear 'em say it /zib' yetch/ The rest=??

  5. Paul, absolutely. I'm a professional blogger.

    Angelo, that's cool. You have to go on a trip to the homeland now.

  6. Jeff,

    You allude to something that I've been curious about as well - the local versions of Baltic Porters have generally been tasty but lacking the gravitas that I taste in Okocim, Sinebrychoff, hell even Boss. So in seeing the label Baltic Porter, I get excited, but invariablly have been let down by the results.

    I've got to think the brewers are well versed in these beers too, so why persist with calling these beers Baltic Porters, and merely call them Porters?

    And this issues hasn't just been confined to the brewers. I can't remember any of the reviews from the assorted blogger making any such mention of the stylistic deviation.

  7. Patrick, I think it's the yeast. The four lagered porters I tried all tended toward a Schwarzbier. (By today's logic, we'd probably call them imperial schwarzes.) These beers are probably also aged a bit, which smooths them out even more.

    The versions I've tried locally are made as ales, which give them a decidedly British quality.

    But keep in mind that "traditional" is a moving target. The local Baltics are like the beers England sent along the Northern route--these upstarts are the ones who deviate.

    Personally, I like that there's something different out there. While I'd love to see a local brewery make a lagered Baltic, I actually like buying a Polish Baltic even more--it's like taking a trip one pint at a time.

  8. I've heard this comparison of Baltic porters to schwarzbiers before, and -- with due respect -- I don't buy it from you either, Jeff! The schwarzbiers I've had, from Kostritzer on down, have been much lighter in body (and alcohol) than the Baltics I've had, and darker in color than most of them. I've been drinking Baltic porter since 1994 or so (lucky me!), I've been in on the formulation of two American craft-brewed versions (working on a third right now), I've judged Baltics at the GABF, and other than the lagering and the color...I don't see it. Baltics are blockier, they have either a chocolatey or pit-fruit character (sometimes both), and they aren't as dry as a schwarz.

    Leastways, that's how I see it. I am getting thirsty, though, and it might be a good time to crack out my last bottle of Dojlidy Porter...

  9. Lew, I wasn't trying to make a one-to-one comparison. I meant that, to grasp a key element of a Baltic porter's character, it's useful to think of lagers like Schwarzes rather than other porters or stouts.

    Even better: Baltics have the smoothness of Schwarzes, the roasty dryness of Irish stouts, and the strength of imperial stouts. How's that work?