35 of the Best American Porters, Ranked

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25-SmuttyNose-RobustPorter.jpg 10. Smuttynose Robust Porter
City: Hampton, New Hampshire
ABV: 6.2%
Key ingredient: Belgian Special B malt
Perfect for: Using as a benchmark
The verdict: Smuttynose’s most-awarded beer is their porter, and it’s one of the best examples on the list of a well-executed, simple, straightforward example of the style. It’s braced by tannic roastiness, but there’s some sweetness there as well and a creaminess reminiscent of milk sugar/lactose. Bright, vivacious and flavorful.

17-Maui-CoCoNut-Porter.jpg 9. Maui Brewing Co. Coconut Porter
City: Kihei, HI
ABV: 6%
Key ingredient: Toasted coconut
Perfect for: The beach in winter
The verdict: You definitely won’t miss the coconut in Maui Brewing Co.’s porter—it explodes out of the glass like some kind of unidentifiable, coconut-heavy dessert grandma used to make. On the sweeter side, there’s a definite dessert tone to this brew, although the coconut stops short of getting ridiculous—it’s more like coconut candy or a Girl Scout Samoa cookie. Your mileage will depend quite a bit on how much you like coconut, but if it’s a favored flavor, then you should probably seek this one out immediately.

31-Wynwood-PopsPorter.jpg 8. Wynwood Pop’s Porter
City: Miami, FL
ABV: 6.2%
Key ingredient: Very efficient American ale yeast
Perfect for: People who like their porters bone dry and roasty
The verdict: We were especially curious to try this beer after its relatively unheralded Miami brewery earned a gold medal with it at the 2014 Great American Beer Fest (which I attended ). What we found was a a very dry, drinkable, roasty-heavy porter that embraces its darkness and ashy flavors of smoke and cocoa powder. A sophisticated ale that would probably be right at home with a Sherlock-style pipe.

32-Cowbell-MilkPorter.jpg 7. Sun King Cowbell Milk Porter
City: Indianapolis, IN
ABV: 6%
Key ingredient: Milk sugar/lactose
Perfect for: Big, chewy chocolate chip cookies
The verdict: Light of body, effervescent and drinkable, but still somehow creamy and flavorful, Indianapolis’ Sun King has an interesting porter here. The lactose character is fairly mild, simply something to amplify the beer’s creamy texture, chocolate flavors and add a bit of richness. Dangerously drinkable, it’s easy to imagine tilting back pint after pint of this all night long—call it the Left Hand Milk Stout of porters.

21-OskarBlues.jpg 6. Oskar Blues Nib Sip
City: Longmont, CO
ABV: 8%
Key ingredient: Cacao nibs and coffee beans
Perfect for: Stretching the boundaries of “porter”
The verdict: This offering from Oskar Blues sits right on the dividing line of porter and “imperial porter,” and is further treated with cacao nibs and coffee to create one of the more unique beers on the table. Tasting notes were all over the place: “Smoked chocolate.” “Oatmeal cookies, dates, cinnamon.” “Stretches the boundary of porter.” Either way, it’s a decadent, genre-bending treat.

23-SecondSelf.jpg 5. Second Self Mole Porter
City: Atlanta, GA
ABV: 6.5%
Key ingredient: Cinnamon, chiles
Perfect for: A big-ass plate of churros
The verdict: All of the tasters were impressed by the restraint displayed by this small Atlanta brewery in constructing a Mexican-themed porter with all its elements in harmonious balance. Toasted chiles are tastefully present in the background and give way to burnt toast roastiness and a sprinkling of cinnamon sugar. It’s like a session-strength version of some of the great mole-spiced imperial stouts we drank in January, with everything appropriately reduced to still be engaging and unique.

9-Buddha-LastSnow.jpg 4. Funky Buddha Last Snow Coconut Coffee Porter
City: Oakland Park, FL
ABV: 6.5%
Key ingredient: Toasted coconut and coffee
Perfect for: Gambling on the final, unidentified chocolate from your heart-shaped Valentine’s Day box.
The verdict: Remember the lauding I mentioned for this brewery’s maple bacon porter? Well this one is also ranked #4 and #2 in the world, according to Beeradvocate and Ratebeer respectively, and in this case many of the tasters were in agreement. Somewhat more subtle in its coconut flavor than the beer from Maui, it’s also tempered by strong, pure coffee flavors—think very strong, cold-brew coffee with plenty of sugar. It’s notable that both the coconut and the maple bacon involve strong, enhancing flavors without losing sight of their inherent porter-ness.

2-AleSyndicate.jpg 3. Ale Syndicate Richie
City: Chicago, IL
ABV: 8%
Key ingredient: More malt and a fruity ale yeast strain
Perfect for: A ribeye
The verdict: “Richie” is probably the biggest and most aggressive of the pure, unflavored porters on the list, and it brings some very welcome dark fruit tones to play that helped it stand out of the crowd. This is very rich, flavor-intensive beer, with roast and cocoa that complement dark fruity sweetness but also an unexpected note of orange that popped up seemingly out of nowhere. “Complex” is a word that appears on nearly all of the score sheets, and “memorable” would be another.

1-Alaskan-SmokedPorter.jpg 2. Alaskan Brewing Co. Smoked Porter
City: Juneau, AK
ABV: 6.5%
Key ingredient: Buckets and buckets of smoked malt
Perfect for: Ice fishing
The verdict: Alaskan’s smoked porter is a beer that announces its presence the second you crack off the cap. Very meaty and assertive in its smoke flavor, it nevertheless manages to hang on to the porter behind it with a degree of roast, dark fruit and toasty spices. Praise on the score sheets was effusive: “Complex, deep roastiness.” “The best smoked beer I’ve tasted.” “I feel like I want to pair this with lox.” And finally, “Why would anyone else make a smoked porter after this one?”

8-FoundersPorter.jpg 1. Founders Porter
City: Grand Rapids, MI
ABV: 6.5%
Key ingredient: A large percentage of chocolate malt
Perfect for: A big slice of birthday cake
The verdict: There were a lot of porters on this table in the same ABV range as Founders Porter, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any of them with such a depth, volume and complexity of flavor. As one taster wrote, “So much flavor for 6.5.” It’s a classic, style-defining take on American robust porter that bombards the taste buds with extremely rich dark chocolate, coffee and a touch of smoke, backed up by lightly floral hops. Drinking it side by side with some of the other ones on the table and comparing it, this beer’s virtues become only more apparent. It’s still one of the best commercial porters that anyone has ever made.

A note on beer acquisition: A consequence of the expansion of the craft beer industry that we don’t think very much about is the slow degradation of classic brands, and in the course of doing this porter list, that was summed up by Sierra Nevada Porter. In trying to put together the most comprehensive lists possible, Paste reaches out to breweries all around the country in an attempt to acquire a bottle or two of various beers that aren’t distributed around Atlanta. The ones with national distribution we typically don’t bother to request—we can just buy them here ourselves, after all.

After the initial tasting, I realized that Sierra Nevada hadn’t been represented, and I wondered how I’d missed it while buying porters for the tasting at our local beer shop. “No problem,” I thought. “I’ll just go pick some up and we’ll add it in with the next round.” But there was no Sierra Nevada Porter to be had. I visited no fewer than four of Atlanta’s best beer shops—nothing. As it turns out, Sierra Nevada Porter simply doesn’t make it here. Neither does the regular Sierra Nevada Stout. In a craft beer landscape that thrives on novelty and is all about what is fresh and new, these are the unintended consequences—one must presume that the old Sierra Nevada Porter just couldn’t keep up with so many other beers in the fight for shelf space. Five years ago, it’s a beer that you could have found in any of those stores. But now, for better or for worse, there’s much more focus on novelty and of course on local product as well.

So if you’re wondering why the likes of Sierra Nevada Porter isn’t represented, that would be why. In the future, we’ll look into availability of national brands a bit more closely in advance. It’s just one more thing to think about in this ever-changing craft beer landscape we love so well.