In this new Paste Drink series, we take a step back from the craft beer hype cycle to offer our enduring endearments to some of our favorite beers that have stood the test of time. These beers should be considered paragons of their respective styles, and just because they’re available year round (in most cases), that never makes us any less excited to crack one open. These are the Beers We Love, and they’ve earned our respect.
There really aren’t many styles of craft beer where you can say “Name a great, widely available commercial example of _____,” and expect with a great degree of certainty to hear a specific beer name be mentioned. Try it with IPA, for example, and you’ll hear hundreds of potential answers. But ask a craft beer geek to name a great, widely available porter? They’re going to say “Founders,” if they’ve got any taste at all.
And they’re going to be correct, when they say it. You may be able to find a porter at your local brewery that remains your personal favorite, but when we’re talking about nationally distributed, non-adjunct, exceptionally executed, classic PORTER, then talking about Founders is an absolute must. It’s the most dependably great porter in the world.
Of course, that begs the question: Why? What makes this beer so great? Well, we’re glad you asked.
Here’s the thing about Founders Porter: It doesn’t just “blur the lines” between porter and stout, it illustrates that any serious attempt to pin the two as uniquely different styles is a pointless one. You might know American craft brewers who feel strongly that modern “porter” and modern “stout” exist as definably separate entities, but just as many brewers, if not more, have no respect for any such definition—they design their porter and stout recipes however they please, and in doing so they render definitions meaningless. So it is with Founders Porter, which is bigger (6.5% ABV), bolder, and generally more assertive than many of the beers on the shelf labeled as “porter,” while simultaneously retaining impeccable balance. It’s not just one of the best porters in the world; it’s one of the best dark beers to exist in its mid-range ABV bracket.
On the nose, the signature notes of Founders Porter are a well-constructed interplay between assertive roast, hints of sweetness, and more American hops than you may initially have been expecting. Ashy, French roast coffee notes mingle with very dark cocoa, hints of molasses sweetness and hop notes of pine and maybe a touch of mint. On the palate, Founders Porter is appreciably creamy in texture for a non-adjunct beer that isn’t employing something like lactose to boost the smoothness of its mouthfeel, while remaining fairly dry, despite a subtle sweetness. There’s cocoa here, in the vein of semi-sweet chocolate baking morsels, along with moderate hop bitterness and some toffee-like caramelization, but again it’s really the firm backbone of roastiness that is key. The beer combines a certain sense of heft and “chewiness” with extreme drinkability, creating a porter that I will happily down, 20 oz at a time, while still wanting to come back for another.
In comparison with other porters that you’ll find on the shelves today from popular, regional American craft breweries, Founders Porter stands out for the fact that it’s significantly more assertive, dry and roast-forward than many of them. With no disrespect toward breweries such as Bells, Sierra Nevada, Highland, Deschutes or Anchor, this is the factor that makes Founders stand out so dramatically—a quality that is shared by another of the Midwest’s best porters, Great Lakes Brewing Co. Edmund Fitzgerald. But with that said … Founders still does it the best. It’s an everyday dark beer that feels like a treat but is still quaffable; perfectly at home accompanying either a burger or a bowl of vanilla ice cream. If this beer is one thing, it’s versatile.
Knowing all that, though, perhaps the most shocking thing about Founders Porter is how close it came in the 2000s to disappearing forever.
Porter is an O.G. beer for Founders, having first been brewed as one of the company’s first four recipes when they opened their doors in Grand Rapids, MI, in 1997. However, it hasn’t always been available in the years since.
At first, the beer was a seasonal, trotted out during the colder months of the year. Eventually, after receiving some substantial tweaks to its recipe during 2001, it became the beer we know today, albeit still as a seasonal. However, in 2005 it almost went away forever. At the time, Founders was settling into its modern lineup of beers, banishing the banal ales and lagers that had almost led to the company going out of business in the early 2000s and replacing them with more daring, innovative and extreme styles. The gambit worked—production at Founders began to climb rapidly in the mid-2000s, but that meant a lack of tank space for styles that weren’t growing as quickly as leaders such as Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale and Centennial IPA. Ultimately, Porter ended up on the chopping block. That’s right—the best widely available porter in the U.S. got axed by its brewery, and disappeared entirely from 2005-2007. It was a painful loss for dark beer lovers.
“We really had to make way for higher volume products,” said co-founder Dave Engbers in a 2013 interview with Craft Brewing Business. “But when we moved into our new facility in November of 2007, we made the decision to bring Porter and Imperial Stout back, but Porter came back as a year-round product instead of a seasonal. I really pushed for us to bring Porter back year-round just because I think the style was getting a little bit more attention. At this point, we were distributing on the East Coast. In those New England and Mid-Atlantic states, there are a lot of porter drinkers out there. We reintroduced it, and our sales have been increasing every year.”
Today, Founders is far from the plucky little Grand Rapids upstart it was in the ‘90s. After the acquisition of 30% of the company by Spanish brewing conglomerate Mahou San Miguel, it can’t even qualify for the title of “craft beer” according to the Brewers Association definition, although as we’ve written in the past, the term “craft” has become increasingly meaningless. In those years, Founders surpassed Bells to become the largest brewery—craft or not—in Michigan, growing ever larger on the back of powerhouse brands such as All Day IPA. But Porter is not to be forgotten. It may not move the most cases in package stores, but it’s the unheralded crown jewel of the year-round Founders lineup.
In the Craft Brewing Business piece I quoted above, Dave Engbers says one more thing on the style of porter that bears repeating. As he said then:
“Porter is just one of those beers that has a special place in my heart. It’s one of those beers when you drink it, you think, ‘Oh man, why don’t I drink this beer more often?’ One of our wholesalers on the east side of the country used to say, ‘Porters—it’s everybody’s favorite style of beer that they never buy.’ I definitely think porters in general tend to be an overlooked category.”
As far as general rules of thumb in the beer world are concerned, few are more accurate than that assessment, and you could argue that Engber’s words have only become more true since 2013. In the modern craft beer market, session-strength porter and stout have been absolutely deluged by adjuncts. Perhaps as an offshoot of the so-called “pastry stout” craze—or a precursor to that very craze—these styles have been used as canvases for both novel flavor experimentation and garish artificial flavors. Many of these experiments turn out beautifully—who among us can’t name a coffee porter or spiced porter they’ve enjoyed? Others, however, illustrate one of craft beer’s most negative aspects, which is the gimmicky race to the bottom that has forced some breweries to compete for Instagram “OMGs!” with absurdly flavored concoctions that smack of desperation. The half dozen competing peanut butter porters I can find at the local beer store … I’m looking in your direction.
As a result, regular old “standard” porter often has to take a back seat. A beer like Founders Porter might be perceived by the pastry stout chaser as too dry, too bitter or too subtle. And indeed, the more one’s taste buds are overwhelmed by excess and decadence, the harder it becomes to appreciate balance and subtlety. It’s a little scary to think that beers in the vein of this porter could eventually go the way of the dodo in favor of residual sugar bombs and stouts blended with bits of Oreo, but thankfully, the beer world tends to be cyclical. As the pastry stout wave recedes, hopefully it will reveal a new appreciation for beers like this one in its wake.
We’re confident that Founders Porter will still be waiting there for you, once the last dregs of cotton candy piña colada porter have finished swirling down the kitchen drain.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.