This essay is part of a series this month, coinciding with the concept of Flagship February, wherein we intend to revisit the flagship beers of regional craft breweries, reflect on their influence within the beer scene, and assess how those beers fit into the modern beer world. Click here to see all the other entries in the series.
Flagship dark ales have always been far more of a rare sighting among craft breweries in the United States, in comparison with flagship pale ales, IPAs, amber ales, golden ales, wheat beers and even lagers. It’s not hard to see why: Compared to styles like pale ale, your average porters and stouts were much more challenging, at least in terms of appearance, to those drinkers who were slowly making the conversion away from light lager and in the direction of craft beer in the 1980s and 1990s. Especially for those who grew up in the heyday of industrial lager (the ‘60s and ‘70s), dark beers were simply an especially intimidating sight—they suggested everything you didn’t know about beer, and worse yet were saddled with nonsense descriptors like “heavy” that were never meant as a compliment.
Whereas something like an amber ale might have allowed those drinkers to dip a toe into more malt-driven beer styles in a way that was gentle and inviting, the jet black hue of a proper porter or stout was a much more significant visual hurdle to overcome. Sure, almost all of the regional breweries of yesteryear had year-round porters and stouts in their lineups, but they were almost universally seen as nichier, “speciality” beers for a select clientele of more adventurous drinkers. In other words, they were rarely a brewery’s workhorse, and almost never the beer whose sales kept the lights on … with a handful of exceptions.
One of those exceptions belongs to a company that currently resides in the Brewers Association’s top 10 in terms of production, Deschutes Brewery. Although labeled as a “co-flagship” alongside the equally classic Mirror Pond Pale Ale—a beer we’ve shared our appreciation for in the past—Black Butte Porter is the beer that Deschutes acknowledges “started it all,” and is likely the brew that fans would think of first when asked to name the company’s true flagship. It’s a classic American robust porter that has aged gracefully since 1988, no doubt doing its part to convert countless self-proclaimed “light beer” drinkers over the years into the very modern generation so head-over-heels obsessed with bombastic imperial stouts. It is, without a doubt, one of the most important American dark beers ever brewed, alongside the likes of Anchor Porter and the more modern Left Hand Milk Stout.
We refer to Black Butte as a “robust porter” or “American porter,” but it’s one of the open secrets of the craft beer industry that neither of those terms really means much or has a workable definition, when all is said and done. Classically, brewing textbooks would have told you that robust porter is the Americanized version of the older British brown porter, a style characterized by a more malty, nutty and less pronouncedly “roasty” character than what many of us think of as porter or stout today. This “American porter” would have been more roasty and perhaps a touch stronger than its English forebears, but intended to stop short of the even roastier ideal of “American stout,” existing in what is ultimately a very narrow window between styles. The truth, however, is that breweries agree to no kind of standard when it comes to “porter” vs. “stout,” using whatever ingredients they please and simply labeling them with whatever feels right or will sell best. Over time in the American beer scene, “stout” has arguably become less common to use in reference to standard or medium-strength beers, becoming far more associated with imperial stouts, while porters have taken up the slack—although finding one without adjuncts or flavorings in a modern craft beer bar can sometimes pose a challenge. Although there were once many, many regionally distributed beers in the mold of the unflavored, uncomplicated Black Butte, it’s now become the standard-bearer of a vanishing archetype.
In its own way, though, that influx of adjuncts and flavorings has arguably made beers like Black Butte Porter considerably more relevant and vital than they would have been a decade ago, when beer geeks were increasingly seeing them as “just one more porter” among a field of similar offerings. Today, in a time when many breweries don’t bother making porter or stout at all unless it’s dosed with coffee, vanilla, coconut, etc, etc, a non-adjunct offering has a novelty that is quite honestly refreshing, not to mention an often greater sense of sophistication that comes with a product not designed as liquid dessert.
With all that said, then, let’s get to actually re-tasting Black Butte.
Tasting: Deschutes Black Butte Porter
I’m a little bit embarrassed to say that despite my fondness for the style, Black Butte wasn’t a beer I’ve ever drank all that often in the past, mostly because I was even more fond of Deschutes’ year-round, likewise non-adjunct Obsidian Stout, which I always thought had a drier, roastier edge. After revisiting Black Butte, however, I find myself intrigued all over again.
On the nose, this beer really hits that milk chocolate note nicely, with a delicate sweetness that and hint of nuttiness that gives its roastier notes a characteristic a bit like hazelnut coffee. It’s a bit lighter on the nose overall than some, but hints at mild sweetness, and a hint of caramel as well.
On the palate, it is indeed a bit less roast-driven than you would probably be expecting were it labeled as “stout,” with a nuttier and more cocoa-driven profile that also contains an element of toffee sweetness. The chocolate is more of the milk chocolate than dark chocolate dimension, and it lacks the slight astringency of roastier stouts, making it extremely easy to drink. Returning for repeated sips, I pick up some richer hints of vanilla that amplify the cocoa impressions, and a mild residual sweetness that rounds everything out. All in all, an extremely drinkable porter right here—a positively poundable porter, in fact. If ever there was a porter built for drinking in quantity, it would be this. With a big plate of buffalo wings, perhaps?
And that’s the thing you can ultimately say about Black Butte, and beers like Black Butte—they don’t tire out the palate by trying to dazzle you with massive adjunct flavors from the first sip. They reward a little introspection. They encourage the next sip, and the next beer, rather than leaving you feeling like what you really need is a bottle of water and a box of Saltines to bring some sense of balance back to your taste buds. That’s a valuable thing to have, and it makes me feel certain I’ll be revisiting Black Butte a bit more often in the future.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.