Since porter derived its name from an early popularity with people who carried things for a living, it's sort of fitting that many people now think of it as a winter beer.
After all, it's this time of year that people are toting loaded shopping bags, hefting big dishes to the feast table and hauling the family off to visit relatives for the holidays.
Or maybe it's that the deep-dark colored ale, with its malty-rich flavor tastes so good alongside all those holiday dishes that tend to appear only near the end of the year — slow-roasted turkey, brown-sugar-encrusted sweet potatoes, any number of sinful deserts.
Porter is said to have taken its name from the hard-working laborers around London where the beer was born in the 18th century. The characteristic dark brown or even black color comes from the special varieties of malted barley, the grain that is the bedrock of most beer. As with all brews, first the barley is soaked to allow the seeds to germinate, then heated to dry it and promote the conversion of starch to alcohol.
For porters and other darker beers, some or all of the barley is dried at higher temperatures, changing the color and flavors of the resulting malt. Generally speaking, the higher the temperature, the darker the malt and the more complex the flavors. Brewers mix and match malts to achieve their desired tastes. "Chocolate" malt can add caramel or vanilla flavors; patent malt is dried hot enough it turns black and picks up an acrid smokiness. Crystal malt is roasted in a rotating drum before the drying process, and can give the resulting beer an extra sweetness.
Porters, like their cousins the stouts, pair well with a number of entrees, and their rich body makes them an excellent base for chili and stew recipes. And all those roasty flavors mean the dark beers are an excellent match for rich deserts, playing much the same role a cup of coffee does alongside a slice of pie or cake. It might sound counter-intuitive, but the next time you pour a glass of porter, hold back just a splash in the bottle and drizzle it over a bowl of vanilla ice cream — you'll never need chocolate syrup again.
Below are a few good porters from American brewers; all can be found either in area restaurant coolers or on local store shelves — at least you won't have to carry them far to get them home.
Sierra Nevada Porter — A good, straight-up basic porter, with a rich taste from chocolate and caramel hops. Naturally for a West-Coast brew (Sierra Nevada is based in Chico, Calif.), bitter hops balance out the sweetness.
Samuel Adams Honey Porter — True to porter's heritage, Boston Beer Co. uses English hops varieties alongside the roasted malts, then sets it all off with a bit of Scottish honey. The brewer suggests trying it alongside glazed ham and roasted vegetables.
Rogue Mocha Porter — This is your dessert beer. With generous doses of chocolate, black and crystal hops, it'll stand up to the richest, gooiest dessert you can serve. Try it with ice cream, as mentioned above; even better with a warm fudge brownie underneath that scoop of vanilla.