Porter Tasting: Batch 1

Fuller's, Redemption and Meantime/M&S Porters.

We spent a couple of nights this week drinking and thinking about the first batch of bottled porters in the running to be declared our go-to for this winter.

Without making any real attempt at objectivity — there were no red lightbulbs or concealed labels — we did try to hold each beer to the same standard.

First, before we got into thinking about the taste, we tried simply to react: did the first gobful turn us on?

Then we considered the extent to which it met our expectations of something with porter on the label, which is to say:

  • Black;
  • ‘quaffable’, but with a bit more oomph than mild;
  • lighter bodied than Draught Guinness (the stout of reference); and
  • with flavour and aroma derived primarily from malt and sugar, rather than from hops or yeast.

The first candidates for serious consideration were all recommended as being equal to or better than Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter by our fellow beer geeks.

How did they taste?

We started with a beer we’ve known and loved for years — Fuller’s London Porter (5.4%, £17 for 8 × 500ml from their online store). First, yes, it has the wow factor: it is thrillingly good, without being angular or spiky. Smooth, but deep. It is pitch black, slightly bonfire-smoky, and pleasingly black-tea bitter. We couldn’t help compare it to its near-doppelganger from Sam Smith: Fuller’s take seems lighter-bodied, with less treacle. A bit more grown-up. We’ll double check that when we taste them together in a few weeks. It’s a contender.

Redemption Fellowship (5.1%, £2.99 per 500ml from Ales By Mail) was, by contrast, a disaster: it had almost no carbonation, and poured without a head. What’s the opposite of ‘wow factor’? We did our best to assess the flavour anyway and, rather to our surprise, found plenty to appreciate. It’s powerful tasting, slightly raw, almost too intense, and reminded us of chocolate covered coffee beans. It’s hard to judge body in a condition-free beer but it seemed appropriately middleweight. But, bearing in mind the idea here is to work out which beer to buy a case of, it‘s out of the running. We can’t afford to gamble on a box of duds.

Meantime/Marks & Spencer London Porter (5.5%, 3 for £6 in store) is another beer we know quite well. Drunk in the same session as Fuller’s, it did not come off all that well. There was no immediate spark of delight, and, at first we found it too light-bodied and almost fizzy, like Schwarzbier.  (The power of suggestion, given that Meantime are best known for brewing lager?) On a superficial level, it’s red-brown translucency didn’t seem quite satisfying either. The flavour grew on us, suggesting iced coffee or even coffee cream chocolates, but it lacked depth. We’d buy it again, and ultimately enjoyed it, but as a contender for a bulk purchase? It’s out.

Where our heads are at

For better or worse, it occurs to us that Sam Smith’s and Fuller’s are at an immediate advantage in this exercise because, as the first porters we tasted, and those we’ve enjoyed most often, they define our expectations. We’ll see if some recalibration is required on the day of reckoning.

We also have spare bottles of Meantime and Redemption. They’re out of the grand final (heh!) but we’ll try to give them another go and update this post if we get ‘wow’ (or any sign of condition) on the second pass.

Wood-Aged Belgian Brown White, 1861

Brown Beer, White Beer.

This is from a rather vague article first published in the National Magazine in 1861 entitled ‘German Beer’:

The beers of Belgium and Germany, in general, may be divided into two classes — the brown, and the white, or yellow… The brown differs from the other in taste… The colour may be said to be chiefly owing to a more advanced carbonization of the extractive substances. It must be prepared from the best strong hops, in the proportion of 550 to 642 grammes to the hectolitre of beer. This will do for that manufactured from winter barley. Summer barley requires but 420 grammes… The white beer is prepared from pale malt.

In the rest of the piece, the anonymous author rambles through a list of beer types he or she has come across on their travels, not always specifying clearly whether they are brown or white/yellow.

On the subject of adulteration and fraud, the author has a Belgian brewer called ‘Berhardt’ describing a ‘harmless trick’:

I employ… in the manufacture of my brown beer the following substances, which give it the colour and taste of the ordinary brown beer. I evaporate in a well-tinned cauldron a part of the liquid even to the consistence of a syrup. I keep it in motion on the fire continually until the syrup becomes a burnt and deep-coloured sugar; with that addition alone I am already in a condition to make my brown beer equal to the best of the sort. But as all brown beers have a slightly astringent taste, I give it to the ordinary brown beer by the addition of the bark of oak or mahogany.

In other words, he’s brewing a white/yellow beer but making it look brown with the addition of caramel. That’s still frowned upon today — not very ‘craft’ — but the wood trick is quite the done thing, and we think Berhardt’s beer sounds pretty tasty.

If you fancy a break from brewing black IPA, why not give ‘Belgian brown white’ a go?

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British Bottled Porters, Part 1

Porter has been much on our minds lately with the arrival of Guinness’s new effort and our rediscovery of Samuel Smith’s sublime example.

When we asked if (i.e. tentatively declared that) the latter might be the best bottled porter in the UK, various people suggested other candidates, namely Fuller’s London Porter, Kernel Export and Redemption Fellowship.

That was all the nudging we needed to declare The Great Porter Taste Off, and promptly acquired for consideration over the next month or so bottles of:

Beavertown Smog Rocket Smoked; Kernel Export India; Five Points Railway; Okell’s Aile; Fuller’s London; Redemption Fellowship; Meantime/M&S London; Brewdog Brixton; Guinness Dublin; Brew By Numbers 03/01; Sambrook’s Powerhouse.

We’re going to use this as an opportunity to ponder the nature of porter and also to try out a new approach to assessing and reviewing beers.

  1. Regardless of anything else, did it make us say ‘WOW’? (Sam Smith’s TP did.)
  2. If not, why not; or, if so, why so?

Once we’ve got our short list of WOWs, we’ll revisit them alongside Sam Smith’s and decide on a winner (i.e. our personal favourite — this is about as far from objective as it gets) and order a full case to see us through the winter.

Of course we haven’t got hold of every porter on sale in Britain — our budget only stretches so far — and the Guinness isn’t British. (Or is it? No. Well, sort of. But not really.) And who’s to say what, uh, counts as a porter anyway, man? (Anything with porter on the label, at this stage.) But, still, this should be interesting.

On Friday, we’ll be giving our first thoughts on Fuller’s, Meantime/Marks & Spencer, and Redemption.

If there’s a porter you absolutely think we must include — a stone cold classic that we’ve somehow overlooked — let us know below and we’ll see if we can find some pennies down the back of the sofa and get hold of a couple of bottles.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 13/09/2014

Pipe, hat and pint.

From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar, when the dawn begins to crack. It’s all part of our autumn almanac.

There’s been some interesting reading around the blogoshire and beyond in the last week. Here are our picks.

This is yet another fantastic post from Lars Marius Garshol, who’s been Alan Lomaxing his way through Norway’s farmhouse brewing culture:

He buys Finnish 6-row barley at a local store, and prefers that because of the higher starch content compared to Norwegian barley… During drying the sprouts and the hairlike roots are burned to a cinder, and these must be cleaned off afterwards to avoid giving the beer an unpleasant burnt flavour…. To remove these he uses a machine built by a local guy, who builds them out of chicken wire and the driveworks of old washing machines.

→ On a related note, and completing the circle of love (and thus defeating the Daleks or something?) here’s something Stan Hieronymus wrote at least partly in response to a post of ours:

I’ve been building a bit of a list of what might be called “indigenous beers.” You can help improve it and in return you might win a book… To win, add a beer to this list. Or provide meaningful details about one of the beers already here. Or add something to the “What the heck is indigenous?” conversation.

→ The team at Belgian Smaak hosted the last session on the topic of ‘My First Belgian’ and have put together a thoughtful round-up of all the entries here.

→ Pete Brissenden, a young feller who has worked at both Meantime and Camden breweries, has revived  his blog in the last week. This piece on why pubs are like bananas is thought-provoking and funny“I didn’t include those in this post because I couldn’t work out how to liken them to a banana. Sorry.”

→ Suzy, who has previously worked for Wetherspoon, ponders whether the chain’s new enthusiasm for craft beer will tempt her into the pubs.

→ There’s been another trademark dispute with regard to which lots of people with no special insight or legal training have VERY STRONG OPINIONS! The key bits of information are blog posts by Camden of London and Redwell of Norwich.

The Good Beer Guide is out and reports that the number of breweries has increased yet again to 1,285. (Link is to PDF.) People who have been confidently forecasting a catastrophic end to the boom for several years must be getting antsy.

This post about ‘Beer Before BrewDog’at Ed’s Beer Site prompted some good discussion (as well as some of the usual axe-grinding).

→ Tom Unwin’s Dad is Trevor Unwin, quoted on p45 of Brew Britannia. We have one other issue of What’s Brewing, the short-lived CAMRA glossy magazine, and would love to get our hands on this beauty:

Rampant Egotism

→ We’re going to start with what, for us, is big news: every other Saturday, starting today, we’re going to have a square (it’s not a column…) in the Guardian Guide. It’s a good job we’ve been in training because it’s 150 words (edited to 114 this week) — not a great deal of space to make a point, let alone wax lyrical.

Knut Albert reviewed Brew Britannia and highlighted that it’s a book with some reading in it, not one full of pictures; and that it’s also just the right size to read on the bus. Thanks, Knut!

More Signs of the Times

There’s been more evidence this week that the march into the mainstream of ‘craft beer’, whatever the hell it is, continues apace.

Having tested the market in the last few months with bottles of BrewDog Punk IPA, Goose Island IPA, Brooklyn Lager and canned beer from Sixpoint, the Wetherspoon chain of pubs has made some interesting announcements in the last couple of days:

(This.Is.Lager is the absurdly-named new beer from BrewDog.)

And we’re sure we saw someone say on Twitter that selected Spoons outlets would also be getting BrewDog Punk IPA in kegs, too.

Then there’s this:

Finally, we note with interest that Butcombe, brewers of the brownest of brown bitters since 1978, are launching a (one-off) saison. It’s seems amazing to think that, in 2007, we’d never tried a single example of this somewhat challenging, mysterious Belgian style of beer.

The end is nigh — repent! Repent!

Writing about beer and pubs since 2007