Category Archives: beer reviews

London craft porters.

Porter Tasting: Batch 4 — Taste of London

The purpose of this exercise, for those who missed the previous posts, is to find a beer that suits us, with a view to selecting finalists for a ‘taste-off’ before buying a case to see us through the winter. It’s not ‘the best’ but something much more floaty and subjective.

In recent years, a distinctive London craft beer character seems to have emerged, and the four porters we tasted this time all had it, to one degree or another.

It’s a particular kind of raw grassiness which is obvious, first, in the aroma — hay, dried herbs, dusty pot pourri — and then in a flavour which makes us think of the effect of drinking orange juice after cleaning your teeth.

At a guess, we’d say it’s down to a particular approach to dry-hopping, perhaps combined with characteristics of water and/or water treatments. Perhaps the close relationships between London brewers — shared kit, staff, techniques and ingredients — also contributes to the family resemblance between their beers.

At any rate, it’s so distinctive that we’re beginning to suspect we could identify blind, say, six times out of ten, beer from a London craft brewer. (Definition 2.)

It’s not something we have yet really acquired a taste for, but we know from ratings websites, Twitter and blog posts that other people really and sincerely enjoy it (they don’t have ‘duff palates’) and that’s rather nice: a return to regional distinctiveness in beer.

As far as we’re concerned, if there’s an end game in this ‘alternative beer revolution’, it’s that there should be more beers around that some people love and other people hate, rather than a mess of all-too-similar beers that no-one much objects to.

The beers

We tasted the folllowing beers at pantry-temperature (cool, but not cold) using the same glasses as for previous batches.

  • Anspach & Hobday Table Porter (2.8%/£3.40/330ml/Beer Merchants)
  • Anspach & Hobday ‘The Porter’ (6.7%/£3.50/330ml/Beer Merchants)
  • Beavertown Smog Rocket (5.4%/£2.80/330ml can/Ales By Mail)
  • Kernel Export India Porter (Columbus) (5.8%/£3.15/330ml/Ales By Mail)

This isn’t the first time we’ve tried Anspach & Hobday’s The Porter. Back then, we found it ‘classical’, which is to say smooth, clean, and without sharp edges. The beer we drank this week, by contrast, was challenging, complex, and a little lacking in finish. It poured like oil, threatening headlessness until a steady, off-white crema emerged from the body of the beer as it settled. Between us, we picked up just a touch of peatiness; a whiff of that Harvey’s Imperial Stout sweet-manure thing (dialled way down, but definitely there); and, at the core, something with the body and flavour of a chocolate milkshake. We didn’t dislike it, and we certainly found it interesting, but it’s not one for quaffing every night in front of the telly. There’s no ‘wow’, so it’s not a contender, though we find ourselves intrigued.

Their Table Porter (which we actually drank first, because of its low strength) was, frankly, over-carbonated — not quite a gusher, but it thought about it. The head towered over the rim of the glass, carrying with it a lot of vegetal, sneeze-inducing leafiness. At first, with the head in the way, the beer seemed watery, but as it settled, we were delighted to find something creamy and full-bodied. Burnt brown sugar and toffee just about defeated an insistent, off-putting background note of stewed greens. Though it’s one of the more substantial low alcohol beers we’ve tasted — an achievement in its own right — it’s not the beer we’re looking for on this occasion, certainly didn’t make us say wow, and is not a contender.

Kernel Export India is a beer we’ve tried numerous times over the last few years and never really taken to, but people love it, and The Kernel more generally, so we felt we had to include it here for safe measure. It’s become a rather statesmanlike, steady beer — arguably part of the bedrock of the entire London scene, much-imitated and admired — but we still find the combination of high-pitched grapefruity hops and deep chocolate richness jarring. It certainly has wow factor, but the wrong sort — it’s just not our kind of thing. (Knowing this might be controversial, we actually tasted a second bottle on another occasion, and our view didn’t change.) It’s not a contender.

After all that, Beavertown Smog Rocket actually seemed positively mainstream — not a million miles from Fuller’s London Porter, clean and relatively easy-going. It had the London taste, yes, but reined in, and balanced with plenty of luscious sweetness and rounded orange-peel notes. On the chocolate-coffee axis, Smog Rocket edges towards coffee — specifically instant coffee cut with condensed milk. (Nicer than it sounds — think coffee cake.) It’s perhaps a touch thin but we liked that it didn’t demand all of our attention, and agreed that having a shelf-full would be no bad thing. It almost had wow factor, and so, sod it, it’s a contender, but how will it fare in close comparison to the big boys?

You can vote for your own favourite porters in this Beer O’Clock Show poll.

UPDATED 12:48 17/10/2014 to add explicit notes on ‘wow factor’, as per comments below.

Guinness vintage-style cap.

Porter Tasting: Batch 3 — Guinness

The purpose of this exercise, for those who missed the previous posts, is to find a beer that suits us, with a view to selecting finalists for a ‘taste-off’ before buying a case to see us through the winter. It’s not ‘the best’ but something much more floaty and subjective.

One of the triggers for our current focus on porters was the launch by Guinness of Dublin Porter and West Indies Porter under the banner of The Brewers Project.

We’re including them in this tasting, despite the fact they’re not British, for several reasons. First and foremost, they’re our rules and we can break them if we like. Secondly, and less petulantly, the parent company is also UK-based, and the beers are being sold in mainstream stores across Britain, not only through specialist importers. Finally, there’s the significance of Guinness Porter in the story of British beer.

Guinness stopped brewing porter in the early 1970s — they had been producing a tiny amount for a dwindling Northern Ireland market — thus rendering the style temporarily extinct until it was revived by one of the first microbreweries a few years later. (Brew Britannia, Chapter Four.) So, there is a certain emotional appeal to Guinness using the word on the label of a beer, even if there’s no real difference between porter and stout, and even if, despite claims to be ‘inspired by’ recipes from 1799 and 1801 respectively, they aren’t really historic recreations.

* * *

For our tasting, we decided to throw standard bottled Guinness Original (4.2% ABV, £2.15 for 500ml at CO-OP) into the mix to check whether (a) the new Guinness porters actually taste any different and (b) just in case it turns out, within the parameters of this project, to be just what we’re looking for. It isn’t, but it really doesn’t taste bad at all: it’s quite nice. Too sweet (for Boak’s taste in particular), rather watery, and definitely lacking in wow factor, but not as grim as some critics, who are perhaps tasting the corporate structure, might have you believe.

Dublin Porter (3.8%; our bottle was sent to us by their PR people, but currently £1.50 for 500ml in supermarkets) is definitely quite different. Despite it’s lower ABV, it seems to have additional ‘oomph’, being drier and more bitter, with some milk chocolate notes where Original has only brown sugar. Only by contrast, though, not in absolute terms, and compared to the other porters we’ve tasted so far, it’s a fairly one-dimensional beer. It’s fine, tasty enough, and reasonably good value, especially if you’re after something vaguely mild-like. But it’s not a contender.

West Indies Porter (6%; pricing as above) does have a bit of star quality. In fact, it struck as almost as good as the Sam Smith’s Taddy Porter which we’re benchmarking against. It has a firm, almost chewy body, and a pleasing acid-sweet-bitter balance — black forest gateaux territory. But… Smith’s is better and weaker, at 5%. Then again, GWIP is more readily available and, for now at least, cheaper — £18 for 12 bottles as compared to £31, plus delivery. That’s not a saving to be sniffed at. (Theatrical pause, tense music.) It’s a contender and it’s going through to the final taste-off.

On balance, we’d rather Guinness put the energy and effort that’s gone into these into sprucing up their standard range — why not make Guinness Original a more distinctive product, bottle-conditioned, at a higher ABV, and give that a sexy vintage-style label?

We’ve got a few more rounds of this to go. Next up: Kernel Export and other animals.

Beer bottle caps: Five Points, BBNO, BrewDog.

Porter Tasting: Batch 2

UPDATE 12:35 26/09/2014: the purpose of this exercise, for those who missed the previous posts, is to find a beer that suits us, with a view to selecting finalists for a ‘taste-off’ before buying a case to see us through the winter. It’s not ‘the best’ but something much more floaty and subjective. And that’s probably not the cap from the Brew by Numbers beer in the pic above.

This week, we tasted three porters from the trendier end of the spectrum, all in 330ml bottles, and purchased from Ales by Mail.

  1. BrewDog Brixton, 5%, £2.40.
  2. Five Points Railway, 4.8%, £2.52.
  3. Brew by Numbers 03/01 Original, 6.1%, £2.80.

(We gave these three 30 minutes in the fridge before pouring and drank them from the same stemmed half-pint glasses as last time, for those who are interested in such matters.)

How do self-consciously ‘craft’ breweries approach porter? As a gap in the market, perhaps, or as a novelty — there aren’t many mainstream breweries producing beer in this style. Via American home brewing literature and its guidelines for multiple types of porter, we suspect. And maybe inspired directly by Anchor Porter, which has a quiet cult following in the UK and has done for years. It does not seem to be subjected to quite the same experiments in flavouring or hybridising as other styles — it’s usually kept fairly straight, often even with a nod to tradition.

In fact, the main difference between a ‘craft’ porter and any other seems to be the size of the servings which defied attempts at quaffing.

Five Points poured with a perfect, tight, off-white head, and had what we can only describe as a crazy (pleasant) aroma which brought to mind Angel Delight and Bailey’s Irish Cream. The first sip took us by surprise — it was subtly but distinctly yoghurt-sour, which added a pleasing complexity. Was it deliberate, or a happy mistake? Either way, it turned a bog-standard porter into something rather moreish and enjoyable. Ultimately, it’s not something we’d want to drink every day, so it isn’t a contender for the purchase of an entire case, but we’d happily buy it again.

BrewDog Brixton is a beer we’ve had before and enjoyed without being bowled over. It poured suitably oily-black. The overwhelming character is a dry ashiness, like eating a teaspoon of unsweetened cocoa powder, but, beyond that, it’s perhaps too thin for sipping, while being too much hard work to just drink. It was certainly perfectly clean and the condition was spot on. But… we were rather enjoying it by the end, and it turns out to have a kind of delayed wow factor. It’s an outside contender.

Brew by Numbers (aka BBNo) 03/01 prompted one of our fairly frequent disagreements: Boak’s immediate reaction to the aroma was, ‘Eugh! Booze and antiseptic!’ while Bailey got a pleasant whiff of vanilla. Its body was unctuous, fairly well-balanced, with a touch of acidity suggesting berries or cherries. Ultimately, though, it was rather heavy going and rough. We would not drink this again and it’s definitely not a contender. (Another of their beers, a saison with cucumber, was one of the hits of our summer.)

Next time: those Guinness porters, and some pondering on to what extent they can be considered British. (Don’t start arguing with us about this now… you’ll get your chance.) Here’s what we made of the last batch and this post explains what we’re up to. See also: The Beer o’ Clock Show’s imminent stout/porter poll.

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.

porters_1024

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.