Category Archives: beer reviews

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.

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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.

Unlikely Wow Factor

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It’s been a while since a beer delighted us, without quibbles and caveats.

That’s how life goes, of course: most beers — or films, books, cakes, or whatever — are absolutely fine without necessarily triggering swooning fits.

But still, we have made an effort to try a few new beers lately, hoping to find a gem, and placed orders with Beer Merchants and Beer Ritz with that in mind.

Multiple IPAs and US-style pale ales from British breweries, however, triggered the same reaction: “It’s fine, but nothing to write home about.” (Or, rather, to write a blog post about.) Grassiness; occasionally yeastiness; one-dimensionality… none gave us chills.

Maybe we’re just tired of beers which are all about hops, though, because  the two beers that did cause us to sit up straight, included to make up the numbers in our order from Beer Ritz, are members of the stout family: Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter and the same brewery’s Imperial Stout.

Now, these beers are by no means new to us, or to anyone else. When we used to drink in London, hardly a week went by without a bottle or two of the former, while the latter, being rarer, was a beer we would go out of our way to find. (Tip: the Dover Castle, Weymouth Mews, always seems to have it.)

And Sam Smith’s is not a trendy brewery, nor even very likeable — something which, being human, can influence our opinions.

The taste, though! In both cases, the word that springs to mind is luscious, and both share a tongue-coating, silky, fortified wine feel in the mouth.

Taddy Porter (5%, £2.62 per 550ml) is the kind of beer that we would like to be able to drink more often on draught, in the pub. Just over the line from brown into a black, and a notch beyond sessionable, it is boldly flavoured without being attention-seeking, the emphasis being on flavours of sweetened cocoa and plummy, dark berries. If you’ve ever soaked dried fruit overnight in black tea as a cake ingredient, you’ll get the idea. Perhaps the best bottled porter on the market today?

Imperial Stout (£2.16 per 355ml) makes more sense as a ‘double stout’ — not so dark and heavy as to insist on a fancy glass, a smoking jacket and the undivided attention of the drinker, but perfect for nights when you want just one beer before bed. The flavour is somewhere between chocolate brownie and Christmas pudding, with just a suggestion of something bright and green, like gooseberry, ringing in the background. Resolution: we should always have some of this in the house.

The source of the ‘wow’ in both beers is hard to pin down. Our best guess is that, being cleanly and simply made, without a fog of off-flavours and confusion, the flavours of dark malt and dark brewing sugars are really allowed to shine through, in instantly gratifying fashion. But that’s just a guess, and there’s not much point in asking Mr Smith to elaborate.

Like the 60-year-old we once saw steal the show in a nightclub by performing a series of expert line dancing manoeuvres across the centre of the dance floor, one of these beers in particular — Taddy Porter — has made itself a contender for our beer of the year, in the unlikely company of Magic Rock/Lervig Farmhouse IPA and Bristol Beer Factory Belgian Conspiracy. We’ll schedule a proper taste-off for December.

Session #91: Our First Belgian

This is our contribution to the 91st beer blogging session hosted by Belgian Smaak.

Leffe Blonde

The fact is, we don’t know for sure. We can’t remember.

It might have been Hoegaarden, and there’s an outside chance it was Belle-Vue Kriek. There might even have been bottles of something at a student party — De Koninck? Palm? There was definitely Stella Artois, but we’re not sure that counts.

The first really clear memory we have is of draught Leffe Blond at the William IV on the Leyton-Walthamstow border c.2002. Having arrived at the trendy Belgo restaurants from 1992 onward (see Chapter 11 of Brew Britannia) this ‘premium special occasion beverage’ took a decade to filter out to the suburbs.

Back then, after the closure of the Sweet William microbrewery but before the arrival of Brodie’s, the William was just another East London pub with a slightly tense atmosphere, lots of empty seats, and a line-up of mass-market lagers.

We only ever went there to see a friend who lived nearby. She was then a heavier smoker than Humphrey Bogart in his prime and, somehow, always felt more grown-up and sophisticated than everyone else in the room. In 2002, what counted as sophistication was ordering a chalice of Leffe in a cockney boozer.

So we copied her.

It was fun drinking out of silly glases, and it really did taste different to anything else we’d had before, though we weren’t in the habit of taking notes back then. We recall finding it weighty and luscious, perhaps because, at 6.6%, it was stronger than anything else widely available on draught at the time. Its strength also made it feel naughty: “I should warn you…” the barmaid would say every time.

* * *

More than a decade on, Leffe is really not cool, and, unless we’re missing something, has rather retreated from the on-trade. (See also: Hoegaarden.) We can’t think when we last saw a Leffe tap in a pub. In 2002, we didn’t know (or especially care) that it was a sub-brand of a big multi-national, but, these days, that doesn’t help its cause:  it’s not the kind of thing ‘craft beer’ bars bother themselves with.

What is is, at least in bottled form, is cheap. We picked up 750ml, with cage, cork, foil and other trappings of poshness, at CO-OP in the centre of Penzance for £3.49, but it can often be found on sale for as little as £2.50. But is it good value?

There is a distinctive Belgian yeast character — a touch of banana, some bread, a sprinkle of peppery-spice — but very restrained. It no longer tastes all that exotic — not because it’s been ‘dumbed down’ but because a lot of beer has flowed over our palates since 2002. What once read as luscious now seems like the stickiness of barley sugar sweets, or as if a tot of orange squash has been added to the glass.

It feels, all in all, hurried, tacky, and plasticky.

Compare it to, say, Westmalle Tripel, or pay it too much attention, and it seems a dud. Think of it as a lager with a bit more going on, and it’s not bad, and certainly good enough company with dinner in front of the telly.

Lager: Bait and Switch

A can of lager in cunning disguise.

By Bailey (edited by Boak)

How easy is it to tell one standard lager from another? And how much are we influenced by packaging and ‘brand values’?

After a rocky start, we’ve very much embraced St Austell Korev as our go-to lager. It is straightforward but tasty, and very good value in cans, which is why we didn’t hesitate to recommend it in this listicle for the Independent.

But, enjoying a half in a harbour-side pub, where it cost £4.20 a pint, Boak wondered aloud, “If they just gave me Heineken in this nice glass, would I notice the difference?”

Which gave us an idea. We agreed that, from then on, we would find opportunities to test each other by secretly replacing Korev with big-brand lagers.

Then, last week, fresh relevance was provided by a study which suggested most people served blind couldn’t tell one mainstream lager brand from another.

Last night, I finally seized the opportunity, dangling a can of Korev, but actually filling the poshest glass I could find with Carlsberg Export (can, 5%, ‘Produce of the E.U.’) and serving it up with due ceremony.

Cards on the table: she did not immediately notice the difference. The beer was cold and looked fantastic. It was only as it began to warm up that she started to suspect something was up: “Did you say this was Korev? It tastes weird. It’s much more… bland than usual.”

I really wanted Carlsberg Export to pass the test because it’s dead cheap and easy to find, but the fact is, it simply isn’t a satisfying beer. It’s clean, yes, but it’s also sweet to the point of sickliness. With more hops, or even more hop extract, it might do the job, but, like this, it’s barely even thirst-quenching.

So, round one to Boak, and to Korev.

Now, this wasn’t even remotely scientific and I was probably giving off all kinds of cues (though I avoided sniggering mischievously…) not to mention the fact that she knew this was going to happen at some point. But it was enough to convince us.

I wonder when my turn will come?