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.

That Sexist CAMRA Leaflet

Earlier this week, Rowan Molyneux flagged the existence of a Campaign for Real Ale leaflet designed to help recruit young members but which uses women merely as decoration.

We can’t say we were outraged by it, but we were certainly dismayed. CAMRA, like it or not, is these days an organisation of similar status to the National Trust or the RSPB, and we can’t imagine either of them doing anything so crass.

The main problem is that it confirms what many people suspect: that, despite making some of the right noises, behind the scenes, CAMRA isn’t fully committed to the idea of making the Campaign more welcoming to women, or at least hasn’t given it much more thought than you might expect from Alan Partridge or David Brent.

If you can’t see why the image on the leaflet is problematic, try to imagine them ever using an image of a bloke in an equivalent costume, in a similar pose.

We’ve turned off comments on this post to encourage people to have their say over at Rowan’s, where an interesting discussion is ongoing, and where there are updates on the withdrawal of the leaflet.

Cruzcampo beer mascot, Toledo, Spain.

Breaking the Cycle of Recommendation

In the comments on this post last week, a side debate broke out about whether people ought to research a town’s beer scene before visiting, rather than hoping to stumble upon a good pub or bar.

A similar conversation, with a more hysterical tone, followed Pete Brown’s post about Chesterfield earlier in the year.

It’s obviously a bit rich to dismiss a town or city as having nowhere good to drink if you haven’t done any research (although that certainly wasn’t Mr Brown’s point) but playing it by ear from time to time can be both fun and illuminating.

The risk to relying on the guidance of others is that the loop can end up closing: everyone goes to the same handful of famous places, drinks the same few ‘must try’ beers, ends up writing more-or-less the same articles and blog posts, and then makes the same recommendations when they’re asked. The same places end up appearing in listicles and guide books, often for years after they’ve lost their lustre.

By all means carry out research before your trip, but do also leave a little time to explore, and to follow your instincts — you might find a new place struggling for custom but destined to be the next big thing; or stumble upon a great pub that no-one recommends because the beer is terrible; or just get really under the skin of the town you’re visiting.

You might even strike-out completely and end up back in the hotel bar, but that’s fine, too: if every single drinking session is ‘world class’, none of them are.

News, Nuggets & Longreads, 11/10/2014

Bloke drinking beer.

Links! Get your beer-related links! Paaaahnd a bowl! Lovely fresh links, perfect in a stew!

→ The Port 66 home-brewing site continues to impress with this very practical advice on achieving clarity by James ‘Kempicus’ Kemp, late of Fuller’s, Thornbridge and Buxton breweries.

→ Lars Marius Garshol argues that judging beer can lead to bad habits when tasting it: “There are foods that smell so intensely they make people vomit. Yet other people love those same foods with a passion. And now you want to tell me the taste of green apples is always bad? Come on.”

→ We always rather enjoy detailed accounts of group beer tasting sessions and this blow-by-blow account is particularly interesting because of the inversion of the usual state of play: it has Belgian drinkers tasting Irish beers.

→ The big debate in the American blogoshire this week (flagged by Stan Hieronymus) has been about ‘local’. If you want to catch-up, you need:

→ In his contribution to that conversation, Craig at Drink Drank does not mince words: ‘big craft’ (e.g. Sierra Nevada) is, he argues, just as ruthless as big beer when it comes to squishing the little feller, but they’ve learned how to do it with more subtlety and guile.

→ Ron Pattinson’s posts this week on lambic beer in the 1930s have given us ideas: why shouldn’t we just cut beer with vinegar and syrup to get the lambic effect..?

→ This Tweet combines two of our favourite subjects: 20th century pub architecture and the spread of ‘craft beer culture’ in the UK.

→ We asked people to nominate pubs or bars that need a copy of Brew Britannia on their bookshelf, and now we’re going to send copies to The Flying Pig, East Dulwich; The Head of Steam, Durham; The Hanging Bat, Edinburgh; Buxton Tap House, Buxton; and the Craft Beer Co., Clapham. If you’re too stingy to buy a copy, pop along to one of those boozers in the next couple of weeks and read their copy over a pint or two.

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.

Writing about beer and pubs since 2007