Magical Mystery Pour #3: Chocolate Cake

Magical Mystery Pour logo.The third of four beers recommended to us by Dina is Siren’s Caribbean Chocolate Cake stout, a collaboration with Florida’s Cigar City.

In her sleeve notes Dina says:

Oh, hi dark chocolate stout, I enjoy the way you feel. It’s like sleeping on black satin sheets in a forest on a moonlit night. In the Caribbean, I suppose, but I get more western South Dakota. I am recommending this one to you guys for a bit of luxury. Go on, you’re worth it.

Its ABV is 7.5% and we bought our 330ml bottle from Beer Gonzo for £4.25.

It looked lovely when we poured it — clingy black with a stable berg of red-brown crema. Espresso with chocolate ice cream on top. (The pic below makes it look beige; it wasn’t.)

The aroma was subdued amounting to no more than a whiff of roasting nuts.

Continue reading “Magical Mystery Pour #3: Chocolate Cake”

The Mystic Power of Guinness, 1959

There’s been a fair bit of Guinness chat around in the last week what with Ron Pattinson’s series of posts on Park Royal, our filleting of a 1971 article about draught in the UK, and Gary Gilman’s series of posts on various aspects of its flavour and history.

Now we’ve come across a short piece by humourist Paul Jennings published in The Times on 10 November 1959 which provides, first, further evidence of the status of Guinness before it became ubiquitous and (in the view of many or even most beer geeks) bland:Guinness smile advert, 1939.

It seems that Messrs. Guinness are convinced that the most widely remembered of their famous posters is the one with the workman carrying off the girder. Well, that is not the first image that comes to me… I think first of those great big glasses of Guinness with a moony smiling face in the froth… This smile is the nearest they have got to expressing the true mana of Guinness — that great Irish mystery and paradox, the light froth from the unimaginable dark heart of the liquid, the light from darkness, like the laughter and wit that well up from the Irish soul itself… I, like any other non-Irish consumer of Guinness, drink it because it is there… [in] the sense in which Mallory said that Everest was there. I might drink beer automatically, but Guinness is a thing, it has to be reckoned with. Drinking Guinness is a conscious act, like playing the piano or reading poetry, only much easier.

(Note, by the way, what looks almost like an early example of saying ‘a thing’ being a thing…)

In addition, he also provides some observations on packaging and public perception that bring to mind the present-day chat around contract brewing and transparency:

It is a fact that three-fifths of the Guinness drunk in this country is brewed at Park Royal, that great functional-looking place that looked like an atomic power station before atomic power was invented when it was opened in 1936. It is full of vast stainless steel vats and marvellous pipes and machines and science graduates… [and] has had a head brewer a world-famous statistician — but all this was kept very dark because, as everybody knows, or thinks he knows, the special quality of Guinness comes from the waters of the Liffey… Now that they have started selling some Guinness in cans, for instance, it is reported that in pubs in Wales they think the cans have come from Dublin, whereas the bottles contain rotten old English Guinness.

Finally, he goes on to suggest that, even though St James’s Gate brewery was just as hi-tech and sterile as Park Royal, there was some truth in the myth because export brewing (that is, for hot countries) did take place there:

[The] science graduates have worked the amount of ‘x’ you must put into a bottle of Guinness for it to taste as a bottle of Guinness would taste to a man in the Red Lion, to a man in a tin shack in Borneo, after it has been humped and banged half-way round the world. If you can manage to get some of this Export Guinness before they have exported it, you will find that this means quite a lot of ‘x’.

That’s a nice way of putting it and makes us think that Guinness today really could be saved if they turned up the X dial.

Unlikely Wow Factor

taddy_porter_474

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.

St Michael’s Canon #1: Mackeson

Michael Jackson’s Great Beer Guide (2000) was our bible when we first started to take an interest in beer, but, despite our best efforts, we didn’t get anywhere near tasting all 500 beers on his list.

Some had gone out of production by the time we got our hands on the book, while others were from far-flung corners of the world and unavailable in the UK. There were a handful, however, that we just skipped over out of snootiness, and in our haste to get to those big shouty IPAs and imperial stouts.

Now seems like a good time to go back and fill in a few embarrassing gaps in our knowledge, starting with a beer which played an important part in British beer history, and whose packaging is utterly iconic: Mackeson Stout.

It was one of the earliest ‘national brands’ in the 1950s and was the trojan horse with which Whitbread began the takeover of at least one smaller regional brewery. “Why bother brewing your own stout,” Whitbread seem to have suggested, “when you can stock this one which has the weight of national ad campaigns behind it?”

It was also one of the handful of beers from which American home brewers, via Jackson, spun out an entire ‘style’, and from which, therefore, almost every ‘craft beer’ calling itself a milk stout is descended.

In his GBG, Mr Jackson described it as ‘The world’s most widely known sweet stout’, and it was an assumption that it would be sickly that put us off trying it, despite an extremely enticing photograph and tasting notes which mention evaporated milk and coffee.

Mackeson Stout can.He enjoyed it at 3% ABV from a humble 275ml bottle and suggested that ‘with glitzier packaging it could be the beer world’s answer to Bailey’s’. It is now only available in cans at 2.8%; we got hold of a four-pack of 330ml cans for £3.97 from Tesco.

(A side note: canning was probably seen as taking the package further down market, and yet, with the current vogue for ‘craft beer’ in tins, it actually looks rather cool, especially with that bold, retro black and white design.)

In a suitably posh glass (we wanted to give it fighting chance) it was oil-black, but with yellow-brown highlights at the edges. The head looked paler than in the picture accompanying MJ’s notes but was still a pleasing shade of off-white. The aroma had an unfortunate hint of buttered popcorn and not much else.

We were, therefore, extremely pleasantly surprised by the taste — a sort of dry fireplace ashiness, wrapped up in a body that, while not ‘creamy’, did suggest a 4% beer rather than one flirting with low alcohol territory.

It didn’t seem remotely sweet, and certainly wasn’t sickly. The buttery note persisted, and we could have done without it, but it didn’t prevent us concluding that Mackeson remains a decent beer; that not many ‘craft beers’ at 2.8% are as enjoyable as this; and that we should have listened to Uncle Mike a decade ago.

We’ll certainly make a point of keeping some in the store cupboard from now on for school-night sipping, and mixing with other beers.

The Moment Guinness Won

Bottled Guinness stout.As long as we’ve been aware of beer, we’ve known that Guinness was the draught stout, utterly dominating the UK pub market. Even the lager market, with its many very similar products, is not ruled by one single company to the same extent.

Their rise to dominance over the stout market happened quickly in the nineteen-fifties and especially in the sixties but, at the end of that period, there was one last serious attempt to challenge it.

Bass Charrington, the biggest group of its kind, and Watney Mann, the Red Barrel concern, will at the month-end launch a test market of Colonel Murphy’s draught stout at 500 pub in the Manchester and Brighton areas. Within a year, they expect to have enough information to give the new product national coverage… If Colonel Murphy’s is a success it will be a blow to Guinness, because between them Bass and Watney control more than 16,500 of Britain’s 60,000 pubs and it is reasonable to assume that the majority of these will be closed to draught Guinness. (The Financial Times, 26 June 1969.)

Unfortunately, the challenge came too late; the summer was hot; and, though they spent plenty on advertising, it wasn’t anywhere near enough to build from nothing a brand to compete with Guinness. Only six months later, the Charrington-Watney alliance conceded defeat. They not only withdrew Colonel Murphy’s from sale in their UK but also signed an agreement to sell draught Guinness in all of their pubs. Guinness had won.

Fittingly, they announced the end of hostilities, and their unconditional surrender, on 11 November. Beer geeks welcomed the conquerors with open arms.