Category Archives: Beer styles

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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.

World Beer Style Guide 1901

Beer styles of 1901 diagram.

The diagram above is a representation of text from a 1901 book called One Hundred Years of Brewing publish by H.S. Rich & Co. of Chicago as a special supplement of The Western Brewer.

The passage in question is most interesting as a reflection of how things looked at the time — which types of beer had people heard of? And how were the relationships between them perceived?

It is quoted almost in full below, with our own emphases, but you can (and should) take a look at the original here:

There is one typical, strongly pronounced distinction to-day, and… between the beers of Germany, England and America. The German beer… is expected to be made of a more dextrinous wort, rich in extract, of full-mouthed taste, moderate in alcohol, mostly of dark colour, and possessing a rich and permanent head of foam.

The Bohemian beers have more of a vinous character and possess a fine and strongly noticeable hop flavor, a pronounced bitter taste, and are light in color.

The English beers are divided into two classes, the light colored beers — ales — the dark or black colored ones — porter and stout.

The ales have chiefly a vinous character and possess a good percentage of alcohol and extract, strongly marked hop flavor and bitter taste, and are rich in carbonic acid. The bottle ales and stock ales, especially the last named ones, possess a characteristic fine wine taste, produced by a peculiar and prolonged secondary fermentation. Porter, with a rich and very heavy foam, was in former years a very heavy beverage, but at present is brewed in [sic] lighter, and has, as a result of its composition, a characteristic bitter and dry taste.

The American lager beers taste more like wine than the German ones and in character are nearer related to the Bohemian or Austrian beers, have very much effervescence, and combine the quality of preserving the foam with a more or less full-mouthed taste. Their color, with the exception of special brands, is light throughout.

Besides these there are a number of provincial or local character… To count up their names only would fill several pages, and for that reason we can only mention the principal ones

The weiss beer (wheat beer originally) are strongly effervescent beers, produced by top fermentation and going through the second part of fermentation after being bottled…

“Broyhahn,” also a historical beer, is a very light colored, winey beverage, of a sweetish-sour taste. “Gose” is a beverage similar to “Broyhahn”. Both are made by top-fermentation.

Too numerous to mention individually are the herb beers, receiving their flavor by the addition of herbs of the greatest variety…

Among the celebrated Austrian beers, the already mentioned “Pilsner” stands at the head of the list. They all have a similar winey taste, and are of light color.

Among the English beers, Burton ale takes the lead… Side by side with the same we find as type of the dark colored beer Dublin stout. Scotch ale was at one time a very celebrated beverage, its vividness and fine winey taste being especially praised.

In Belgium there are to be found certain beers of local celebrity possessing all the qualities produced by the process of self fermentation to which they are subjected, their names being “Lambik” and “Faro”.

One of the most celebrated beers in its day was “Strassburger,” which, for a long number of years, controlled the Paris market to the exclusion of the Bavarian beer. It has a characteristically winey taste…

The American breweries produce, besides lager beer, ale and porter, the so-called “common” beer and “steam” beer, the last named on the Pacific coast.

That’s not very far off the style framework put forward by Michael ‘Beer Hunter’ Jackson’s in his World Guide to Beer 77 years later, is it?

But what does ‘winey’ mean in this context?

Innocuous Fluid, 1856

“The respectable man of the lower order is a clerk undoubtedly… He lives in a small, eight-roomed house, in a terrace with a high-sounding name, ‘Adeliza’ or ‘Navarino’, in Camden-town or Dalston. He lets the drawing-room floor to a single gentleman… Pewter pots are never seen hanging on the area rails; for, in his respectability, he looks upon public-houses as the favourite baits of the devil, and has a four and a half-gallon cask of the mildest and cheapest bitter beer from the Romford brewery always on tap in his coal-cellar. It is with this innocuous fluid that the single gentleman and his friends are occasionally supplied, and charged at the rate of fourpence per pint.”

From ‘Respectable People’ by Edmund H Yates, The Train magazine, 1856.

(We think he’s describing what we’re beginning to suspect was the original AK, brewed by Ind Coope in the mid-1840s.)

Vienna Beer Today

Piccadilly Johnnies, 1904.

As the 1860s turned into the 1870s, absolutely the trendiest thing to drink in London was Vienna beer, aka Vienna lager — the pricey imported ‘craft beer’ of its day.

It seems to us that it was not so much a ‘style’ as the product of a single brewery — Dreher, of Klein-Schwechat, Vienna — with a few imitators trying to muscle in on the market it had created.

It appealed to Piccadilly Johnny — the hipster of his day –because:

  • It was served cold.
  • It had higher levels of carbonation.
  • It was paler than Munich Dunkel. (Though not as pale as Pilsner.)
  • He believed it wasn’t ‘intoxicating’. (We think this was psychological.)
  • ‘German’ stuff was fashionable, while English stuff was considered inherently naff.

Now, almost 150 years later, though there aren’t many descendants of Dreher’s Vienna beer, they are at least relatively easy to find, and not just in the West End of London.

Even near us, in deepest Cornwall, there are several pubs selling kegged Brooklyn Lager (5.2%), while bottles can be found in your local Wetherspoon, and most supermarkets. It’s one of the first self-declared ‘craft beers’ many people drink — it certainly was for us. Is it a convincing Vienna beer? Without going back to 1870, we can’t be sure, but we can’t believe its flowery hop aroma is remotely authentic. It is Dreher’s beer, via the 19th century New York beer hall, via the ‘real ale revolution’, via US ‘craft beer’.

Another widely available example is Negra Modelo (5.4%) from Mexico. In production since the 1920s, it is a lingering reminder of the country’s historic connections with Austria. It’s been a while since we drank one but our recollection is of a lager already lacking bitterness into which someone had then stirred a teaspoon of refined brown sugar. The brewery themselves sometimes call it a ‘Munich Dunkel’ — it is certainly darker than amber.

Finally, there’s Thornbridge’s Kill Your Darlings (5%), a case of which we have been working on for a couple of months. Smooth and clean almost to the point of blandness, it certainly tastes authentically Continental, and makes a change from pale lager while offering a similar kind of straightforward refreshment. It, too, is perhaps rather too Munich-dark to be quite authentic. Still, we’d like to drink a pint or two of this at the Craft Beer Co in Covent Garden, which isn’t far from the Strand — epicentre of the original Vienna beer craze.

On balance, the least authentic of the three, Brooklyn Lager, with its distinctly English dry-hopping regime, is probably the tastiest.

One of the projects we’re working on now is about lager in London in the 19th century — probably for a short e-book. In the meantime, we wholeheartedly recommend Ron Pattinson’s book Lager.