It captures in two words everything I look for from my first beer of the night: a full-bodied but brightly refreshing, finely-balanced beer of big flavour yet peerless drinkability. It’s become a hallmark by which I measure a brewer. If they can brew a Juicy Banger, a beer loaded with assertive, juicy hop character but one I could happily drink all night, and by the pint, then they’re all right by me.
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.
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.
BrewDog Brixton, 5%, £2.40.
Five Points Railway, 4.8%, £2.52.
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, andhad 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.)
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:
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.
Regardless of anything else, did it make us say ‘WOW’? (Sam Smith’s TP did.)
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.
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.