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:
- ‘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.
UPDATE 21/11/2014: Andy at Redemption emailed us to say that he’d ordered bottles of Fellowship Porter from the same source as us and confirmed that they were indeed under-conditioned. He sent us two replacement bottles from a later bottling run, the first of which we opened last night; we found the condition to be absolutely perfect.