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Unlikely Wow Factor


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.

10 replies on “Unlikely Wow Factor”

Might I suggest that you grab the Magic Rock and Bristol BF beers now and pop them in the beer fridge to (a) preserve hop character and (b) ensure supply?

Whenever I’m in Southport, I always pick up Sam’s Organic Chocolate Stout from the Inn Beer Shop (like drinking cold cocoa, if you like that sort of thing). Will look to get these next time.

While I accept that some of what Sam Smith’s do corporately is not very “likeable” – although arguably no worse than the likes of Punch and Enterprise – what they actually provide to the consumer is in many ways highly likeable. A wide range of beers, including several very distinctive and unusual ones (as you have found), a huge respect for the architectural heritage of their pubs, lively, buzzing pub interiors and amazingly low prices.

Hmmm Mudge, have to respectfully disagree on that last one. The bottle prices, certainly in London, are scandalous and they’ve devalued the tap products so many times (not only decoupling from Ayinger and weakening the bitters but serving the wheat beer in a pint to brim glass) that I can’t find anything to drink in there. There’s also a grubbiness in most of their London estate, even those with Victorian features, that wasn’t there ten years ago that just depresses me…

Bizarrely the Imperial is one of the bottled beers at the incredibly swanky Kings Place (under the new Guardian offices) where they knock it out at about four quid a bottle, ie the same as they charge for a bottle of corona!

Agree with CarsmileSteve.

I can only speak for London, but three or four years ago they utterly broke with their iron willed dedication to low prices and the bottles are now properly expensive. Not just at their price – really, REALLY mind-bogglingly expensive.

OBB is still a “people’s pint”, I concede. But I’m not a fan – and even that is not as cheap as it used to be versus others.

Are they still keenly priced across the board in the north?

Ahh, my wife and I recently had the same experience. We were discussing how we liked these beers to someone recently and decided we should have them. This was the first “Imperial Stout” that I had many years ago (in the states), and with all of the “craft” beer miles since, I’m glad it still tastes great. I’m especially glad that counts for both my wife and I. The heavily bitter ales and sour ales aren’t always her favorite.

I was confused, as a foreigner, what was implied or referred to in:
“And Sam Smith’s is not a trendy brewery, nor even very likeable — ”

I can imagine “trendy” because it is older and still making only older styles, but the bit about “very likeable” was what caught my attention.

Thanks for the wonderful blog!

Dave — this site sums up the various issues with ‘likeability’ quite well… “The outright banning of music and singing” is almost comically grouchy.

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