Porter Tasting: Batch 4 — Taste of London

London craft porters.

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.

In recent years, a distinctive London craft beer character seems to have emerged, and the four porters we tasted this time all had it, to one degree or another.

It’s a particular kind of raw grassiness which is obvious, first, in the aroma — hay, dried herbs, dusty pot pourri — and then in a flavour which makes us think of the effect of drinking orange juice after cleaning your teeth.

At a guess, we’d say it’s down to a particular approach to dry-hopping, perhaps combined with characteristics of water and/or water treatments. Perhaps the close relationships between London brewers — shared kit, staff, techniques and ingredients — also contributes to the family resemblance between their beers.

At any rate, it’s so distinctive that we’re beginning to suspect we could identify blind, say, six times out of ten, beer from a London craft brewer. (Definition 2.)

It’s not something we have yet really acquired a taste for, but we know from ratings websites, Twitter and blog posts that other people really and sincerely enjoy it (they don’t have ‘duff palates’) and that’s rather nice: a return to regional distinctiveness in beer.

As far as we’re concerned, if there’s an end game in this ‘alternative beer revolution’, it’s that there should be more beers around that some people love and other people hate, rather than a mess of all-too-similar beers that no-one much objects to.

The beers

We tasted the folllowing beers at pantry-temperature (cool, but not cold) using the same glasses as for previous batches.

  • Anspach & Hobday Table Porter (2.8%/£3.40/330ml/Beer Merchants)
  • Anspach & Hobday ‘The Porter’ (6.7%/£3.50/330ml/Beer Merchants)
  • Beavertown Smog Rocket (5.4%/£2.80/330ml can/Ales By Mail)
  • Kernel Export India Porter (Columbus) (5.8%/£3.15/330ml/Ales By Mail)

This isn’t the first time we’ve tried Anspach & Hobday’s The Porter. Back then, we found it ‘classical’, which is to say smooth, clean, and without sharp edges. The beer we drank this week, by contrast, was challenging, complex, and a little lacking in finish. It poured like oil, threatening headlessness until a steady, off-white crema emerged from the body of the beer as it settled. Between us, we picked up just a touch of peatiness; a whiff of that Harvey’s Imperial Stout sweet-manure thing (dialled way down, but definitely there); and, at the core, something with the body and flavour of a chocolate milkshake. We didn’t dislike it, and we certainly found it interesting, but it’s not one for quaffing every night in front of the telly. There’s no ‘wow’, so it’s not a contender, though we find ourselves intrigued.

Their Table Porter (which we actually drank first, because of its low strength) was, frankly, over-carbonated — not quite a gusher, but it thought about it. The head towered over the rim of the glass, carrying with it a lot of vegetal, sneeze-inducing leafiness. At first, with the head in the way, the beer seemed watery, but as it settled, we were delighted to find something creamy and full-bodied. Burnt brown sugar and toffee just about defeated an insistent, off-putting background note of stewed greens. Though it’s one of the more substantial low alcohol beers we’ve tasted — an achievement in its own right — it’s not the beer we’re looking for on this occasion, certainly didn’t make us say wow, and is not a contender.

Kernel Export India is a beer we’ve tried numerous times over the last few years and never really taken to, but people love it, and The Kernel more generally, so we felt we had to include it here for safe measure. It’s become a rather statesmanlike, steady beer — arguably part of the bedrock of the entire London scene, much-imitated and admired — but we still find the combination of high-pitched grapefruity hops and deep chocolate richness jarring. It certainly has wow factor, but the wrong sort — it’s just not our kind of thing. (Knowing this might be controversial, we actually tasted a second bottle on another occasion, and our view didn’t change.) It’s not a contender.

After all that, Beavertown Smog Rocket actually seemed positively mainstream — not a million miles from Fuller’s London Porter, clean and relatively easy-going. It had the London taste, yes, but reined in, and balanced with plenty of luscious sweetness and rounded orange-peel notes. On the chocolate-coffee axis, Smog Rocket edges towards coffee — specifically instant coffee cut with condensed milk. (Nicer than it sounds — think coffee cake.) It’s perhaps a touch thin but we liked that it didn’t demand all of our attention, and agreed that having a shelf-full would be no bad thing. It almost had wow factor, and so, sod it, it’s a contender, but how will it fare in close comparison to the big boys?

You can vote for your own favourite porters in this Beer O’Clock Show poll.

UPDATED 12:48 17/10/2014 to add explicit notes on ‘wow factor’, as per comments below.

10 thoughts on “Porter Tasting: Batch 4 — Taste of London”

  1. Pretty steep prices there. Are small bottles somehow more fashionable to justify equivalent prices to 500ml ones? I’m sure I’ve bought a 500ml bottle of the Kernel recently for the same price as you’ve paid for 330ml.

    (£3.40 for 330ml of 2.8% beer seems especially expensive. Yeh, price isn’t solely down to strength yadda yadda, but this seems to be taking the piss. )

  2. Kernel Export India Porter has a varying hop regime like all their beers. I don’t get to try them side by side, but I liked them better with more porter-y hop choices (like Bramling cross – dark berrys and all that).

    One export porter can be significantly different to another batch. Not quite as pronounced as differences in the kernel pale ale, but they are not all made equal.

    1. Maybe, but we’re not going to spend a year testing a bottle from every batch @ £3 a pop in case one of them is so wildly different from the others that we happen to like it…

  3. I know exactly what you mean about the ‘London taste’ when describing the beers from the cities new wave of breweries. It’s something I’ve always described as a ‘tang’ (but not tangy) and I’ve always thought that it had much more to do with the yeast and water than the hops and grain.

    I’ll tell you something, I don’t actually like it. I find it takes away from the kind of juiciness in beer I seek Chris described so well in his post earlier this week. What’s noticeable is that as brewers are getting better and brewing and investing in better equipment that the prevalence of this particular taste is decreasing… I can remember it being much more common in Gamma Ray, Pale Fire and Kernel beers but it seems far less prevalent know – perhaps there is a blog post there in its own right!

  4. I found it a little hard to tell which ones you did and didn’t like out of this batch. There was also no mention of the ‘WOW factor’, which you’d previously deemed a vital factor (https://boakandbailey.com/2014/09/british-bottled-porters-part-1/). Is the ‘wow’ harder to pin down the more porters you taste?

    In this instance I think it was interesting to compare these four particular London porters,so you could discuss unifying characteristics, but I wonder if the results would be the same if you’d tasted Kernel Export alongside, say, Brixton Porter; or Five Points alongside the Guinness ones.

    1. “I found it a little hard to tell which ones you did and didn’t like out of this batch.”

      Us too.

      We didn’t, in short, get a ‘wow’ from any of them, but the Beavertown was likeable enough to deserve a second go in the final taste-off, in different company. (We’re making this shit up as we go along.)

      EDIT: and we had a recalibrating Fuller’s at the weekend — still wowed us!

  5. Pingback: UK Top 10 Porters/Stouts (7.4% or less) | The Beer O'Clock Show

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