Plum Porter: Dividing Opinion

A plum.

We were a bit excited to come across Titanic Plum Porter in the pub last night, a beer many people worship and others despise.

We can’t say we’ve drunk it often enough to form a really solid view on how it is meant to be but have always enjoyed it. The first time we recall encountering it (that is, when we were paying attention) was at the Castle Hotel in Manchester where it struck us a heavy, rich porter with a fruity twist. At the Wellington in Bristol it seemed lighter in both colour and body and more like a British answer to a Belgian kriek or framboise — tart, and dominated by the hot crumble flavours of bruised fruit. Even at five quid a pint (yikes!) we had to stop for a second round.

When we Tweeted about it, acknowledging what we understood to be its mixed reputation, here’s some of what people said in response:

  • “When it’s good, it’s very good; when it’s bad, it’s horrid. Consistency seems dubious.” — @olliedearn
  • “WHAT?! In what world is it divide opinion? Everyone I know loves it.” — @Jon_BOA
  • “My bete noire, was always dubious about it (even though I love other Titanic brews) – perhaps I need to revisit…” — @beertoday
  • “Having lived in Stoke + covered the Potteries beer scene I’d say it’s a good advert (flagship, I dare say!) for local beers, despite flaws.” — @LiamapBarnes

So, pretty balanced, from Ugh! to Wow!

Over the years we’ve seen yet harsher comments, though, some of which struck us as more about Titanic’s place on the scene than about this beer in particular. In general, we find Titanic’s beer rather middling — not bad, not great — but it is nonetheless a major presence in the Midlands and North West, and on supermarket shelves nationwide, and ubiquity breeds contempt. For some time, too, its owner Keith Bott was chairman of increasingly controversial industry body SIBA, so perhaps the beer tastes a bit of politics, the nastiest off-flavour of all.

This made us think about other beers that strike us as fundamentally decent but whose reputations might be similarly weighed down. Copper Dragon Golden Pippin, for example, is a beer we’ve always enjoyed — good value, straightforward, but with a bit more peachy zing than some others in the same category. When we expressed this enthusiasm a while ago, though, there seemed to be a suggestion that we shouldn’t enjoy it because the brewery has engaged in some complicated and newsworthy business practices.

And St Austell Tribute is a beer we’ll always stick up for. At the Nags Head in Walthamstow c.2009 we drank tons of it and found it every bit as good as, almost interchangeable with, the exemplary Timothy Taylor Landlord sold in the same pub. (Further reading: ‘The Landlord Test’.) But these days, even though Tribute is probably  better than its ever been in technical terms, it elicits groans from many enthusiasts. That’s because it’s become one of those beers you find in pubs that aren’t very interested in beer, pushed into the wrong bits of the country by keen sales teams and big distribution deals; and on trains, in hotel bars, under random rocks you pick up deep in the woods, and so on. That in-your-face national presence is not only annoying in its own right but also makes it harder to find a pint that has truly been cared for. But, as a beer, on its own terms… It can still taste great, and interesting with it.

The flipside of all this, of course, is that some mediocre or even bad beers get a free pass because the people that make them are good eggs, or underdogs, or have a good story to tell; or because they’re scarce, so that nobody ever really gets to know them, and is too excited when they do find them in the wild to be objectively critical.

It’s impossible to be objective, obviously, but it’s good to try — to attempt to blank out everything else and have a moment where it’s just you and the beer.

15 thoughts on “Plum Porter: Dividing Opinion”

  1. Yes, very common for beers to become victims of their own success and spreading into outlets where they’re not really cared for – famously happened to Pedigree in the 1980s. Arguably now applies to Doom Bar, although is that *ever* particularly good?

    Some commentators on beer don’t give sufficient recognition to the role of cellarmanship in determining how good the drinker’s experience is.

    1. I find the reverse more likely to be true, don’t you? Rating the pub’s presentation of the beer without rating the pub’s selection of the beer is only telling half the story. It doesn’t actually tell punters where they can find a nice pint.

    2. There’s certainly an element of publicans who want to offer a dark beer turning to PP because it will sell to people who wouldn’t otherwise buy dark, but it means that it can stay on the bar a bit too long in areas that don’t drink dark – such as Cheshire.

      But there’s more to it than cellarmanship, I’ve had it from a fresh cask in a pub that looks after its beer, and it’s still been rather disappointing (relative to expectations). Still quite drinkable, but just lacking fullness and that hint of fruit. One imagines that a) plum extract or whatever declines in potency through the year and b) they’ve been forced to use new plum sources thanks to the huge success of the beer. Presumably now is the best time to drink it, two months after the main plum harvest so you’re getting this year’s plums in peak condition.

      But £5 is ouch. The ABV and fruit means that it’s never going to be cheap, but it’s not that bad, the multibuy deal from the brewery puts it in range of hoppy-session-beers-that-use-expensive-hops. £5/pint is 65% GP on a £92+VAT firkin – plausible but still feels like someone’s being a bit cheeky given the likely purchase price ex-brewery. Depends a bit on the venue of course.

      It does rather add weight to the argument that British beer culture needs to evolve a bit now that we have got so many breweries. It means a pub/bar can get most styles locally direct from the brewery without having to rely on distributors and so paying their markup. Obviously you will probably have to go further afield for the unusual stuff, but we need to get away from this need to tick off another generic Cascade/Citra pale just because it’s come down the A1 rather than being made 2 miles away. Certainly if I was running a place in Brizzle I’d be going for Hanlon’s Port Stout rather than Plum Porter – they’re equally good IMO, in fact Hanlon’s are less dependent on the vagries of plums, but buying direct from the brewery I imagine it would be coming onto the bar at less than £4 which just works for everyone (apart from the tickers).

        1. Pubs don’t have to stock the crap ones though (well, freehouses don’t at least).

          My definition of “local” is “within range of direct deliveries from the brewery” which doesn’t quite match the LocAle definition but isn’t too far off. Most seem to do weekly deliveries up to about 30-40 miles (depending on geography), but increasingly they seem to be doing once-a-month trips of up to maybe 100 miles.

          And there will always be some beers that are difficult to source locally – but I’m talking about that 80-90% of turnover taken by standard brown beers and Cascade-y pales in most pubs. There can be few areas in the country where there isn’t at least one good one of those produced locally.

  2. I really like almost all of Titanic’s beers, and it annoys me that it’s the single one I don’t care for much that seems to have spread everywhere.

    1. I think “middling” is a bit unfair, I’d rate them higher than that, given the styles that they choose to play in. I know a lot of people like Cappuccino which I just don’t get, the new kolsch is forgettable and the barrel-aged Iron Curtain just didn’t work*, but apart from that they’re a welcome sight on a bar.

      There’s some gems among the Titanic “occasionals”, at least when they’re on form. Since the early days I’ve been a fan of Lifeboat – old-school, dry and malty, it’s working-men’s-club-meets-Weetabix. But tastier than that sounds!

      *I predict 2018 will be the year of “Why has this great brewery made such a hash of their first barrel-aged beer?” Barrel-ageing is great when it works, but if you’re not careful it’s a recipe for expensive tannin-juice, it needs real skill to do well.

      1. In my experience all Titanic’s pale beers have a very similar finish – a big but unsubtle bitterness, like a brick wall of charcoal – so I usually swerve them these days. Their damson and vanilla stout was really good, though – an interesting example of the use of additions to duplicate the flavours of a much bigger beer, in a Ticketybrew-esque “Frankenstein beer” style (excuse the multiple links). (Just to confuse matters, when I wrote the second of those posts I specifically referred to damson and vanilla as flavours that you don’t get in a stout. Little did I know.)

        As for Plum Porter, I’ve had both it and the higher-strength occasional Plum Porter Special Reserve; checking, I find I described them both on my blog as “fine”. Which is about it for me – good of its type, but NMCOT.

  3. We rarely see it here in Scotlandshire, so when it appeared in the Cask and Barrel in Edinburgh last weekend we had a half gallon. And it was very good (and well kept).

  4. One of my favourite beers and I try to drink it as often as possible. Its not often seen in pubs in my
    area tough so I mainly drink it from the bottle.

  5. I used to be asbolutely obsessed with bottle conditioned Titanic Stout when it was available in Morrisons. Tasted as close to cask as any bottled stout I’ve ever had, but sadly haven’t seen it for years.

    I’m not a big lover of fruited traditional British beers as a rule but have always found Plum Porter to strike a decent balance.

  6. I spent years avoiding Plum Porter, I was determined that it was definitely not the kind of beer I liked. Then one afternoon, having lunch in one of our favourite locals, I resigned myself to a pint purely because it would be an Untappd tick.

    Wow!

    Now it’s up there in my top ten.

    We’re about 30 miles south of Stoke, so it’s not rare round these parts and pretty well kept, on the whole.

    I agree with your comments about Tribute, it’s never a favourite but it rarely disappoints when it’s on form.

  7. Not sure it’s a Porter, judged against CAMRA standard for Porter. Not sure it’s 100% fruit either? Very artificial taste. Not sure what it is at all. Bit of a Marmite beer this one.

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