Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My Obsession With Porter Begins

I'm not an addictive personality. I don't have the attention or commitment levels necessary to be addicted to things. But, I do get obsessed, more precisely, I suppose, I get infatuated. You should have been around for my Early-80s Post-Punk infatuation. My eardrums are still recovering.

On Monday I indicated that New Glarus' Old English Porter (review to follow) has triggered what I can tell will be an infatuation with porters. Now, don't get me wrong. I've loved porters for a long, long time. But we saw what happened this summer when I got infatuated with IPAs. So, I can feel it coming for the porters.

And just like the Early-80s Post-Punk infatuation, I like to do my research and know what I'm getting into. Let's review, quickly, what I know, or think I know about Porters. Let's see, porters, off the top of my head: Lake Louie Porter, Fuller's London Porter, Tyranena Brewers' Gone Wild Porters, Great Lakes Porter, Bells Porter, Grumpy Troll Baltic Porter, New Glarus Smoked Porter. All of these I can put some sort of flavor memory into my brain.

What I love about porters are the wonderful malt-based coffee and roasted notes, but the malt complexity that can show through with a nuanced touch. Some of the heavier porters can support a pretty hefty hop bill, but I like mine on the "aggressive English" side, which I suppose means I don't want Centennials in my porters, but rather a hoppy English porter. I've found I tend to like porters much like I like my doppelbocks, restrained but full of complexity. I'm not looking for 8% ABV burn and I don't want to blow my palate out. I want a nice, hefty-ish beer that I can have two of and not feel overly full, that warms up well but drinks easy.

The BJCP divides porters into 3 categories: brown porters, robust porters and baltic porters. For the purposes of this obsession, I will avoid Baltic Porters. It's not that I don't like them, but I don't want to cloud my judgment and Baltic Porters are another group unto themselves that I feel is best left for another round of infatuations.

Brown porters are the lighter, sweeter variety of porter; basically a more full-bodied (though not "full bodied") brown ale or mild. The brown porter has the roasted notes in the background, hops are definitely restrained. Commercial examples include: "Fuller's London Porter, Samuel Smith Taddy Porter, Burton Bridge Burton Porter, RCH Old Slug Porter, Nethergate Old Growler Porter, Hambleton Nightmare Porter, Harvey’s Tom Paine Original Old Porter, Salopian Entire Butt English Porter, St. Peters Old-Style Porter, Shepherd Neame Original Porter, Flag Porter, Wasatch Polygamy Porter." To the extent I can find these, I want to explore these more.

A robust porter, on the other hand, is something short of a stout. Its flavors focus on roasted and black malts and hops can be either English or American and can be more forward in the profile. The BJCP suggests "Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, Meantime London Porter, Anchor Porter, Smuttynose Robust Porter, Sierra Nevada Porter, Deschutes Black Butte Porter, Boulevard Bully! Porter, Rogue Mocha Porter, Avery New World Porter, Bell’s Porter, Great Divide Saint Bridget’s Porter" as commercial examples. Oh look. Great Lakes and Bells; what do you know?

I can tell already that my "ideal" described earlier hits the Robust Porters in the center of the bullseye. Great Lakes, Bells, Great Divide, Avery, Sierra Nevada, Anchor. I've had all of these, though never as part of a style study. So, I can't tell if my preferences are true preferences, or if I have an American bias just based on the versions of the style that I've had. So, one thing I want to do is try some porters, other than Fullers, more along the "brown porter" line to really compare them.

So, what about some history? Wikipedia take me away. But, for the record, I prefer Michael Jackson's account, if for no other reason than he uses the word "soubriquet", which is pretty badass if you ask me.

So, how did "Porter" come about? Honestly? Who knows? What everyone can agree on is that the word "porter" to describe a style of beer first started showing up in the mid-1700s in England. By the late-1700s, Guinness Brewery in Dublin was making two porters of varying gravities for domestic consumption: Guinness Porter and Guinness Extra Stout Porter. They started making a third porter, called Foreign Extra Stout for export to the colonies in the Caribbean. They stopped making the regular porter and dropped the "Porter" name from the label, leaving us with Stout and Foreign Extra Stout.

It seems that there are two basic stories for porter's beginnings: the first, subscribed to by Michael Jackson, being that porter was an amalgamation of the three kinds of beer being brewed at the time (ale, beer, and twopenny) and that rather than waste beer by combining it in the glass, brewers started brewing a fourth beer that replicated this concoction; the second being that porter was simply a "bigger" and "aged" version of the brown-er ales. Frankly, I don't see why the two can't co-exist. What can't be denied is that it became very popular in the mid-1700s, pushed by brewers as a premium British product to compete against the (Dutch) gin craze that was taking over London at the time.

Some technological changes allowed porter to become an international hit. First, malt kilning became a more refined science allowing, for the first time, more than "pale" and "brown" malts. Now brewers could also have black malts that weren't simply burnt to a crisp. Moreover, the style hit at a time when industrialization in the transportation industry was starting to make fads global. So, British troops and expatriates in the the states, Caribbean, and throughout all of Europe could have the same refined beer. As Jackson notes: "Britain's Industrial Revolution preceded those of other parts of Europe and North America. The darkness of Porter as a style would have covered up cloudiness and the roasty, bitter, tastes masked flavour defects - both important factors as beer was shipped farther from the brewery."

One final thing to note before we taste the New Glarus Old English Porter. Like most beer that attempts to replicate styles as they would have been presented before the days of forced carbonation and refrigeration, this beer is sour. Why is a porter sour? Well, in the early 1700s and indeed up through the late-1800s, everything that aged for any amount of time would have been sour. We saw this when we talked about Old Ales and Barleywines earlier this year. The reality is that the only thing that they had to store and serve beer in  was wooden casks. The wooden casks let in brettanomyces, and, as the young kids say, it brought on the funk. To counteract this funkification, often "old" (barrel-aged, sour) beer was blended with young (non-soured) beer before serving it. It is this soured style that New Glarus has attempted to recreate.
Our interpretation is a Brown Porter based on the style popular in 1870's London. It was brewed with mostly floor malted English malts including the fame pale ale malt, Marris Otter. A touch of smoked malt produced by Briess Malting Company of Chilton Wisconsin was also used. Half of the batch went through a souring fermentation, in the traditional way, to promote the characteristic wine-like acidity. Lastly the beer was aged on wood to extract sweetness from toasted oak.

New Glarus Old English Porter
Appearance: served in the low-50s, a nice, tan one-finger head; body is crytal clear and deep walnut brown with touches of ruby throughout where the light comes through, the edges thin out to a golden tawny coloration; little lacing, with some light legging
Aroma: the sourness is notable at the front; the sourness mixes with the sweet, brown malt and biscuit aromas to create a memorable smell of newly polished leather boots (thanks to Mrs. MBR for the evocative imagery)
Flavor: the sour, again, is predominate and it comes through like a wine tannin or vinegar tartness; the smoked malt and oak definitely come through in the finish; a slight nutty and caramel sweetness; Mrs. MBR says almost all of the flavor is in the top or side of the mouth and the sourness of sour patch kids in the middle of the taste, with a smoky finish similar to espresso beans without the coffee flavor
Body: medium-bodied and mouthfeel, the beer itself is pretty clean with some residual sweetness left behind in the finish with the smoke, oak and cherry tartness; Mrs. MBR notes that it doesn't seem to have a lot of body, but she thinks she is distracted from the body by the intense flavors
Drinkability: the medium-body gives this the sessionability that I like in porters, hefty, but not heavy - enough for two or three; I would definitely breeze through this four-pack pretty easily and it is enjoyable enough that I would definitely want another.
Summary: I really like this beer, and this seems to be about the perfect temperature for it; it is a very pretty beer that is sophisticated enough for an oversized cab or merlot glass. It seems a little too refined for a shaker pint, or even an imperial pint. And, it would pair well with anything from barbecued chicken to braised rib tips, which means that it will remain seasonal through the winter. This should definitely age well and I'll have to buy another four-pack just to lay down. I hope that some age will temper the sour a little, because I do like it, but I feel like I'm missing some of the beer in the sourness. But otherwise, another strong addition to the Unplugged series.


  1. I really did not care for this beer. I found the sourness so overpowering that I couldn't enjoy the rest of the flavors.

  2. I said it was all on the roof of my mouth and tip of my tongue, darn it.

  3. Wow. That was a great post, and while I haven't had the Old English Porter, its a style that I typically enjoy. I look forward to following your obsession!

  4. I wouldn't think that age would temper the sourness, rather that it would make the sourness more prominent.


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