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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Potable - and Some Potent - Porters


I've heard craft beer referred to at times as a fad. This opinion is usually expressed by someone who drinks only mega-brew beers. But it got me thinking about fads vs. trends. A fad is a kind of flash-in-the-pan. Something that becomes wildly popular for a short period of time but then dies out just as quickly. Think: Pet Rocks, Cabbage Patch Kids, Pac-Man, Hula Hoops, Beanie Babies, Zoot Suits, Donald Trump - you get the idea. A trend, on the other hand, is a general movement in a particular direction that gradually gains momentum. Think: Craft Beer. A trend tends to have staying power, a fad not so much so. The Mega-brewers ignored craft beer for quite a while, assuming it was a fad and
would quickly fade. But as more and more Americans discovered the joy of real beer and the sale of the mega-brews began to decrease while the sale of craft beer increased (by the way creating jobs not only at the ever-increasing number of breweries but with the burgeoning growth of hop farms now that there were American beers that actually used hops) the big boys started to get nervous and began exploring ways of cashing in on the Craft Beer Movement. A-B InBev opted to bash craft beer with obnoxious ads painting craft beer drinkers as sissified elitists while Bud drinkers are real men and real Americans (I believe I may have mentioned in the past the fact that Bud is owned by a foreign conglomerate while craft breweries are wholly American-owned, making this claim spurious at best) while surreptitiously creating faux craft breweries which produced faux craft beer and buying up actual craft breweries (the latest being Devil's Backbone out of Virginia). All of this mega-brew angst merely confirms the fact that craft beer is not a fad but the future of American beer.

On the heels of this comes a curious new approach to "adult" beverages - hard soft drinks. Beginning with Not Your Father's Root Beer there has been a sudden explosion of soft drinks turned hard with the infusion of alcohol. On the market now are several hard root beers, plus hard ginger ales, hard orange sodas, hard ginger beers, even a spiked cranberry soda. This begs the question: who is the target audience? It is, after all, soda pop with alcohol. I have tried Not Your Father's Root Beer as well as Coney Island Brewing Company's Hard Ginger Ale. The root beer I thought tasted like very good root beer. We here at BOTB actually compared it to a high end root beer and found it perhaps somewhat superior. On the other hand, the ginger ale I found to be, well, awful. I rather like good ginger ale (Schweppe's for example) and this did not taste like good ginger ale. I felt it had a kind of overly sweet taste you don't really want in ginger ale.

Be that as it may, my point here is, I guess, that while some are comparing this explosion of hard soft drinks to the craft beer revolution, to me it has all the earmarks of a fad. It blew up suddenly, out of nowhere and for now is burning bright. But will it last?

My biggest issue with this, other than the creepy feeling that it targets kids, is that in supermarkets that already allot a minuscule amount of space for craft beer, these alcohol-fueled soda pops are fighting for the same space, reducing the craft beer choices to only the most popular (or to those which A-B/InBev now owns).  Our local Tops Market for example hasn't had a huge craft beer section - like most chain stores 80% - 90% of the beer shelf space is reserved for mega-brews - but it had slowly begun to expand their choices. lately, however, I've noticed the hard soft drinks are seriously impinging on the craft beers.
Shelf space at Tops dominated by hard soft drinks

Hard soft drinks are hot now, but will they last? Anyone remember these:

Boone Farm Wines

Ripple Wine

Zima Malt Beverage

Billy Beer

 All burned bright and flew off the shelves - until they didn't.


We here at BOTB love hops. We make no bones about that. We're seven Guys who worship the ground hops grow in. If we held Communion we would serve an IPA (and beer bread). But we do like to mix things up a bit here and explore other styles so as to gain an appreciation of the many different types of beers. We do have a few caveats. While we are wary of fruit beers, there have been a number of grapefruit IPAs lately that are quite tasty, and occasionally we'll stumble upon a beer with just a hint of some fruit that creates a pleasing experience. The key here is that these beers retain their basic "beer-ness."  They still taste like beer and not soda pop with alcohol. Our other proviso is we avoid bland beers at all costs. The late, great Michael Jackson (the beer connoisseur, not the singer) draws a distinction between bland beers (code for mega-brews such as Budweiser) and complex beers.

"A bland beer is boring and not appetizing. A complex beer is satisfying without necessarily being satiating. Nor is it just a question of flavor. A great beer begins with aroma, then comes the texture and flavor, and finally the 'finish' (a more elegant word for 'aftertaste').

"Bland beers have no finish. Drinkers are left wondering whether they just had a beer or simply breathed some wet air (this phrase was coined by Native American writer William Least Heat Moon to describe the experience of drinking 'light' beer)."

The above quote is from the introduction in his Great Beer Guide book which details 500 great beers from around the world (amazingly, Budweiser didn't make the cut).

So we try to avoid bland beers at all costs. I mean, what's the point? If you're using beer as merely a delivery system for alcohol, there are much more efficient methods. But if you drink beer because you enjoy the aroma, taste and finish of a good beer, why waste your time with bland beer?

Oh yeah, the terms "light" or "lite" are strictly taboo.

This month we delve into the dark delights of Porters. You may ask, "What's the difference between a Porter and a Stout?" Most beer enthusiasts have wondered that very thing at one time or another. They are both dark, both share similar taste profiles (malty, nutty, chocolate, coffee to varying degrees), and both originated in Great Britain. The simplest answer is that "Stout" was merely a beer term for strong, and stronger Porters were called Stout Porters. Eventually the name was shortened to Stout. The confusing thing today is that there are Porters that are stronger than many Stouts. There are Imperial Porters and Baltic Porters, Cream Porters and Coffee Porters. There are Imperial Stouts and Russian Imperial Stouts, Milk Stouts, Coffee Stouts and Oatmeal Stouts. All are in varying strengths. So really, much of it comes down to the discretion of the brewer. Even different beer festivals can't agree on what makes a beer a Stout and what make a beer a Porter. Some festivals might insist that a Porter must be brewed with chocolate malt and a Stout with Patent Malt. Or not.

Anyway, our only qualification was that it said "Porter" somewhere on the label.

Here then are this month's selection of pleasing Porters.


The Beer Facts: BREWER: CustomBrewcrafters, Honeoye Falls, NY; STYLE: Porter; ABV: 5.0%; IBUs: 20; MALTS: Chocolate, Dark Crystal; HOPS: Galena, Fuggle

What the Brewer Says: "Try one and any misconception about dark beers being heavy or harsh will fade away quicker than the beer in your glass. Night Owl Porter  is everything the name conjures up in your mind...a beer with a very creamy, almost silky texture."

Color: Black

Pour: Just shy of "decent" head

Aroma: Malty, molasses

Body: Medium

Taste: Creamy, smooth with strong malt and undertones of caramel

Overall Impression: A bit better than "I Could Drink This!"

Comments: "Like a good introductory Porter; Not over-the-top in any area - not a huge malt or chocolate taste; Those notes are there, but subtle; I could drink a bunch of these; A little more carbonated than I'd expect from a Porter, to me it sort of detracts from the overall enjoyment; Nice, mild aroma; Kind of a surprise from CustomBrewcrafters - usually their beers are more in-your-face big; Oily or silky feel on the tongue."


The Beer Facts: BREWER: Holy City Brewery, Charlestown, SC; STYLE: American Porter; ABV: 5.5%; IBUs: 21; MALTS: Pale, Crystal 20, Crystal 60, Munich II, Carafa II; HOPS: Northern Brewer; INTERESTING BEER FACT RE. THE NAME: Pluff mud is "a mixtrue of dirt and water indigenous to the marshes of the South Carolina Lowcountry, with a distinct odor that's endearing to locals, but off-putting to tourists and redcoats."

What the Brewer Says: "Our second flagship beer was an effort to bring the American Porter style to the Charleston market proper, while also making a beer that stays appealing as the mercury rises. We think we've succeeded in Pluff Mud Porter. It presents (and smells) like a classic porter, with subtle chocolate notes and a silky finish, but the medium body and tame ABV keep it refreshing at all times. Enjoy this throughout the year, in or out of the marsh."

Color: Rich mahogany

Pour: Guinness class head on the pour which dissipates quickly.

Aroma: Roasted malt and chocolate

Body: Medium

Taste: Lightly sweet malty taste with notes of  mocha and yeast

Overall Impression: I Could Drink This!

Comments: "Big nose; Silky smooth finish; Grows on you; Better when it is allowed to warm a bit, more of the flavor comes through; Again the initial carbonation takes away from the taste - it is better after it sits a minute; Probably even better in a snifter; As it warms, a little hops, caramel and cinnamon starts to come through; Very nice beer."


The Beer Facts:BREWER: Left Hand Brewing, Longmont, CO; STYLE: Porter with coffee; ABV: 6.0%; IBUs: 33; MALT: 2-Row, Munich, Chocolate, Crystal, Carafa; HOPS: Centennial, Cascade; OTHER: Coffee

What the Brewer Says: "Innately predisposed to be smooth when Poured Hard, this nitro coffee porter builds a pillowy, toffee-sweet head. Coffee and flavors of caramelized sugar, cacao and hints of blueberry lead to a light, smokey finish."

Color: Black

Pour: Near Guinness class head

Aroma: Coffee, roasted grain, whiff of chocolate

Body: Medium

Taste: Coffee, toffee, with a nice smoothness from the nitro, a bit of chocolate and somewhat nutty

Overall Impression: Leaning toward "Can't Get Enough"  between that and "I Could Drink This."

Comments: "Breakfast beer; Bitter on the end; I like this - smooth, velvety, wonderful coffee-mocha taste; Tastes clean; I could drink a lot of this; More flavor - a nice example of not over-carbonating - sorry if I seem obsessed with this today, just felt the first two could use less and this one bears me out."


The Beer Facts: BREWER: Wolf Hollow Brewing, Glenville, NY; STYLE: Peat Smoked Porter; ABV; 6%

What the Brewer Says: "Wolf Hollow Brewing Company creates true, local, craft beer, captured on draught for peak freshness, and enjoyed in our tasting room or home by the local community."

Color: Black

Pour: Guinness Class head

Aroma: Smoky malt

Body: Bit more than medium

Taste: Smoky malt dominates with hints of coffee and chocolate

Overall Impression: Very near "Can't Get Enough!"

Comments: "Hoppier than the others so far; Pleasing; Peat smoked malt gives it an interesting taste; Closer to a Rauchbier; Distinct; Roasted malt taste; Lingering taste; Really nice beer - I love it!"


The Beer Facts: BREWER: Baltika Brewery, St. Petersburg, Russia; STYLE: Porter; ABV: 7.0%; MALT: Pale Barley Malt, Caramelized barley malt, Black barley malt

What the Brewer Says: "Since April 2008 premium Baltika varieties - Baltika #6 and Baltika #8 Wheat - have been united into the Baltika Selected series. The Baltika Selected is a new image combined with the original but familiar content and invariable quality. Brewed with added high-quality ingredients and having a racy flavor these varieties are meant for unhurried drinking in sedate and relaxed surroundings."

Color: Pitch black

Pour: Just shy of "Decent" head

Aroma: Sweet molasses

Body: Between Medium and Full but leaning toward Full

Taste: Sweet malty with strong tastes of molasses and toffee

Overall Impression: Just shy of "I Could Drink This"

Comments: "Horehound taste; Sharp sweet taste right off the bat; Like a sticky-bun; Could put this stuff on ice cream, pancakes etc.; Wouldn't want 3 or 4 of these; Nice looking bottle - good size; Sweety but enjoyable; A dessert snifter beer for sure."


The Beer Facts: BREWER: Jack's Abby, Framingham, MA; STYLE: Bourbon Barrel Aged Baltic Porter; ABV: 10%; IBUs: 55

What the Brewer Says: "Big, bold, black, and aged in bourbon barrels. This unusual lager style has many similarities to Imperial Stouts. A lengthy conditioning period creates a silky smooth chocolatey mouth feel enhanced by the use of oats  and brown sugar. Noticeable sweetness gets balanced by roasted malt and hop bitterness. Additional flavors include bourbon, vanilla and oak."

Color: Black

Pour: Guinness-class head

Aroma: Mellow malty

Body: Full bodied

Taste: Dark chocolate, vanilla with bourbon undertones and roasted malt. Bit of a nice hop bite to this one as well.

Overall Impression: A qualified "Can't Get Enough!" As in "I could drink a lot if not for the 10% ABV!"

Comments: "Not as sweet as some of the others; Unfiltered; Clean on the finish; Clean, bold and black; More chocolate than coffee; Doesn't taste as big as it is; Not cloying - has a nice dark chocolate bitterness; Fills the mouth; Smooth, tongue-coating sensation; Nice lingering after-taste; It would be easy to over-indulge because this is so smooth."


In descending order, here's where this bunch of fine Porters scored with us.

1. Framinghammer Baltic Porter - Jack's Abby - A really terrific Porter. A big, bold taste redolent of dark chocolate and roasted malt with a wonderful hint of bourbon. It's a big beer that isn't cloyingly sweet like some can be.

2. Wolf Hollow Peaty Porter - Wolf Hollow Brewing - A wonderful Porter with a really unique flavor thanks to the peat smoked malt. Nice coffee and chocolate undertones you expect from a Porter. A bit more hop presence than the others which may have helped sway us.

3. Hard Wired Nitro Coffee Porter - Left Hand Brewing  -  Complex mix of coffee and toffee, chocolate and nut. Nitro is becoming a big trend in craft brewing and this is a fine example. A terrific, full-flavored brew.

4. Night Owl Porter - CB Craft Brewers - A bit more subtle flavors than the top three, malt and molasses flavors hit you right off with some hints of chocolate and coffee. Somewhat overly carbonated which detracts from the overall enjoyment of the beer.

5. Pluff Mud Porter - Holy City Brewing - Another enjoyable Porter with roasted malt and chocolate the dominant flavors. As it sat and warmed, a bit more flavor emerged. Again a little less carbonation would improve the beer.

6. Baltika # 6 - Baltika Breweries - We sort of saw this as more of a dessert beer than anything else. A bit too sweet but not bad in small doses.


Our own Mike Watkins brought along one of his terrific home brews - West Coast Style IPA. After all
those Porters, as good as they were, we welcomed some hops, and this beer delivered with a nice spicey, peppery flavor we rated unanimously "Can't Get Enough!"

We also had as a delicious palate cleanser Mayflower Brewing's Limited Edition Alden Double IPA.  It is a terrific beer, full, complex and just plain tasty. Hard to get outside of Massachusetts, but worth the hunt.

Next Month: ESBs

Wonder what we thought about a particular beer? Get our down and dirty quick reference at BOTB Tested Beers

And for even more BOTB chicanery peruse Gerry's Beer Book

The BOTB Guys