Finding That Ideal taste
Porter is evergreen for discussion here, whether historical aspects, or offering taste impressions of samples in the market.
I must say rarely do I encounter a perfect one. They exist mostly in memory, such as Courage Russian Imperial Stout of ca. 1980, Carnegie and Sinebrychoff in north Europe, Anchor in San Francisco, and a couple of others. Fuller double stout, a historical recreation, was one, some years back.
One can find endless very pale, very grapefruit IPAs. The style deserves a respectable hearing but its writ has travelled much further than warranted, imo.
One can also find a stream of dry Irish stouts. Glance at its specs as stated in the 2015 Beer Judges Certification Program, and one can see what is confirmed by my tastings for years. Dry means dry.
BJCP has 1011 at the top end of finishing gravity, so most will fall under, confirmed again by my taste impressions.
What explains this rasping dryness, one that to my taste takes all the verve and life from the style? Granted a brewer may use the best ingredients in the world; of what avail if the thing is dry as a bone, what can you taste of them?
Hops you will taste if used in abundance, and where the right kind, all the better. But often they are out of balance, as there is insufficient malt present, body, call it what you will, to “absorb” them. Same applies for the roasted barley or malt component, it often ends by “sitting” on the beer.
19th century brewers understood this better than modern brewers, excepting cases like well-attenuated India Pale Ale. Pale ale only became a pub staple much later though, mainly in the form of draught bitter, by which time it was a friendlier beast.
Modern-day Guinness must explain the dry Irish stout category of craft beer. It’s one of many influences, more than we realize, of pre-craft brewing on craft beer. I’d think Guinness, speaking here of the canned “draught” and pub draft, must finish around 1007, 1008 gravity.*
Bottled Extra Stout probably goes higher but I doubt past 1012. Even “English Porter” in the 2015 BJCP has a top end of 1014, so again the norm will be under.
If this moves product for brewers, I’m all for it, but that doesn’t mean I like the beer any more.
True, some styles of porter and stout aim higher in finishing gravity, especially export and Imperial stout. Many though are aged in bourbon barrels, which to my mind doesn’t do justice to the style.
Some have flavours added, again not a personal predilection. Some have a frank American hop taste, so ditto.
For porter unadorned, mid-level in ABV, how many really good ones have I encountered?
Offhand, I can’t think of another locally available porter as good as these two.** An import I recently tried, I believe for the first time, is Founder’s Porter, from Michigan. Image below is via the product description on Founder’s website.
Only after I tried and gave it a personal top rating did I check taste reports. A Beer Connoisseur rating of 96/100 simply confirms what I feel. I don’t need them to validate my view, but it’s nice that they do.
Certainly there are other porters as rich and “cozy”, but few come my way that have the authentic English taste. Some, as noted above, use American hops, which can create a good beer but is off the vector I am talking about.
So, in the mid-1800s, was mid-gravity porter richer than now? I append three sources that, taken together, suggest that it was. I won’t elucidate much further, it’s a technical matter, not of interest to all, but will add there are many statements in literature referring to good porter as “nutritious” or “balmy”, or similar terms.
No doubt Guinness then, its everyday porter, qualified. A modern 1008 dry Irish style is not likely what was meant by those terms.
I know well that some 19th century sources refer to porter as characteristically dry, with almost all the saccharine taken out. This was assisted by prolonged secondary fermentation powered often by Brettanomyces.
That taste, sometimes blended into fresh porter, seemed by mid-century to morph into mild porter, the type pre-supposed in this discussion. The taste for “hard” beer famously changed, at least when people were given the chance.
In this sense, I do believe that much abused concept “the public taste” did play a role. The people knew what they wanted, and I suppose those today do too. After all, Guinness is a famous world-wide product.***
Are craft brewers though, for their part, having a preponderant say due to the implicit authority of the modern Guinness product?
2015 BJCP Guideline on dry Irish stout.
See now our Part II.
*My canvass of clone brews for draught Guinness seems to confirm it, apart the organoleptic impression, that is.
**I don’t try them all, always open to new suggestions. Of course you may run into a good limited edition porter, I recall one at Avling in Toronto last year, and at Creemore Batch, but I’m referring more to beer reasonably in general distribution. I will say too despite the moniker, the odd dry Irish stout can feature a decent body. It happens. Dry is a potent marketing term, but also one open to different opinion.
***I’m sure I’m on record as having enjoyed a draught Guinness. Sometimes, it just hits you right. In the UK I’ve sometimes had it very fresh when it is quite acceptable. But a high-class, traditional porter? In the category of those I mentioned at the outset of these notes? I would say no, and the same for the line extensions I’ve had the opportunity to try.