OK. Once again we have the timeless question of "what the heck is a porter anyway?" Each of the words in that question lead you to a different porter I have had in the last 12 months. Unlike a best bitter, a hefeweissen or a barleywine, you never know quite what the brewer is going to qualify as a porter. Sometimes they are sharp and hoppy and not overly malty - sometimes it is a molasses thick malty bomb. Inevitably, more research ensues.
The three that I have collected for this weekend's evaluation are the unwebbed Nethergate's Old Growler from the south of England, Coffee Porter from Toronto's urban urbane Mill Street Brewery as well as its Ontario country cousin Church-Key Brewing's Decadent Chocolate Porter. The first was at the Kingston LCBO on discount at about $2.50 CND for a 500 ml, the second at the Newmarket LCBO because they do not stock it this far east for $11.50 CND a six pack, the third was $11.00 CND per six only at the brewery.
- Nethergate Old Growler: This 5.5% ale pours translucent and mahogany, not far off the appearence of, say, Leffe Brune except that there is only a beige rim left after the pour. One early report on the internet says it is brewed with corriander. Ratebeer.com includes what it calls a commercial (if corrianderless) description:
Brewed according to a 1750's Porter recipe, Old Growler is one of the most authentic and historical versions of English Porter from anywhere in the world. Challenger hops, wheat flour, and crystal, black, and Maris Otter pale malts.The hoppiness is there though not at the level of Burton Porter which I tried about once, about three years ago, which also claims to that mythical earliest form of the style...and must to my mind have captured it if only because so few people get it, as its beer advocate listing would indicate. For my money, this is a valuable addition to any understanding of porter. It is a hopped brown ale with moderate malt but also tang in the yeast, in the black malt, in the herbal hops and perhaps other vegatives added to the mash tun. Not as licorice rich or strong as a Baltic porter, not as roasty-toasty as a stout (which we all know as a style began life and is now a short form for stout porter), not as mellow and embracing as a North American style modern porter. Instructive.
- Mill St. Coffee Porter: This 5.5% ale, as the names implies, takes off in the direction of a new beer [or, for the Teutonics amongst you, ein neues Bier] adding coffee notes to a traditional stylistic range. Again, trasnlucent mohogany resolves quicky to a beige rim. A nice nod to Canadian tradition with the use of the stubbie, this ale could as easily been called coffee dark or coffee brown as there is little porterness about it - unless being a porter is only about being dark brown. The brewery apparently uses coffee from a local downtown T.O. bean roaster. Fair enough - but that is merely a flavouring, not even an adjunct as it adds no fermentables to the mash. Not a tragedy in itself, especially as this brew is fairly tasty, but it overpowers all the other characteristics in the beer's profile. For me, flavourings are ok but they should present themselves within the style of the beer rather than setting the style. That means, unless you like a good cup of coffee, this is not a beer you will like. That being said, I like good coffee. I also like how this beer does balance the big dusty roasty java taste through the tangy yeast (which I might bet a small figure on being a Ringwood strain), twiggy hops and some black and roasted malts. Best of all, it is fresh and real ale.
So if coffee is your thing, give it a go - all 17 advocatonians said "yea!". The only question is - is it a porter? This is not the first brew that will trigger that debate.
- Church-Key Decadent Chocolate Porter: Darker than the other two examples, this beer has a fine beige rocky head that stays on as a reminder that the ale is real. As is right, the taste is hops, malt, then the chocolate subtly in the aftertaste. Porter with a nod rather than a flavouring with a branding. The chocolate is bitter and local to the brewer. The brewery says:
A super dark porter that contains a hearty helping of roasted grains. This robust ale also contains a liberal dose of baker's cocoa from Campbellford's local chocolate factory. 5% alc./vol.Nice. Not quite a balance to a cigar but way more than a nice cup of hot chocolate. Given the point that porter must find between a brown ale and a stout, this beer knows what it is. As you sip, the head leaves a thin fine layer of foam down the glass - beyond lace. I think that advocatrons are simply off, saying it lacks body or complexity. I think they have been fooled into the idea that a porter must be big as a stout or a Baltic porter. This puppy is subtle, layers of flavour under the cocoa. While not dense and slate-like, like the greatest beer I have recently had, Freeminer Deep Shaft Stout, it is still - like Freeminer - more Bordeaux than Burgundy: structured, finessed, thoughtful, just lighter. More than anything it is balanced, more about the maker than the terrior - yet there is that something about this brewer's water...I actually want to try his lager. Imagine! All in all, a top notch beer as long as we are mindful of, again, the use of a very non-traditional flavouring, my only two other experiences of which being Young's Double Chocolate Stout, a much creamier and lighter take on the same idea, and Rogue Chocolate Stout, which I could go on about for a while again if you had the time. A side by side with the Rogue would be a good afternoon's project. High praise.