Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Beercraft newspaper column #28- Porter

Porter- dark, deep and delicious

It all started with a wives’ tale.

As the story goes, beer drinkers of the mid-seventeenth century had peculiar tastes. In order to get the proper flavor, nutrition, and alcoholic kick to their pint, a customer would order ‘three-threads,’ a mĂ©lange of three different ales from three separate casks. As you can imagine, when running a busy alehouse, this was just time-consuming enough to be annoying for the pourer. It was also expensive, as it necessitated the brewing of three different types of beer just to sate the desires of a single drinker.

Enter one Ralph Harwood, a brewer who, according to legend, made a palatable replacement for three threads at his brew house in 1722. He called his beer “entire butt” (shut up), to represent the completeness of his one brew.

Supposedly, his beer caught on with the porters of the day who, unlike the ones you’ll encounter in fancy hotels, actually carried through the streets all the crap that made Georgian London function properly. Being cerebral types, they came up with a name that captured all the subtle nuances of this nutritious, strong beer: ‘porter.’

While the story makes fantastic marketing copy on the back of a bottle label, it’s actually pretty dubious. Still, there’s no denying that heavy, dark porter was the dominant beer style sold in London from the mid 18th century until the mid 1800s. Then it vanished.

Oh, not overnight, but advances in the science of brewing made possible the creation of lighter bodied (and lighter hued) beers with more subtle and refined flavors. In essence, beer made a jump in sophistication, and there ain’t no place for coach passengers in the first-class lavatory. By the end of the 19th century, pale ale and IPA were king, and porter had all but disappeared.

No one really made the stuff until the microbrew movement of the 1970s, when the eager brewers dusted off the old history books in the desire to make anything that wasn’t Schlitz. Soon, beer taps were flowing with the chewy opaque black beer once again, and the beerophiles celebrated.

Then the beerophiles took an Aspirin.

Then the beerophiles celebrated anew, and the party continues today. Porter is now a mainststay of most craft breweries, and there’s a huge variety from which to choose. Might we offer a couple of humble suggestions?

Custom Brewcrafters Double Dark Cream Porter, from Honeoye Falls NY, is the best beer that brewery makes. As the name would imply, it’s very dark, but the taste is sweet with a bit of nuttiness and a clean finish. CB’s isn’t a light-bodied beer, and its hefty mouthfeel make it a fine winter warmer.

A couple of places around Rochester, notable Monty’s Krown, Monty’s Korner and The Old Toad, offer Double Dark on hand-pump, carbonated with nitrogen instead of carbon dioxide for a silkier, more complex draught.

A great way to fortify yourself before camping in front of a Best Buy for a Playstation 3 or a Wii or whatever the hell you’re out there for is to drink a big imperial pint of Stone Smoked Porter. It comes from the consistently excellent Stone Brewery of California, and sports a somewhat chocolate/coffee flavor with a smoky intensity that doesn’t overpower the flavor of the beer itself.

The best thing about Stone Smoked Porter is its complexity. Smoking the malt in a kiln gives it a bit of a woody essence, and it finishes dry. Each lingering sip will unveil new flavor notes, but, as we’ve discovered, huge slobbering gulps of this beer are satisfying as well.

Finally, there’s the limited-run Brooklyn Smoked Porter, currently on tap at The Old Toad. It comes with an international pedigree. Brewed by Brooklyn’s Head brewer, Garrett Oliver, in Sheffield, England, at the award-winning Kelham Island Brewery, the porter is an intriguing blend of dark roasted malt and mocha flavors.

Maybe it’s the English brewing conditions, or just Oliver cutting loose, but this porter is one of the finest seasonals the Brooklyn brewery has yet produced. As is the tragedy with all such beers, it’s in a very limited run. So hurry up.

Bruce is a certified beer judge and former commercial brewer. Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to

1 comment:

Sparkle Anne said...

MMM...CB's Double Dark...Hogan's Hidaway carried it for a time and I am hoping they will bring it back. We don't "hand-pump" it there as the dirty-minded customers would find a way to make that a running joke, but I still think it tastes pretty smooth.Yummy.