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The Buzz

A Beerfly's view. If you see anything here that seems crazy, click here.

Fresh Buzz

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2004 Buzz

Nov. '04: The Next Store 

Oct. '04: Beer's Image 

Sept. '04: Clearly Insane 

August '04: Love of Lager

July '04: Speak Up!

June '04: Get Drafted

May '04: Shedding Tiers

April '04: Keg Party

March '04: Ultra Madness

February '04: Case Law

January '04: Best of 2003

2003 Buzz

Dec. '03: Wine good!

Nov. '03: Say Anything

Oct. '03: Shots at Saveur

Sept. '03: Pay For It!

August '03: Subtlety

July '03: RIP, Corner Bar

June '03: Screw 'Em!

May '03: Extreme Beer?

April '03: Liquor Taxes

March '03: St. Patrick's

February '03: Coffee

January '03: Taxes

 

December, 2004

Joys of the Dark

I spent four hours drinking porter at Liberty Brewery in Myrtle Beach on Thanksgiving Eve. It was the most porter Iíd had in years, and it was good. Okay, it didnít hurt that it was happy hour and we were getting it in $6 pitchers (real pitchers, too, the big 60 oz. glass ones). We were sitting outdoors, watching the shoppers walk by, and drinking porter, and it was good. We could have had IPA, we could have had a spiced holiday ale Ė not much chance of that happening Ė we could have had a GABF medal-winning helles, but after getting a pint of porter, we decided to stick with it.

Porterís one of those beers that usually gets a pat on the head and a gentle kick in the butt. "Hey, you, porter, good to see you, but why donít you run on home, okay? Weíve got better, bigger beers to drink. Hey! When you get home, send your sister Baltic out. Yeah. We got something we wanna show her." Porter plays second fiddle these days, or maybe even third.

And yet... I did a piece on porter back in 2000 and interviewed a variety of New England brewers who made porter. Almost all of them described the market for porter with the same word: "steady." porter drinkers know what they like, they donít change their minds, and if they canít get their porter, chances are theyíll turn around and go home (where theyíll have a few cases stashed for emergencies). These are the kind of guys who will sit and drink porter for hours, because it tastes good to them, and thatís what they want.

They know something. Porter was made, literally designed, for quaffing, for the long haul, for drinking straight on Ďtil morning (Peter Pan porter, anyone?). porter was the first beer brewed in mass quantities, which led to the industrialization of the brewing industry and some spectacular excesses. (A nice abbreviated history of porter was done in 2001 by the talented Ed Westemeier for the Cincinnati Enquirer, you can read that here.) It was a hugely popular beer in the UK in the 1700s.

Coffee killed porter. Not in the way you might think, by supplanting it as the buzz of choice. To be precise, it was the coffee roaster that killed porter. Porter was made with "brown malt," a somewhat unevenly kilned malt that had low efficiency in the mash tun, but apparently had a great flavor and color in the finished beer. Thatís what people loved and drank for a century. Even after the spread of coke-fired kilns led to the development of the more efficient pale malt, which soon supplanted brown malt, porter was still popular. Then coffee came to England, and someone developed a semi-automated roaster to prepare it more quickly.

Maltsters looked at the finished bean and quickly adopted the roaster to roast their malts. "Black patent malt" was one of the results, a very dark malt that let the brewer put back the color of brown malt in their porter, and cheaply. But the brewers didnít taste their beer: using the black patent malt gave porter a dry, smoky, burnt flavor. Sound familiar? It should: this was the first step towards stout.

Stout eventually conquered porter in the UK. "Baltic" porters and "Pennsylvania" porters continued to be made, but they werenít the same thing at all. It took American craft brewers to bring it back (along with homebrewers: porter was one of the first beers I brewed, and brewed again and again). Sierra Nevada, Redhook, and Anchor all brewed porters, Deschutes made Black Butte porter their flagship and successfully sold the hell out of it.

But I donít want this to be a history lesson. This is in praise of porter, a happy song of the pure joy of beer drinking that porter can bring. What's porter got going for it? Balance. The GABF judging categories have two categories for ale-brewed porters: brown porter and robust porter. In the solidly certain words of Maine's pioneer brewer David Geary, "That's horseshit. porter is porter, and it's very specific. A 'robust porter' is a stout." Porter is not overly roasted, nor is it overly hopped, nor is it overly sweet. 

But neither is porter bland. That's why I drank so much of it last Wednesday. Porter, ideally, is a beer in tension, where several flavor categories pull harmoniously in opposite directions. None of them overwhelm, none of them disappear. Malt, roast, hop, ester: they're all there, but none dominate. 

What is perhaps even more appealing is that porter doesn't awe the drinker. Many beers can be so striking as to evoke constant comment from geek and novice alike. Not a well-made porter. Porter's along for your ride, not there to take you on one of its own. I think in four hours the only things we said about the porter at Liberty was "Damn, this porter's good," "Yeah, another pitcher," and "Here, try some." I suppose you could say that Bud drinkers say the same things -- except for "Here, try some," maybe -- but there's a lot to be said for a beer that has real taste but is not intrusive on a geek's conversation. 

It's worth mentioning that Flann O'Brien's "The Workman's Friend," which many seem to think is a salute to stout is actually in praise of porter, "plain porter." You always have to be careful with O'Brien, who was born with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, but this bit of poetry, assigned to a fictional "Jem O'Casey" in O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds, rings too true to be wholly sarcastic. The opening stanza is the one most often quoted: 

"When things go wrong and they won't come right,
Though you do the best you can,
Though life seems dark as the midnight sky,
A pint of plain's your only man."

Indeed, indeed, 'tis true. It's December, and maybe I should have written about holiday beers, and how they aren't quite as special as they used to be, and how much I despise spiced beers, and all that. But I thought better of it. This month, I've no point to make but this: porter is overlooked, stuffed in the back of the craft-brew cupboard. Get yourself a driver, set aside four hours, and get re-acquainted. Southern Tier makes a good one, David Geary's London porter is excellent, Victory's draft-only Workhorse porter is good, and Hugh Burns makes a great porter at Williamsburg Brewing. I'm going to get some of Brian O'Reilly's porter at Sly Fox this weekend, and I had a nice pint of cask Pig Iron porter at Iron Hill North Wales last Monday. Get the conversation going, and just take the porter along for the ride. Enjoy yourself. Happy holidays!

 

Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: April 25, 2005