Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Old Friends: Fuller's London Porter

In the late 19th century, my great-grandfather left rural Somerset and moved to the metropolis to be a porter. Sadly for any tie-in to this tale, he wasn't the kind of porter for whom London's most famous beer invention was named, he was instead a parcels porter for the London and South Western Railway, eventually becoming a Foreman Parcels Porter. Thus it was that the first of my paternal ancestors moved to London, settling first in Battersea, then moving to Merton, and spreading out from there.

I've mentioned before that my dad grew up in Chiswick, just a few miles up the river from Battersea, though on the north side rather than the south, and as such I have a great affection for Fuller's. The fact they make damned good beer helps, obviously. Having already done an Old Friends post for each of London Pride and ESB, it only felt right to complete the hat-trick and pour myself a dimpled mug of the legendary London Porter.


It is perhaps sad to admit to, but it took we a while to decide on which of my various British style pint glasses to use for this tasting. Eventually though, as you can see, I stumped for my nicely old fashioned dimpled mug for no other reason than my own capricious whimsy. For whatever reason my tulips, nonics, and pint pots just didn't seem right.


Anyway, enough of glassware, we are after all more interested in the beer itself. As you would expect from a porter, it is dark, very dark. With the sun streaming through the window it was a deep inky pitch, topped with a half inch of tan foam. There is something about dark beers, top or bottom fermented, that I just find alluring to look at, perhaps it harkens back to my early drinking days of Guinness and Gillespie's? Maybe there is something about the darkness that exudes an air of mystery that isn't really present in pale beers as you look right through and see the other side of the glass? Turning momentarily to face the sun and see the beer with the light coming through, the darkness becomes a deep, deep chestnut brown, flecked with auburn. The foam thinned out a little and then just hung around, clinging to the glass as it went down.


Taking another little side perambulation here, why are porters and stouts invariably "paired" with dessert at the end of yet another unimaginative beer dinner menu? Sure I get it that the aroma often contains chocolate, but chocolate goes great with beef too you know. Chocolate was present here too, a rich dark chocolate in the vein of Bourneville rather than Dairy Milk. I own the fact that perhaps my sense of smell does odd things, but I also get a hint of soy sauce as well as some molasses to add a savoury note to the bitter chocolate. Under all of that is the classic spicy tobacco that Fuggles brings to the table. I have never been a smoker, but sometimes when driving through the tobacco growing region of Virginia between Lynchburg and Danville, I have been known to wind my window down and breath in the smell of the fields. That's what I have in mind when I say Fuggles reminds me of tobacco.

All of that rich aromatic complexity is present in the tasting as well, yes the dark chocolate, laced with Italian espresso, toast, even hints of molasses, and an earthiness that brings an agricultural element to this most industrial of beers. While it is nowhere near as prevalent as in its stable mates, the "Fuller's" yeast flavour is there, loitering with intent behind the goings on in the foreground. 

I am a fan of porter in general, and would love to see Three Notch'd rebrew Blackwall London Porter, the 19th Century style version that I designed, but in Fullers London Porter you have in many ways the archetype of a great modern porter. The luxuriant silky mouthfeel, rich mélange of aroma and flavour, and the sheer ease with which this beer is drunk, quite rightly puts this in the very highest echelons of beery excellence. In the coming weeks I will be drinking a bevvy of other porters alongside the Fuller's to see if any of them can truly ever compare. It promises to be a fun little experiment.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

In Praise of Flagships

I will confess that I had completely forgotten about Flagship February until Jeff Alworth tweeted the following:

Despite my forgetfulness, I think celebrating flagship beers is most definitely a good thing.

Flagship beers tell you so much about the brewery behind them, as well as giving the drinker a sense of what to expect from a brewery's core line-up. If the flagship is a well made beer, regardless of style, you can usually be fairly confident that the rest of the range is likely to be worth drinking. The flagship beer is the one that opens the door, builds trust, and carries the persona, for want of a better word, of the brewery.


A prime example of this would be Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, perhaps the most flaghshippy craft beer in the entire craft beer universe, and a very strong contender for being the flagship of craft beer, full stop. When Mrs V and I moved over from Prague to the US back in 2009, I knew I liked SNPA having tried it in Galway, and so I was thrilled to have easy access to what is by any grown up's standards a classic, world class, beer. Having established trust in a brewery, I was happy to spend cash on other Sierra Nevada beers, including at one memorable night at Beer Run doing a side by side comparison of Torpedo on regular CO2 and pulled through a beer engine. Ah those were the days, when Beer Run had a beer engine and regular real ale. I don't drink as much Sierra Nevada beer as I once did, but still 12 packs of canned SNPA are a ready go-to beer, as is Southern Gothic whenever I see it, and as a result of that trust built up I'll try their versions of styles I rarely drink, such as Bigfoot.

When I think more closely on my drinking these days, I find that I drink far more flagships that rarities, special releases, collaborations, or any other such marketing gimmick beers. I am sure that likely says more about me as a drinker than the beer industry, but I actually dread the day when breweries are little more than revolving doors of one-offs.

Flagship beers are statements of identity. They tell you how the brewery perceives itself, and how it wants you, the consumer, to perceive them. Perhaps more so than the calling cards of marketing such as logos, type faces, and colour choices, it is the beer marked out as the leader that defines a brewery.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Little Claws of Beer

It will come as no surprise that I broke my beer fast with a pale lager. It will likewise comes as no surprise that I mostly drank pale lagers over the weekend. Also of no surprise to anyone that has ever paid attention to my wafflings here, the best beer I had all weekend was a Czech pale lager, as in actually from Czechia.

The beer in question is the 12° pale lager from Únětický Pivovar, based in the village of Ùnětice a few kilometres outside Prague. It was a beer that I had thoroughly enjoyed on my trip back to central Europe in 2019, and one that I have long hoped to see in this neck of woods as it is part of B. United's program that cold ships beer in bulk to Connecticut and then can it there. After badgering aplenty of the good people at Beer Run, I was able to put in an order for a case of this nectar, thus on Friday I collected 24 16oz cans to find space in the fridge for.

Having given it the best part of 24 hours in the fridge to get down to a steady proper temperature, I cracked open a can and didn't take notes. I just savoured what is clearly one of the best pale lagers, of any description, available anywhere in the US today. A bold claim perhaps, and if you want to change my mind, feel free to send me beer. At one point I handed Mrs V the glass and her single word response was "nice", but the kind of "nice" that tells you that she was having an Anton Ego moment for hospody a půlitry.

I have learnt my lesson of years past when it comes to getting back off the wagon after a month with no drinking, thus I ease my way back in and don't go nuts and have 10 pints on day 1 and a minging hangover come day 2. Thus it was that I found myself pondering what makes real Czech pale lager a more satisfying experience for me than pretty much any non-Czech made stab at the style?

Perhaps it's the decoction mash, whether triple or double? Or maybe, at least in Únětický's case, the continued use of open fermentation rather than the modern CCVs and how fermenter geometry affects yeast behaviour, leading to a longer, gentler primary fermentation? Perhaps it's the lack of fizziness? That's not to say that Czech beers are flat or uncarbonated, but they don't have that jagged edged, prickly fizz of many a US made lager. Maybe it comes down to doing things the way they have always been done, after all why fix what was never broken?

All that is not to say though that US made interpretations of the style, or any style for that matter, are uniformly sub-par. Bohemian style pale lagers like those brewed by Schilling, Von Trapp, and Champion would certainly stand up to scrutiny in Czechia. There is though something intangible that puts the likes of Únětický Pivovar, Pivovar Hostomice, and the much missed Kout na Šumavě, into the beery stratosphere, and that intangible seems to make it across the Pond.

Naturally I am open to the possibility that it is just my own personal Ostalgia, and those sharp little claws that never let go.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Beyond January

Dry January is over, but my beer fast continues. Well, it continues until Friday. As a general rule I only drink at the weekend, thus my window of imbibing is open from about midday on Friday until Sunday evening. 

Said general rule has actually been part of my life since my early days living, and teaching English, in Prague. For most of my TEFL career I had lessons at 7am during the week, and as I was teaching people at their place of work, I felt it was bad form to turn up worse the wear for drink, a scruple that wasn't shared by many fellow teachers who would turn up to lessons pissed, or not turn up at all.

During the period of "the holidays" the rule becomes more flexible. I can't imagine Thanksgiving without cracking my first beer before the sun is over the yardarm. There is also this pandemic thing ongoing, so many a weeknight in 2020 saw a couple of litres of beer imbibed either side of the twins going to bed. Dry January is a reset more than anything else, and when you think of it that way, it becomes a 10 day beer fast rather than 31. If you can't stay off the booze for 10 days then you might have to acknowledge you have a problem.

As of right now, I really have no idea what the first beer of the year is going to be. I am fairly sure it will be had at Kardinal Hall, sat outside in their beer garden, suitably bundled for the anticipated low 50s Fahrenheit (9ish in sensible Celsius). What will be in the glass though...if the Rothaus is still on then it it is pretty much decided. You're shocked aren't you?

One of the recurring thoughts I have had during the month is just how little "local" beer I drank last year, and by "local" I mean brewed within 30 miles of my house. I can already hear the acolytes lining up to berate me for not supporting my local breweries, especially given we are in a pandemic and things are hard. Thing is, there is not a single brewery in that 30 mile radius around my house that I am aware of that makes a good desítka, dvanáctka, helles, dunkel, or even a best bitter, as part of their core range, if I am wrong please let me know.

(update: oops, I completely forgot about Champion Brewing's very respectable Shower Beer, d'oh!)

As such my money goes to breweries like Port City, Von Trapp, Olde Mecklenburg, or more recently Schilling. Even then, I am not getting a best bitter into the bargain, but I am happy to sate myself on these breweries' superb lagers. Sorry to be a truculent curmudgeon, but I am not about to start drinking an endless stream of identikit IPAs that I won't enjoy, and to be honest are likely as boring as the next IPA.

Support is a two way street.

Brown, Robust, English, American?

Once upon a time, according to the BJCP at least, there were 3 types of porter, brown, robust, and Baltic. Baltic porter is, putting on my p...