Threatened Species Alert: Porter (plus Halloween ghost story pairing)

Sierra Nevada Porter. There it was on the shelf standing naked with the sole descriptive word “Porter”. No other qualifiers, no bourbon barrels, waffles and syrup, or Madagascar vanilla. Just plain old porter. It begged the question, “should porter once again be placed on the endangered beer styles list?”

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My apologies to Sierra Nevada– a 12oz pour in a pint glass does no beer any justice.

Case in point: I was recently at one of my favorite beer bars, Hamilton’s in San Diego. It’s a great beer bar. The location, environment, the hundreds of tap handles hanging from the rafters, great bartenders and an extensive tap and bottle list, I knew I was at home the first time I stepped in 10 years ago (they were playing Fellini’s “8 ½” so I was sold). But even in such a great beer bar like Hamilton’s, on my last visit out of 28 beers on tap, I counted a whopping 14 of them of the pale ale, IPA, or double IPA category.

Back in the early boom of microbreweries in the early 1990’s, Porter was a relatively unknown style to Americans. Possibly you had found Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter or Fuller’s London Porter in a good liquor store. But commercially it had been virtually extinct during the Dark Ages of the standard American Lager (or Golden Age depending on your preference). Microbreweries in those early 1990’s reintroduced us to Stout’s baby brother, Porter. It’s a mildly dark low-alcohol beer that fueled the might of the English Industrial Revolution, the kind of beer prescribed by doctors to bring the milk into nursing mothers’ breasts. Porter as a style maybe isn’t the most diverse style out there, but traditionally it was a base beer for many herbal additions such as spruce tips and juniper berries (especially in the Nordic countries’ version: Baltic Porter).

As porter is not a hoppy beer, when the pale ale/India Pale Ale thing really rocketed, porter’s habitat in the lines of tap handles once again began to shrink. While far from extinct, it probably at least deserves to be on the extinction watch list. Most microbreweries still have one they trot out, but it’s unlikely to be anybody’s flagship beer. When they are brewed and on tap you typically see some sexy-come-hither ingredient like vanilla or cocoa added in a sort of sad attempt to entice a sale away from an IPA customer.

Out of support, I saw Sierra Nevada’s Porter on the shelves and decided to give it a go. I couldn’t tell you the last time I bought a commercial porter. I like just about every beer Sierra Nevada makes, but this just isn’t a porter I can get super excited about. That means very little since 80% of that feeling is directed at the style itself. If I want coffee I generally drink espresso. If I want something dark and roasty, I’m gonna buy a stout. With Sierra Nevada Porter, I get a one note in the beer: roast. Roasted malt bitterness, semi-dry, and somewhat creamy. In fairness, that is true to style.

The thing is, maybe it is that singular simple note that is what makes Sierra Nevada’s Porter a good beer. It’s not here to dominate the world, and species that do dominate eventually throw everything out of balance. In terms of the animal kingdom, porter is a style that under the best conditions can reproduce once every five years, and requires a special habitat to do so. It’s a style built to just barely survive, while living out a quiet yet vital purpose: keep the beer ecosystem running smoothly.

On the back bottle label it is noted that “Before Sierra Nevada was a reality, our nights were spent perfecting homebrews and dreaming of starting a brewery. Back then, one of our favorites was a porter made with homemade malt roasted in our kitchen.” In those words you do get a sense of the love and appreciation for the style, and that does come through into the beer. They specifically chose to keep it simple, as precise to the base style as possible, and so for that reason, I have to tip my hat to them.

Specific to the English porter style, there are plenty of good matching novels that go along with a good porter. George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, Herman Melville’s Redburn, any Dickens (haven’t read), Arnold Bennet The Old Wives Tale etc. But as it is October, I recommend to you a ghost story I once read in my Modern Library An Anthology of Famous British Stories. The story is by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, “The House and the Brain.” First published in 1859, “‘The House and the Brain’ has been called by many critics the most powerful and appalling story of the supernatural ever printed in the English Language.”

In short it’s the oft repeated (possibly the original?) tale that tests one’s endurance in staying in a haunted house. The occupant is warned beforehand that the strange supernatural phenomena has driven out every other occupant who has tried, usually in less than a night. The remarkable thing I remember about this story was the vivid, fantastic descriptions of the strange things that were seen. Bulwer-Lytton’s solidly British writing style placed in that old London house, along for the ride. Obviously this will all be Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood compared to the “Paranormal Activity” movie franchise, but if you’re into that, you’re possibly not reading 19th century lit anyway, and if you are, this is a great story to see “where it all started.”

I was going to do a quick read through to refresh my memory so that I could sell you on it better, but just reading the first couple pages reminded me that this is one to curl up in bed with under a lamp, with a nice tall drought of porter, and savor.

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