In Search Of The London Porter

  • In Feature
  • 12:00 on 24th Aug 2016
  • By Dominic Hemy
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A little history lesson to start us off today: the term porter originally referred to beers in the latter half of the eighteenth century that were popular with street and river porters around London's busy docks, brewed by the likes of Whitbread and Truman. Dark brown in colour (due to the brown malt they were using) and originally weighing in at over 6% ABV, it was the first beer to be routinely aged by the brewery itself and sent out in a state fit to drink immediately. Over time, and with the aid of many new brewing innovations, the beer started to morph into something close to what we now recognise. Stout is the shortened form of "stout porter" (typically with an ABV of 7-8%), as the porter suffix on many variations of the beer was gradually dropped as the nineteenth century wore on.

So the question struck me a few months ago – who now brews the best porter/stout in its birthplace of London? Personally, the answer was quite easy as those who know me are well aware of my utter adoration for Weird Beard Brew Co.'s Sadako. A 9.5% beast of an imperial stout, it balances huge coffee flavours with a thick, deep sweetness from the molasses to create a luxurious black sea in which to get delightfully lost within. And that is even before we move onto the wonders of the various barrel aged versions; the highlights being the smoky peatiness imparted from the Ardbeg casks, the rich tannin-heavy red wine edition, and the sweet vanilla and toffee infusion of Heaven Hill bourbon.

It would be remiss of me though not to do some extensive research and find a few contenders for the crown from the vast range of breweries that having been springing up around the capital over the past few years. Alas the competition is thinner than I had hoped and expected; in this golden age of big IPAs and mouth-puckering sours, the humble porter is somewhat unfashionable as the American dream of enormous hop bombs still dominates this fledgling scene. Many of the London breweries will only brew something dark as a seasonal offering, if they do anything from this end of the spectrum at all. However things are improving with the range slowly growing as the craft beer movement expands, bringing with it more money for expansion and allowing brewers the freedom to experiment.

Three perennial favourites that I'll often be found supping are Weird Beard (yes, again) Black Perle, the Kew Green (& Black) from Kew Brewery, and The Kernel's Export India Porter. It comes as little surprise that these all come from places that offer a much broader range of porters and stouts, the expertise and experience coming to the fore in these superlative beers. The first two are both low alcohol milk stouts that weigh in with far more body that either has any right to with their sub-four percent ABV; Black Perle has a big kick of coffee to go over the heaps of lactose, whilst Kew Green (& Black) is wonderfully chocolatey. The Export India Porter was a very important stepping stone for me into this world years ago, and still thrills me every time I indulge; a backbone of malty, smooth chocolate sweetness plays against a subtle but noticeably hoppy side that is rare in this style, but certainly not unwelcome.

Where else in London can we go to indulge in the finest the dark side has to offer? Fuller's, the last historic real ale brewery remaining in the city, have the ever-reliable London Porter. Whilst this may not be the most exciting example I'll talk about here, it is a tasty tipple nonetheless; in many ways the London Porter is the baseline against which all others are judged given its steeping in history and (relative) longevity. Heading even further down south to the wilds of Surbiton we find Big Smoke Brew Co. Still one of the smaller operations, based as they are out the back of The Antelope pub, their Underworld is another fantastic milk stout. Rich and decadent, this beer is all about balance; between the alcohol and the milk, the coffee and the chocolate, the silkiness and the bitterness. Also worthy of trekking down there for are the multitude of variations they produce for the pub's beer festivals, but you have to be quick as they have a habit of disappearing swiftly.

Anspach & Hobday, along the illustrious Bermondsey Beer Mile, have impressed me right from the very beginning, and a lot of the one-off dark beers they do are very tasty – The Rauch Stout and The After Eight Stout spring to mind in particular. But as I am trying to look at beers that are brewed (semi-) regularly, their outstanding contribution to this piece is The Porter. Much like their branding, this is more traditional than many of their peers' takes on the style; tar-like in mouthfeel and incredibly malty on the palate, this packs a delicious punch. Their baby version, The Table Porter, is also worthy of mention as a full-flavoured beer at under 3% – an impressive feat. Another important beer in the development of my own love for the darker stuff is the Meantime Chocolate Porter. Though not as thick as others mentioned, is still loaded with plenty of flavour and satisfaction; unfortunately there is the question of independence and "craftiness" hanging over them since the brewery's two changes of ownership, so an asterisk may need to be placed alongside this beer.

Having turned an old East End dive into one of the coolest pubs to be seen in, One Mile End are growing fast. Continuing to churn out both excellent and unusual twists on the standards, their Ancho Cocoa Stout has become a fast favourite here. The addition of the chilli gives this beer a subtle warmth and spicy kick that tingles the tongue without ever being overpowering or burning. Like a good curry, the heat continues to build the further in you fall, but even over a full pint never reaches the point of obliterating the other rich flavours present. In the new brewing heartland of Hackney, Five Points Brewing have been producing a good range of quality beers longer than most of their neighbours. The Railway Porter was a very early recipe from them, and does a fine job of being a proper example to be enjoyed on nippy evenings after work. The more adventurous London Smoke came around a couple of years ago as a result of BrewDog's annual CollabFest, and was so popular it has stuck around ever since; as the name suggests, smokiness is the operative word here, but as is their wont this is subtle rather than explosive, carefully balanced against the roasted coffee and dark bitterness of the malt.

It is so heartening to see that porter is making a strong return to its city of origin; it has taken a while, and there is still a way to go before London is a true powerhouse again, but given the progress made over the last couple years I believe it will happen sooner rather than later. To finish off, here is a list of my favourite porters and stouts brewed (fairly) often in this fine town:

Beer:Geek's Ten Favourite London Porters & Stouts
Weird Beard Brew Co. Sadako
The Kernel Export India Porter
Weird Beard Brew Co. Black Perle
Kew Brewery Kew Green (& Black)
Big Smoke Brew Co. Underworld
The Kernel Imperial Brown Stout
Meantime Chocolate Porter
One Mile End Ancho Cocoa Stout
Anspach & Hobday The Porter
Five Points Brewing London Smoke

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