Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Burning Sky Vatted Porter

Porter disappeared from Britain in 1974. In fact, the version brewed by Guinness until that date had only been available in Northern Ireland, so drinkers on the mainland would have been deprived of the style even earlier. This explains why the Californian Anchor Porter may, having been brewed since 1972, be the oldest porter still in existence

In fairness, porter had been in decline for many years – since the late 1800s, in fact. Ron Pattinson's invaluable research suggests that, as porter’s popularity took a dive, so did the quality of the beer, as breweries looked after it less carefully. It’s gravity also gradually dropped - before the First World War, stout and porter had been barely distinguishable, but later, stout became the stronger beer. Whilst some drinkers might have turned to stout, popular tastes leant towards unaged X ales, which evolved into what we now call mild. From the 1920s onwards, porter was not a mainstream beer.
The style returned, briefly, in the late 1970s, and several breweries made porters in the 1980s.

Nowadays, porter's history is, along with that of IPA, one of beer's most treasured origin stories. But that period in which one of Britain’s richest beer traditions completely ceased to exist seems to have left a cultural scar on the current wave of small breweries. Most British micros now make a porter, and several excellent examples hail from the style’s spiritual home of East London. The renewed interest in the style also incorporates a corrective investment in porter’s past – many porters are based on vintage recipes. Even Guinness reportedly raided their archive of brewer’s logs to inspire their Dublin and West Indies porters, launched last year.

But modern brewing techniques are very different to those of porter’s heyday. Few of these historical recreations, interesting though they are, taste much like the original beers would have. The most significant difference is the age of the beer – traditional porters would have spent months in a huge aging vat, sometimes as long as a year. And, inevitably, wild yeasts, including brettanomyces, would have made their way into these vats.

Burning Sky’s vatted porter is the first I've encountered that recreates this aging process. A batch of porter is deliberately spiked with brett before spending five months in an oak vat. It’s a great idea and, in terms of process, not so vastly difference to the other special beers made at Burning Sky – the barrel aged, semi-sour saisons, or the Flanders Red.

Towards the end of last year I tried the porter which is presumably the basis of this version, and it was excellent. Much of its richness and bitter, roasted flavour is retained here. There’s coffee and bitter chocolate, as we might expect, along with some toast, and carbonation is low. The sour note you'd expect from the brettanomyces is not so pronounced as I expected – the label suggests that this beer can either be drunk young, or kept for some time, and I’d be interested to see how a little more time in the bottle might change it. As it stands, the brett certainly alters the flavour profile of the beer, and it is still a recognisably great porter, so perhaps that’s for the best. The time in the oak brings, for me, an acidity that recalls red wine, a depth of flavour that even leans towards a slight saltiness, and some tart cherry notes which gel nicely with the coffee and chocolate.

My bottle came from the fabulous Trafalgar Wines. The beer is harder to find online than I expected but, if you’re quick, you can snap up a handsome 750ml bottle here

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