|The Porter Story|
|Tuesday, 03 March 2009 09:28|
A beer tasting has a number of key differences from a wine tasting: the punters don’t keep spitting the priceless liquid out, the host never wears a roll-neck sweater, there is hardly any French spoken and the overall tone is much less pretentious.
Beer is, after all, a socialable and egalitarian beverage designed to be enjoyed with company and to make people better company. There can be a temptation to sit round in anoraks endlessly analysing every flaw in every brew but that is where the stereotype of a “beerdy weirdy” comes from.
Beer and storytelling have a long, interwoven history. The ancient Sumerians, sipping their beer through long straws, probably whiled away the hours with exaggerated stories of hunting prowess and how they totally could conquer Egypt but just didn’t have the time these days. That tradition has continued unabated.
Despite this, many beer books don’t capture the story of beer. Sure, they describe who makes it, what it is made of and what it tastes like but the result is informative yet dry pose. In terms of style and spirit, the stand-out beer scribe is Pete Brown, former advertising executive and now one of the world’s best reads on the topic of beer. Even the Times Literary Supplement agrees saying “like a good drinking companion, Brown tells a remarkable story…”
His stories are contained in three books, “A man walks into a pub: a socialable history of beer”, “Three sheets to the wind: one man’s quest for the meaning of beer” and the soon-to-be-released “Hops and glory: one man’s search for the beer that built the British Empire”. In the latest edition of Beer and Brewer magazine he risks his beer writer credibility by drinking at the Outback in London. If you read only one beer book this year, well, you really should try much harder but be sure make it one of Pete Brown’s.
I have his kind permission to reprint what I affectionately call “The Porter Story”. No other beer writer could make tragedy this funny:
“The brewers were about to try to symbolize the scale and ambition of the entire Industrial Revolution. In the shape of a beer vat. And like many of the most grandiose schemes of men throughout history, it would end in tragedy.
Porter Explodes – no, really.
Of course, it was Sam Whitbread who led the way. In 1760 he made his deeply impressive Chiswell Street brewery even more fantastic with the addition of the Porter Tun room. The room was a feat in itself, with tourist guides at the time marvelling ‘the unsupported roof span… is exceeded in its majestic size only by that of Westminster Hall.’ And it was dominated by a giant beer vat.
The gauntlet had been thrown down. Proving that phallic substitutes among powerful men predate the arrival of bright red sports cars, rival brewer Henry Thrale built a new porter vat and celebrated its completion by having a hundred people sit down to dinner inside it. ‘Right then, you bastard,’ thought the Meux brewery, who went off and built one sixty feet wide and twenty-three feet high. They had two hundred guests to dinner in that one…
The contest reached its conclusion with the Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery tragedy in 1814. The brewery’s vat… held over a million pints of porter. It was made of wood and held together by twenty-nine gigantic iron hoops. One day a workman noticed a crack in one of the hoops. As each hoop weighed over 500 pounds he thought a little crack was nothing to worry about and he forgot about it. A few hours later there was an explosion so loud it was heard five miles away. The vat had burst, and the force of the jet stream of beer crushed the second vat. This meant that more beer than you can possibly imagine jetted out under very high pressure.* [* Yes, I’m sure you can imagine an awful lot of beer, but trust me – this was more.] The twenty-five-foot-high, one-foot-thick, solid brick wall of the brewery stood no chance. It was flattened and a tidal wave of beer raged into the surrounding streets.
The first to die were those drowned by the initial wave. Others were crushed to death in the stampede as they threw themselves into the gutters to drink as much free beer as they were physically able, hampering any hope of rescue for those trapped in the rubble. Some of those who survived the crush subsequently died of alcohol poisoning. The survivors were taken to hospital, but they weren’t out of it yet. They reeked of beer, and those patients already in the wards rioted because they thought patients in other parts of the hospital were being served beer while their own doctors were holding out on them. Finally, there were still further causalities when the dead were taken to a nearby house and laid out for identification by grieving relatives. Everyone was curious to see what victims of death by beer looked like, so they crowded into the house for a look, and the owners even began charging admission. Soon there were so many people in the house that the floor collapsed, and several of those who had gone to look at the dead ended up joining them.”
All of which leads rather nicely to Tuatara Porter (5%), currently pouring from one of the Malthouse hand pumps. This is the darkest offering from New Zealand’s Champion brewery of 2008 and is broadly in the London Porter style. It pours a rich black with a short, espresso-coloured head. The nose is rich with notes of dark chocolate, coffee beans and a whiff of smoke. Thanks to the beer engine, the Porter is like velvet in the mouth with plenty of roast coffee, chocolate and burnt toast notes before a dry finish. Here is a pint of Porter you can enjoy safely.
Pete Brown’s Beer Blog – http://petebrown.blogspot.com/