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Last week we left Glasgow to work our way north. Now for a few darker things: e.g. Porter, Stout, and Loch Ness.
The Scots share a love for the black stuff with the Celts across the isle. Stores are packed with dark beer. Maybe they drink darker to spite the brown-aled and IPA-hopped English. Maybe haggis, black pudding, and colder winters demand darker brew. Maybe the dark depths of Loch Ness inspire them. Maybe Stout is trendy.
Riding on the roasted coattails of Irish stout, Blackhaven Brewery makes “Black Scottish Stout” in Dunbar, East Lothian,
It looked black but was filtered clear. The head was white. The aromas flexed medium plus intensity burnt coffee, malt, caramel, and a salt dash. Acid hid. Bitterness bit. Alcohol was a mild 4.2. Body weighed heavily. Medium plus flavors tasted of toasted, swirly rye bread, bark, black chocolate, and oily French roast coffee. Very good (4 of 5), especially for $2.25. Most Textbook.Next bubbly black was Glencoe’s Wild Oat Stout from Stirling.
The head was light brown. Medium plus intensity nose of dark chocolate, French press coffee, hay. The structure was typical as were flavors of dark drip coffee, salt, roasted cocoa nibs, and toasted malt bread. These flavors were hardly overt, but lighter, toasty yet balanced by vanilla creaminess and froth. The length lasted longer than most. One could drink this stout often and easily without getting board or overwhelmed. Check. Very good (4 of 5 pointalisms). Most Enjoyable.From farther north than our trip could bear comes The Orkney Brewery’s Dark Island Ale. The isolated, wind-swept Orkney Islands give it home.
Everything looked stout-ish. But then the nose stepped sideways: still clean, but with soy sauce, charcoal, vanilla, and chocolate. All aspects were amped-up to medium plus intensity, including the acidity, tannins, body, and especially the flavors, which kicked up coal, peat, chocolate, earthy manure from start to finish, and salt (probably thanks to wild yeast). Soft, dark, and fascinating with medium plus length. Characterful and surreal. Very good (4 of 5). Most Unique.Worried, I opened Williams Bros Brewing Co.’s “Midnight Sun: Rich, Dark & Spicy Porter”. Subtle these Scots from Alloa.
Visually perfect (clear, med plus black brown, short clear rim, small, beige lace). The glass smelled of honeyed caramel coffee, strawberry, and charred wood. All structural bits from acid to body sung loud but here harmonized with each other, much like the Orkney.
The flavors matched strength for strength with light caramel laced on top of rich French roast press coffee, ginger spice (which Williams added), and a touch of flint. Flavors persisted for minutes. The quality stands at very good (4 of 5). Very even, rich, frothy, well balanced, roasty, toasty yet creamy and soft. Best In Show.Pups aside. This all bothers me. Certain beers seem best because they slide closer to type. Brewers designed them that way. They wanted to make a pie, so they picked an apple pie recipe, bought the right ingredients, and followed the recipe. It tastes right, even good, not because it is good, but because we had already tasted a few apple pies. We recognize it.
We find happiness in familiarity. We define good via what we know. Thus, microbreweries copy the major types to purchase our preconceptions. We then buy what we recognize, and worse, identify with, because it’s reliable, even empowering.
I once considered myself a Stout Man. I dressed myself in Stout’s manly, brooding trappings. Drinking it made me a serious beer drinker. Meanwhile, beer makers avoided creativity because I was paying them to follow the recipe.
Luckily, I drink most beer styles now and love most of them. But if I truly respected difference for difference’s sake, Orkney’s mongrel of an earthy, manure-tasting Dark Island Ale would have won out. Familiarity, it seems, breeds itself.
However, one must keep pushing their palate or get caged by their past.
Scotland can make fabulous Stouts, but so can anyone. Williams Bros’ Stout represents a clean, near perfect expression of the ideal: Guinness on steroids. However, the ones that are unique will broaden your book of types. Be brave and tread toward new horizons, or you’ll eat the same apple pie forever.