Friday, 21 February 2014

Once you go black? Three-way stout family taste off

It’s not a normal weeknight when a motley group gathers to taste 13 beers from the extended stout family. But on a late February evening, we did just that. Building on last year’s successful three way IPA throw down, Mzansi Beer assembled a diverse group of aficionados, visitors and newbies to sample some diverse offerings from the British Isles, the United States and, of course, the Republic of South Africa. The comments below reflect what this merry band – a lawyer, an Irish playwright/journalist, a public health specialist, a human rights campaigner, and an assortment of others – had to say. Special thanks goes to Alaska-native Mark Gross for smuggling in the Americans and sourcing the others in and around Joburg.  

Standing Stout: Bravely Facing Their Destiny
Following form from the last taste-off, each beer was organised into a cluster before getting wrapped in paper and assigned a number. The first was the mega-producers: SAB, Guinness, Youngs and Marston. Figuring that this would set a general standard for the night before we moved on. The next group we termed the ‘S-Class,’ or standard, straight up stouts, a category including the highest proportion of South African micros. After a scheduled dinner break of pizza and prawns–the latter bought fresh the day before from Cyrildene–we broke ranks with a group of ‘outliers’  including porters and other stout brothers or cousins. This being the new South Africa and all, we didn’t feel it right to exclude just because they didn't pass a stout purity test. Our pudding was a couple of American imperials.

Things started a bit slower than expected. Mark, Helen and Tor (who until that night hadn't known beer was made with barley) arrived first. No sooner were they in the door than Helen was on the phone busting a colleague from a holding cell at OR Tambo International. While that drama unfolded, Colin the itinerant playwright walked in newly relieved of his phone, SatNav, and a fistful of Rand.  Mark, who spends his days researching township crime and vigilantism, lost interest in the story when he heard it happened downtown, but the rest of us pressed him for details while Helen lit up the switchboard assaulting an ever intransigent Department of Home Affairs. Remarkably, she ultimately prevailed and the dude was released. Colin, on the other hand, ran back to Dublin with only his story to tell.

After finally settling down, we confronted the momentous task ahead: thirteen beers on a weeknight and it was already well past eight. Not to be dissuaded, we forged ahead. Alas, in this smack-down, South Africa was flattened.  As you’ll read below, there were no Mzansi standouts although South Africa’s champions were by no means the worst on offer. Is this surprising? Thick heavy beers in the tropical sun? For a drinking public accustomed to light lagers? That said, there’s nothing as satisfying like a hearty beer on a cold evening. For those without under floor heating, there are a couple of locals worth drinking. However, if you want the real deal, you’re still better off going with the exotics .
Round One: the Macros

Castle Milk Stout (RSA): We unwittingly started the evening off with this true South African stalwart. Hero to the working man, we found the distinctive, lactose aided stout had a relatively flat flavour. As one might expect, we found it slightly sweet, but with a bit of not altogether pleasant sourness at the end.  With its light carbonation, someone at the table described it as slightly thin (although you wouldn’t be if you drank too many of these).  Others identified an almost metallic scent on the nose. This evolved into the taste of burnt or stale coffee after a few swigs.  Although we all agreed it was a pretty standard stout, no one was dying for a refill. Nonetheless, it came in a respectable second (of four) in the macro-category.

Second on the agenda was the global standard bearer: Guinness (Ireland/RSA?). This one, brewed in Cape Town S.A., went unrecognised by our Irish guest, although he admitted he hadn’t drank his native son in years. The rest of us found it slightly more carbonated than the Castle with a little bit of creaminess countered by a higher level of carbonation. The first reactions related to being ‘fruity up front.” That quickly faded with the fruit giving way to what one might sprouting find beneath the trees. “Yes, I’ll take fungal,” shouted the Alaskan. Indeed, there was something musty and, well, fungal in the taste albeit not in an unpleasant way. With its heightened bitterness and fruit-fungal flavours, we agreed it had more character and was just that more, ‘stouty.’ After the big reveal, we were surprised to find it was a Guinness, and a little surprised that the Irish flagship is quite so popular.

Young’s Double Chocolate (UK): The beer poured almost jet black in the glass with a thin, creamy head – like you might find on a nicely shot espresso. Given the name, it should come as little surprise that the taste was sweet and chocolately, a bit like one of those chocolate pinotages in vogue these days. After we started thinking wine, someone mentioned tastes of black cherry. Fruit, yes. But the sweetness was countered by a pleasant bitterness on the back side which lets you know there’s some hops in there. Although it wasn’t on the after-dinner menu, it could easily pass as a beer to go with pudding. Or, better yet, as desert all its own. And like most deserts, this one would be good to share – its richness might be overbearing for a singleton. Although it was thinly textured and had poor lacing, we liked the carbonation, we enjoyed the lingering chocolate taste in our mouth and elected it our clear category winner.

Marston’s Oyster Stout (UK) drew last on this dance card in more ways than one. It poured out with the strongest head of the groups with a slightly red tint in the beer. A bit of chocolate on the nose, but far fainter than the one before.  Beneath that chocolate was a bit of barley scent, a hint of grape nuts past. Once it was in the mouth, it came across as almost watery on the tongue. The light chocolate tasted complemented with a bit of nothing: almost like a ‘stout lite’, diet beer, or watered down cola.  In the end, we agreed it looked like stout, poured like a stout but sure didn’t taste like a stout.  While it might pass as a kind of black IPA, it lacks the flavour profile. The clear loser.

Mzansi vs. Wilford Brimley
Round Two: S-Class (Standard Stouts)

Having downed the big boys, we moved to the group including the highest proportion of South African competitors.  It's also worth noting that the Notties draught snuck into this category due to a clerical error.  That said, it wouldn't have managed any better amidst the outliers where it belonged. Despite our best efforts to stack the deck, the one alien in the group managed to claim to the crown. Read why:
Mitchell's Raven Stout (RSA): Brewed in Knysna by one of South Africa’s best-established craft brewers, this one poured out with a fruity, almost herbal and flowery scent that percolated through a big, foamy head. On the tongue the first thing we noticed was the carbonation behind that head.  Given the big smell, we were all a little surprised by just how thin the beer was on the tongue. Still, we found the fruit and an almost black currant taste: berry but with a bitter kick. Tasty, but also just a bit too watery with the pleasant berryness eventually faded to something pretty dry leaving you with a final, almost sour or overly bitter taste. The beer was fine, but no one would go out of their way to drink the thing. Sure, it had more complex and nuanced flavours than the mass action, but not yet did we find satisfaction.  Despite its thrown togetherness, it came in second of the four.

Nottingham Road Brewing Pickled Pig Porter (RSA)  came up next from the crowded coolerbox. The only beer of the night to pour from a can, it showed up with an extremely creamy head and firm bubbles. Someone smelled roses in the glass. Another less generously scented toothpaste. I first thought the thing hinted at anti-septic but was then convinced to switch my assessment to ‘metal’.  Someone added that it was more of a bubble-gum or cough syrup. Before long we were divided. One side of the table couldn’t finish their glasses while Tor, the Brooklynite, was so into it the florally toothpasty taste he filled his glass with the others’ leavings. He later admitted growing up on malt liquor. Looking on with disgust, the Irishman elegantly described the aftertaste as beer poured through an ashtray. If you’re after a 4 AM nightclub kind of beer, fill your glass. The rest of us (apart from Tor) thought this was by far the worst of the crowd.

Darkhorse One Oatmeal Stout (USA): Back out of the bottle, this one poured with almost no head but released some find bubbles when swirled. Caramel, chocolate and roasted malt with a bit of dark fruit and coffee. Generally had a good mouth feel – no wateriness like the others. Instead it was creamy and consistent.  This, we thought, is what Guinness was supposed to taste and feel like. South African Stephen didn’t jive with the bitterness and burnt taste so much, but still thought it better than the previous two. Overall, consensus was this was this was what a stout should taste like. A clear winner for the Americans. They may not have won much in Sochi, but this is theirs. When it came to choosing our overall winner for the night, this was right up there.  If Mark wasn’t such a Goose Island chauvinist, it would have prevailed.

Press Club Stout, Standeaven Brewery (RSA): The final of the four took us back to South Africa.  This came to the glass super-duper foamy, almost like someone had dropped in some soap. After spilling all over the table, we took the glasses outside and finished pouring. When finally got past the foam, we were confronted with a sour, metal taste complemented by and a slight toastiness on the nose that carried through to the taste. Bitterness was okay, but it was generally flat and boring and Hardly worth the sticky mess. No one needed a second sip but it was hardly inoffensive. Third place for the press club.


Here we pushed to the edge of the stout family with a few beers that look like a stout from outside the bottle but make no claims to being one.
Black Mist and Candy Corn

Robinson Old Tom with Chocolate (UK): Out of its dark packaging, we quickly realised that this was not a stout at all, but really a dark ale.  The colour was ambery and the smell woody with some vanilla; far more fragrant than what we’ve been drinking up till now. As soon as it hit the tongue, someone proclaimed it tasted like ‘a bag of Halloween candy.’ We agreed the taste profile was basically 'candy corn.’ The Kenyan was convinced that they’d added something to corrupt the brew. No one could figure how you'd get an orangey corn syrup flavour without additions. To its credit, it had a nice light head and good carbonated. Still, someone feared they’d get a cavity if they kept drinking, probably not what most are not looking for. “I quite like it” says Steven, which kind of summed up the feeling. Oddly, probably the best of the bunch, but not a clear winner.

Robinson Old Tom ‘The Original' (UK):  Back to a more stout like visual profile this one poured out with a small head and light carbonation. Even with the nose in the glass, there was almost no scent. Someone thought they caught a whiff of swimming pool. Another one – the doctor – thought it tasted like Actifed while the Alaskan dismissed it as 'Steel Reserve' with chocolate. Vic, another New Yorker, tasted drain cleaner. The remainder settled on cough syrup. Riding the wave, a corner of the table wasn’t convinced that cough syrup was so bad. I mean, teens get drunk off it all the time, right? The Irishman liked it even if it had a bit too much alcohol for the taste (it is 8.5%).  By the end, only one at the table thought he might buy it again even if the bottle claims it was the ‘best ale in the world.’ 

Darling Brew Black Mist (RSA): The only South African in this crowd, this one showed up darker than the rest, but without much else. Like many of the other South Africans, this offered up a ‘metal’ taste, probably a result of limited local malts. Someone quickly dismissed the beer as ‘pointless’. Colin offered that it tasted like sparkling water mixed with a bit of leftovers from before  A few people thought that wasn’t so bad and could be a better session beer, although they admitted that there were far options out there that tasted better and would be slower to bloat your belly. Mark agreed you could drink it all night but feared lead poisoning. It came in second place: middling but certainly drinkable.


With but two, very different contenders, we had no clear winner.  Basically, it came down to taste and it split the table down the middle. Well, not really. Mark and I stuck with bourbon county while the Lagunitas rounded up the rest.

The Imperial Strikes Last
Lagunitas Imperial Stout (USA): This one was all dark chocolate and hops countered with light bubbles. Like many Lagunitas beers, this one was sweet; almost syrupy on the tongue in fact.  Mark felt there was a beef jerky taste. Michael, who’d lived in South Africa a bit longer agreed on meat but better described it as ‘biltongy.’ Whatever the taste, it coats your tongue with the meaty maltiness. It lets you know it’s around before passing through. Appropriate for the end of a long night, it was almost like drinking a post-meal (if meaty) brandy. Once you got past the biltong, there certainly were rich fruity tastes that almost shrouded the 9% alcohol.  Should probably be drank at cellar temperature rather than chilled. Generally delicious.   

Goose Island Bourbon County (USA):  The most distinctive of the night, this bourbon barrel aged beer pours like oil into the glass. Helen thought you could probably drive your car on this. Judging from the taste, there is certainly enough alcohol in this to fire up a science class full of Bunsen burners (15%). Colin thought it smelled like blood, but that might just be his earlier trauma coming back to haunt him.  Others sense it had a Port like taste, probably the result of its barrel aging.  Tor argued that this was not beer at all, but was kind of like a desert wine in a Halloween costume.  “This taste like mixing your drinks,” Colin said, “a glass of wine and Guinness all at once. that’s just wrong”.  Helen felt it was like toffee with chocolate in the middle.  Whatever you say, those small bubbles on the tongue and the strong taste were something you could love or hate. I loved it. On a cold winter’s night, there would be nothing like it.