Oh, the poor, sad Porter…
A little background: in England, truck drivers are called “porters” – and were even before there were trucks. They’re manly men, just like here, and – just like here – they don’t exactly scoff at a cold pint of something. But, in Britain, that “something” was usually a brawny Stout and often at lunchtime…which led to the too-frequent spectre of lorry (Brit for “truck”) drivers being peeled out of crumpled cabs, up against bridge supports, sometimes without a pulse. It was a problem even back when all the porters hauled their wares with horse and cart and Porters were born of necessity, somewhere in the 1722 to 1730 window, when a notable London brewer, Ralph Harwood, was experimenting with blending lots od beers that were lying about in his warehouse. Harwood came up with a lower-alcohol dark that he originally called “entire” or “entire butt” (butt was the old-timey term for “barrel”). and offered it to porters at a nearby produce wholesaler, who liked it so much that Harwood dubbed it “Porter”, in their honor. Drunken porters – believe it or not – was a serious problem and transport company owners, police departments, and Parliament all harrumphed around for years, issuing warnings and scolding drivers and generally being ineffectual…just like here. So when a viable alternative to Stout-driven road rage became available, most of England lapped it up immediately.
The dark color and roasty notes came about because of a serious grain shortage in the England of that time and brewers took to roasting what grains they had on hand to produce larger flavors and more body. The original Harwood Porter, a blend of three different beers, wasn’t as dark as it would later become but was plenty inky for British tastes and different enough to grow some serious legs.
(NOTE: I’m going to insert here the tedious fact that many windbag beer historians positively hoot at the idea that Ralph Harwood invented the Porter. The multiple “evidences” they provide as support for their withering scorn are Byzantine and unconvincing and the precise literary equivalent of wandering into the outskirts of a vast ether spill. But I put this here in the faint hope that they’ll read it and avoid sending me a 48 page treatise on why I’m full of goose crap and Ralph Harwood was a manipulative bastard. For your purposes and mine – and, indeed, as the primary matter of historical accuracy – Ralph Harwood invented the Porter and beer historians can either figure out who did, settle the issue, and get some hard Facts or they can go suck it.)
Fast forward to America, at the birth of the craft beer boom, and those ambitious brewers, aggressively mining the British ale canon, started making Porters but doing it our way, the American way, the “More is Better” way. And, by the early ’00s, it was REALLY hard to tell a Porter from a Stout. In some cases, the Porters were even higher in ABV than the brewery’s own Stouts! I remember fondly many of those inky 30-weight Porters, as I like big, dark beers that look like something from the bottom of your old Jeep’s oilpan, and am not all that concerned with what the brewery chooses to call ’em. There was considerable confusion and a lot of clucking about Porters being “too big” and a lot of brewers started to scale back, as happens when the common wisdom takes hold. Inevitably, many of these breweries, having had little luck in making Stouts, had even less making a low-ABV, subtle, scaled down version of that same idea…and Porters joined their hapless, less celebrated cousin, the Brown Ale, in sliding into serious disrepair. To some extent, this is still going on. MOST Porters that I taste, even here in 2017, are wimpy and watery and undistinguished, expressing little Darkness at all, except for a frequent aggressive charred character. Add to that the emergence and ongoing evolution of the Cascadian Dark Ale – what is sometimes called the “Black IPA” – and Porter has been under siege from all sides and sinking fast.
There are, of course, notable exceptions.The big three in Porterdom really haven’t changed in about fifteen years and are all superb examples of what this style can be. Anchor Porter was the nation’s first truly great example, a more English-style offering but chewy and deep and utterly delicious. Great Lakes Brewing of Cleveland created “Edmund Fitzgerald”, a freakishly smooth, creamy, coffee ‘n’ chocolate monster with a hint of sweetness. And arguably the best American Porter is from Oregon behemoth, Deschutes Brewery, the immortal “Black Butte”. In terms of what you’re about to read, Black Butte is significant because its creator, original Deschutes brewmaster, John Harris, knew the style’s history and decided to name his new creation “Black Butte” as an homage to Harwood’s original “entire butt“. Harris’ playful vocabulary and owner Gary Fish’s willingness to take chances – still Deschutes’ hallmark virtue – gave the US its finest and most enduring Porter.
So…here it comes: Harris’ successor at Deschutes was a guy named Larry Sidor, a quiet, sturdily-built guy who stayed on at Deschutes for over a decade, before leaving to open his own shop, and invented some of the nation’s most storied beers: The Abyss, The Stoic, The Dissident, Hop Trip, Hop Henge…the list goes on for days. And among his main tasks was overseeing the evolution of Black Butte and the two spin-offs that Deschutes’ signature ale generated.
To say that Sidor has his Masters Degree in dark beer is a vast understatement, so the idea that his new brewery, Crux Fermentation Project, would birth a truly classic Porter was almost a foregone conclusion. As one of Crux’s first series of canned beers, the newbie, Crux Fermentation Project “PCT” Porter (named for one of Crux’s donation beneficiaries, The Pacific Coast Trail Association) marries the creaminess and depth of Edmund Fitzgerald with the dry finish of the Anchor and the uber-roasty notes and prominent coffee character of Black Butte.
I got multiple fruit leathers, spruce tips, roasted almonds, cafe au lait, sweet herbs, vanilla, caramel, and even a couple of floral hints, with some subtle baking spices on the finish) and a noticeably more prominent hops profile than in any of the other landmark Porters. It weighs in at about the same ABV as the others, a perfect 5.5%, and that modest alcohol level belies its sheer depth and fiendish intensity, which is on a par with ales weighing in at 8 or 9%.
I’ve tasted SO damned many Porters in the past few years and I am in complete agreement with Sidor, who said, in an interview with in The Pacific Coast Trail Association blog, that the Porter is the ultimate comfort beer and that, “Every time I have one, I wonder why my last beer wasn’t a porter. When brewed well, a porter has a smoothness combined with layers of complexity that never disappoints.” Tasting literally 150 or more in the past two years and finding exactly three that were even in the suburbs of Black Butte and Anchor and Edmund Fitzgerald territory has been a dispiriting trudge of obligation and some despair. What is it about the task of making this odd little “lost in the cracks” style between the classic Brown ale and the new American Stout that defeats so many hundreds of brewers? I suppose, if that question had an answer, I’d taste better Porters but literally NO brewery has come out with a new one in at least five years that even made a significant ripple. Tasting one like PCT is nothing short of a Revelation; an affirmation that this ale is not only not lost but is, in fact, a style within whose parameters there is still room for innovation and improvement.
PCT, IMO, is the new standard of the American-style Porter. That will generate some disagreement, I know, but I write what I taste and Crux Fermentation Project PCT Porter is, to me, the Perfect Porter; a distillation of all the best attributes of the great American Porters, married to a very modern sensibility and the heightened hops profile that is our Northwest signature, without ever once straying into CDA Land. It all Works, in this handsome little can, and this beer just simply IS destined to become one of America’s landmark beers of any style. 100 Points
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