From the Cellar: Showdown! Commercial vs. Homebrewed Smoked Porter
For this edition of From the Cellar, I opened a bomber of Ranger Creek Mesquite Smoked Porter (6.4% ABV) and pitted it head-to-head against my own homebrewed porter currently on tap: Smokey in a Plain Wrapper Rauch Porter (6.0% ABV).
Smoked porter or rauch porter is one of those style variations that seems to be springing up in all sorts of places spontaneously. Granted, Stone has had their version on the market for over 15 years now, so it’s possible we all got the same great idea from them. But it is a great idea. The astringency and bite of smoked malt plays well against the sweet and malty backdrop of a porter malt bill, giving complexity without having to resort to a ton of hops in the boil. It gives a flavor akin to stout without the sharp roasted barley notes that are so common (though not necessarily required) in a stout. So yeah, I’m a fan; and I was dying to know how one of my own brews stacked up against a commercial offering from one of my favorite up-and-comers in the Central Texas craft beer scene.
I poured a blind tasting of both beers and tried them side by side. I didn’t know which was which until after I had written down all of my notes. Picking a clear winner was tough, so I just judged each on its merits and avoided trying to score them (though I did have a personal favorite).
Beer A was nearly black with chocolate brown notes, and tiny bubbles with not a lot of head retention. The nose had some slight but noticeable fruity esters over dark chocolate and coffee. The aroma of smoke was present, but not obvious.
Beer B had a much more persistent head and was completely black with bigger and rockier bubbles. There was a distinct woodsy scent and a smell not entirely unlike good Texas barbecue. But the beer had a boozy smell, like it was barrel-aged, which would be a surprise. The thick head and carbonation would suggest that if it was aged, it wasn’t aged for any considerable length of time.
As for the flavor, I generally preferred Beer A even though Beer B was arguably a better crafted brew and a better example of a rauch porter. Beer A was full of dark chocolate and vanilla flavor, with a slight amount of esters and very little smoke. But it was refreshing and easy to drink, and ultimately really satisfying. Beer B was cleaner fermented, but the smoke really, really dominated the flavor … to the point of being almost too much for me. There was some leather and wood in Beer B, but really it was all about the smoke. It was drier than Beer A, but less refreshing because of the harsh, aggressive character I found the smoke imparted.
Within seconds of tasting, I knew which one was mine. Smokey in a Plain Wrapper has been on tap in my kegerator for a couple of months, so I know it pretty well and could pretty much tell it was Beer A. The Ranger Creek Mesquite Smoked Porter was Beer B.
So while the results weren’t shocking, they were very informative. My homebrew was more estery and with less smoke flavor (thus arguably less true to the essence of a rauch porter) than a commercial equivalent. But I would rather drink my homebrew, even when I didn’t know it was my homebrew, simply because it was more refreshing. Am I just getting used to the unique flavor produced in my brewing setup, or am I just subconsciously making beers I like? Or was it simply the fact that I wasn’t crazy about the mesquite smoke in the Ranger Creek beer, and another rauch porter from another brewery (with another kind of smoke) would have fared better? It’s hard to say. It could have been just familiarity with Smokey that made me like it more.
Regardless, it’s great to know that I like my beers not only because I made them, but that they also stack up well against commercial brews. I have no idea how I’d do against the commercial brew before a panel of judges, but as long as I like it and want to drink it (and share it with others) that’s good enough for me. Prosit!