Flavours from the Baltic

FRITZ KUCKUCK AND MARIA GRAU
Last updated 10:19 24/01/2014
Harrington’s  Brewer’s Selection Baltic Porter
POTENT: Harrington’s Brewer’s Selection Baltic Porter.

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As you are reading this, hopefully it's a typically lovely sunny Nelson evening. You might be on the deck with a nice crisp, cold one in hand as you begin reading the beer column.

So, probably the last thing you expect to be reading about is a strong dark beer. In our defence, when we were writing this it was wet and windy and anything but summery.

And if more justification is needed, when served cold these beers are lighter and easier drinking than they might sound.

But really, we have recently encountered two new adulterated versions of the Baltic Porter style, and felt compelled to look into the style a bit further.

Baltic Porters are one of those beer styles, like alt beers, that appear mostly in the discussions of home brewers and beer judges. Few people outside of the Baltic region have truly had one, as few commercial examples make it abroad.

In the case of Baltic Porters, there are the added confusions of the porter versus stout distinction and the ale versus lager division making it a label rarely used. So, how unlikely that two local breweries suddenly came up with versions at the same time.

In the most basic of terms, a Baltic porter is a strong brown or black lager with low hop character.

The style originated when brewers in countries like Finland and Latvia wanted a piece of the market for English imperial stouts. (Originally called stout porters, they were renamed after the Russian Imperial Court where they were favoured.)

The Baltic producers used the yeasts and techniques they had on hand, and produced a malty dark lager with similar high alcohol (7-9 per cent abv) to the English Imperial stout ales.

Baltic Porter developed before the industrial revolution and the invention of black malts, back when even very dark beers were made up of brown malts. So, while classifications sometimes place it alongside the robust porters, we might expect more brown porter characteristics.

In modern Baltic Porters, one should expect less roast flavour than an imperial stout, and more dark fruit notes with sweet malt flavours, like in a dopplebock.

The use of cold fermentation, often with lager yeasts, gives Baltic porters a very smooth flavour profile, but style descriptions might suggest tart or smoky components.

Harrington's Brewery has had its version on the market for a few years now. The Brewer's Selection Baltic Porter is a hefty 8.5 per cent abv.

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With generous carbonation and a rich dark head, the aroma is appropriately malty with fruity and savoury notes.

The first taste is sweet, toasty and dark, and then chocolate, with low bitterness. Obviously, this is a big, full flavoured beer, and yet it has a softness very unlike a stout.

Brown beers can have a reputation for being old fashioned and underwhelming, particularly in this age of uber-hoppiness.

Milds and brown ales and, yes, Baltic porters are styles anchored by history. This un-hip factor is perhaps why the two regional breweries have adulterated their Baltic porter beers.

Renaissance Brewing has just released Abundance, a "Baltic cherry porter". This dark roasty ale steps up with 7.6 per cent abv.

Perhaps due to low carbonation, the aroma is faint, with chocolate maltiness and not fruitiness. The flavour begins quite sweet and fruity, though not distinctly cherry flavoured.

A hop and roasted malt bitter finish fades into a touch of cherry. As it is surprisingly light bodied, keeping mindful of the strength takes some effort. We'd say this one is just on the edge of fitting within the style given bitterness.

Another Baltic Porter variation we tried was the Golden Bear Ulf's Undoing. Only available in a 750ml bottle, this 7 per cent abv beer is made for sharing.

It has a more savoury twist from chocolate rye malt and manuka smoked malt. While the style should have generous carbonation, this one fairly explodes from the bottle.

Once it settles down in the glass, the profile starts out matching the style descriptions phrase for phrase - fruity brown maltiness, slightly tart and warming, with a lager crispness.

The flavour then carries on to a long-lasting smoky finish. So, although smoked malt isn't traditional, in this beer it makes a stylistically appropriate enhancement.

Many brewers find formal beer styles confining, and habitually resist applying styles to their beers or conforming to the guidelines. Our little tasting experiment, however, reinforced how useful styles can be for consumers.

If an Imperial Stout might not have been our choice for mid-summer drinking, finding a few Baltic Porters worked out very well.

None of these beers could be easily mistaken for an Imperial Stout, and the variations from style were used in ways that just emphasised traits of the style.

BEER NEWS

Fresh Choice Nelson has wasted no time in stocking bottles of Iron Fist from San Diego, CA. Arriving in the country just a few weeks ago, these big bottles of big beer are worth exploring. Iron Fist is a young brewery that's mad for New Zealand hops, and it's fun to taste their American take on using our distinctive hop flavours.

Hashigo Zake (hashigozake.co.nz) still has a few tickets left for the X-Ale festival on Saturday, February 8. It sounds worth braving Wellington on Waitangi weekend during the sevens, with tastings of 13 extreme ales for $50.

If you know you are going to Marchfest (marchfest.com), don't miss out on the discounted Early Bird ticket pricing which ends on February 22. Or if you feel like participating, they are still looking for volunteers.

- Nelson

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