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Friday, December 20, 2013

Rediscovering Old Friends

The small business Sally works for hosted their annual holiday party on Wednesday, and one of the beers in the cooler was Anchor Porter.  First brewed 41 years ago (!), it has all the curves and contours of a classic American beer.  Look at the ingredients: two-row, caramel, chocolate, and black malts, hopped with Northern Brewer.  So much American beer is built on this chassis of two-row and caramel malt--it's like an early blueprint.  In the 1970s and early 80s there weren't a ton of hops available, and Northern Brewer was a common choice because of its versatility.  You could put it in nearly any kind of beer and coax flavors that hinted at English, German, or Belgian styles.

(There's an old and increasingly irrelevant debate about whether Anchor should be considered America's first craft brewery.  Because the brewery dates back to the 19th century and came into its modern form in the 1960s, people often consider it separately from the craft movement that began a decade later.  But if you consider where that movement began--Northern California--and how the beers were constructed, it's a little hard to ignore Fritz Maytag's San Francisco institution.  Certainly, Jack McAuliffe hadn't ignored it when he started what some people want to call the first "true" micro, New Albion.)

But I don't drink it because it's quaint and reminds me of bygone days (there's Liberty Ale for that).  I drink it because it remains one of the best porters in America. It has wonderful depth and complexity.  That caramel malt, so often overused, gives it a velvety richness and a touch of sweetness up front, but then the experience shifts as the dark malts kick in like French roast.  There's even a bit of tanginess on the edges of the tongue with the final swallow.  We often talk about how dark beers "warm" during the cold months.  It's obvious and undeniable, but it doesn't actually make a lot of sense.  At 5.6%, Anchor Porter doesn't have enough alcohol to warm, and I don't know why sweet-roast flavors evoke warmth for us any more than bready-grainy pilsner malt should.  But they do.

I chatted with people who drank wine or IPAs and thought: man, you're really missing the mood of this cold, near-solstice night.  But I didn't encourage them to drink the porter instead; I wanted to hoard them for myself.

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