Bottom Shelf Beer: International Porters and Stouts

Drinking the Bottom Shelf

Will Gordon drinks his way through the bottom shelf of the liquor you don’t have to.




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Given my affinity for holidays that downplay god and family in favor of beer and whiskey, you might think that I go all out for St. Patrick's Day. And for a few years in my late teens and early 20s I did try to get into the full swing of things with lavish celebrations featuring pots of gold and religious intolerance and green puke, but these days St. Paddy's doesn't even crack my top 10 list of favorite holidays.

A good deal of that is attributable to my old age and abject lameness: I like to conduct most of my parties in secret now, and I get simultaneously bored and overstimulated by parades and leprechauns and the like. Plus I'll be working at a bar this St. Patrick's Day, and bars on St. Patrick's Day are worse than bars on New Year's Eve, because on St. Pat's all the piss and buffoonery distracts me from the college basketball tournament.

I like March more than most people seem to; it helps if you rename it Finally Not February and focus on the basketball tournament and the clock manipulation and the arrival of spring. And if you happen to go for St. Patrick's Day, I understand that too. Celebrations of ethnic or religious identity make me a little uncomfortable, but that's just because I'm a wimp. You don't need to tell me about how St. Patrick's Day is really just a come-one, come-all celebration of life and liberty and cabbage. Sometimes it gets a little heavier and more hateful than that in my hometown, but I suspect people outside of Boston have a better handle on how to keep things festive and inclusive. So please enjoy it however you see fit. And now I'm going to tell you how to see fit.

This year, how's about you drink some less common, more worldly stouts and porters? I really like Guinness, because I have a tongue that's connected to a brain, but it's not the only dark beer out there, despite the company's tireless attempts to convince us all otherwise. I think this year it might be time to truly open the celebration up to as many different cultures as possible. A single trip to the liquor store turned up porters and stouts from eight countries outside North America and the United Kingdom. No Germans or Belgians, either. It turns out they make porter and stout in all sorts of interesting places, and some of them are very good. Others of them are cheap or Swedish.

Bottom Shelf research director Emily and I eased into the international stout market by starting with one we could pronounce, from a brewery we've heard of in an English-speaking country. Our Australian entry, Cooper's Best Extra Stout (12.7 ounces, $2.95, 6.3% ABV), had a rich yet bitter cocoa aroma and was quite bubbly for a stout, retaining a light amber lager-style head for several minutes in the glass. It tasted thin and slightly vegetal, with a hint of dark fruit along with the typical roasted malt. Cooper's was in the top tier of this tasting.

Sinebrychoff (11.2 ounces, $4.70, 7.2%): This Finnish porter was one of our favorites. It has a sweet, grapey, slightly boozy character that reminds me of brandy, and man oh man, do I like brandy. All the expected stout flavors are there, too, with that bit of grape/raisin making it among the best and most interesting porters I've had.

D. Carnegie and Co Klass III (11.2 ounces, $4.45, 5.5%) from Swedish superbrewer Carlsberg was a bit of a disappointment. The Beer Advocate guys know a jazillion times more than I do and they gave it a perfect score, but Emily and I were much less impressed with the bottle we tried. It had a nice dark head and a light, faintly sweet smell, but the flavor was bit bland outside of a timid coffee note and some sourness.

Lion Stout (11.2 ounces, $2.70, 8.8%): This Sri Lankan curiosity is weird in a pretty good way. It has an aggressive light tan head with all manner and size of bubble; a fermented dark-fruit nose; and a dry, light mouthfeel. All those things are cool with me, but the overall flavor is too boozy for the light chocolate notes to bear. I wanted Lion to be my favorite because it's fairly accessible and I like the idea of Sri Lankan stout, but it ended up in the middle of the pack.

Baltika #6 (16.9 ounces $2.45, 7%): This Ukranian export was the cheapest beer in our tasting, and that virtue goes quite a ways here on the Bottom Shelf. It had a earthy, vegetal aroma that I didn't care for and a musky, funky finish, but there was some decent chocolate and roasted malt stuff in the middle. It was a bit on the sweet side and betrayed no hint of hops. On the plus side, it doesn't taste as alcoholic as it is and it's easy to find and afford.

Dragon Stout (9.6 ounces, $2.45, 7.5%): This Jamaican offering features a badass fire-breathing dragon on the label, but the next impression's nothing much, as the light head dies quickly and there's little aroma beyond faint grape soda and sweet malt. Dragon makes a strong comeback where it counts, though: It tastes fruitier than expected, but that's nicely balanced by rich coffee and caramel. Dragon's only real demerit comes from tasting boozier than it has a right to.

Zywiec Porter (16.9 oz., $2.70, 9.5%): I like this Polish brewery's lager, but the porter wasn't very impressive to me. It has a winey smell and an earthy, vegetal taste that might pair nicely with cabbage but doesn't live up to my porter expectations. There's not enough of the characteristic roasted malt to hide the mouth-numbing alcohol.

Boom Chocolate Stout Porter (16.9 oz., $6.70, 7.8%) from Explosion Brewing Company in the Czech Republic isn't bad, but it also isn't nearly as flavorful as one would expect given the name and the breed. It pours nearly flat and has very little aroma; the flavor's fine but unremarkable, with more coffee than chocolate and more alcohol than anything.